Task force mulls safety, economic concerns in reopening businesses
Gov. Northam expects to give update Monday about reopening plans
As the governor’s executive order shutting down all “nonessential” businesses is set to expire next Friday, a diverse group of two dozen Virginia business representatives is hard at work compiling ideas for how to reopen safely.
The group — which includes officials from major employers Walmart and Amazon.com Inc., museum directors, restaurant owners, beer brewers and owners of barber shops and spas — was named a week ago to suggest industry-specific safety standards for reopening businesses, which Gov. Ralph Northam will take into consideration as the state reopens businesses.
Some of Northam’s business restrictions are set to expire on May 7 at midnight. If Northam chooses not to extend the measure, it would allow restaurant dining rooms, breweries, theaters, salons, gyms, racetracks, amusement parks, bowling alleys and other recreational and entertainment businesses to reopen, although Northam is expected to issue specific conditions for reopening that will include social distancing and other safety requirements.
Northam said Friday he plans to give an update at Monday’s news conference, after he receives the task force’s recommendations, about the reopening of businesses closed by his order in March. “We have had a tremendous amount of input from our business community,” he added Friday, including many groups and businesses that are not on the advisory group. “We are still working on that blueprint.”
Northam unveiled his “Forward Virginia” blueprint for phased reopening of businesses on April 24, with the following restrictions during the first phase, which is contingent upon factors such as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalized patients declining for 14 days straight:
• Some businesses opening under strict safety restrictions
• Continued social distancing
• Continued teleworking
• Face covering recommended in public
“I think everyone right now is trying to find clarity in their certain sector,” said advisory group member David Foster, who owns High Point Barbershop & Shave Parlor, which has two locations in Richmond. “The challenges are what I’m feeling and what you’re feeling. Am I going to be safe when I go to the places I go to today? We don’t want to rush it, but we understand it’s a business.”
Katy Brown, producing artistic director at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, said that every sector and individual business has different safety considerations. “We know we won’t be able to reopen immediately. Live performance has its own set of problems.”
Brown had to close the Barter in March after Northam instituted social-distancing restrictions limiting gatherings to less than 10 people. Noting that performers can’t do their job while wearing surgical masks and that patrons’ seats must be at least six feet apart, she said it will take some time to figure out how to open the theater safely.
Being part of the state task force, with so many industries represented, she said, has been interesting. “Some people are really, really ready to get going” and say they’ll continue to lose money while social distancing and other precautions are in place, she said, adding that, personally, “I’m concerned for live performance, or any business that lives close to the bone.”
Franky Marchand, vice president and general manager of Volvo Trucks’ New River Valley plant, also serves on the advisory team. Members are working in small groups to come up with safety guidelines for their sectors, as well as best practices. Retail and public-facing businesses are concerned with “how to welcome somebody onto your property,” Marchand says, while manufacturers discuss how to keep appropriate distances between employees. “So many elements come into play. You take things for granted as a consumer.”
Many business owners and elected officials in Southwestern Virginia, which has not seen as many cases of COVID-19 as the more densely populated regions of the state like Northern Virginia, Central Virginia and Hampton Roads, have called for Northam to reopen their regions for business, saying it is safe as long as they continue to follow social-distancing measures and keep the numbers of customers down. Northam said this week he is open to considering reopening by region.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said this week that he sympathizes with Virginians who have lost their jobs or had to close their businesses, while adding, “I think the overwhelming majority of us are willing to undergo the hardships to protect our own health, our family’s health and the state’s health. This is a very serious disease. The only effective weapon is social distancing.”
A “robust communication strategy” will be important in reopening the state and making sure that businesses understand what is expected of them in ensuring that their staff and patrons are safe, Oliver said.
“What we are hearing is that it will require communicating openly with customers about the steps taken to provide safe and secure shopping, eating and working environments,” said Jay Langston, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership and a member of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham COVID-19 Business Support Taskforce, which has released a survey, seeking input from local businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors about reopening businesses.
Oliver said that the number of cases will go up after the stay-at-home order is lifted, but the state expects to have more testing capacity by June and will be able to conduct contact tracing with additional staff hired recently, which should help contain the spread quickly.
Phase one of reopening the state, Oliver added, doesn’t mean the end of social distancing, and there are still some restrictions like banning large gatherings at games or concerts that may be in place beyond the summer. “My beach week is done, not happening,” the health commissioner said. “That’s why it’s the phase for recovery.”
Assistant Editor Sydney Lake contributed to this article.