State Holds Economic Recovery Town Halls

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by Terry Rogers

Over the past few weeks, the State of Delaware held a Small Business Recovery Town Hall Meeting to provide information to small businesses about the steps being taken to start opening the state. Different meetings were held for various areas of the state. The Zoom meetings included more than 300 participants ranging from small business owners, state officials, legislators and more. Each meeting was opened by Lieutenant Governor Bethany Hall Long.

“Having a healthy community is important first before we can have a healthy economy,” Lt. Gov. Long said. “Eastern Sussex numbers are rising, and we are working for a recovery that is smooth. Small business is vital to the economy and we know you need to be at the table with us. We are here to solicit your feedback and address those issues.”

Damian DeStefano, the Director of the Delaware Division of Small Business, explained that his office has been hearing from small businesses over the past four or five weeks, pointing out that he hears the concerns and frustrations as he sympathized with their plight.

“I have also heard the resolve of our small business community,” DeStefano said. “I think this may be a way to start to get our economy back up and running. Up until this point, everything has been to limit the spread of COVID-19. When we start talking about opening, we have to keep in mind that as we start to make the move toward normal, we need to get feedback from you to see how we can begin doing this and what businesses will need to reopen under the restrictions.”

Kurt Foreman, President and CEO of Delaware Prosperity Partnership, explained that he and DeStefano have had many discussions about ways to get the state back up and running. Governor John Carney has been emphatic that before the phases of reopening can begin, there need to be 14 days of declining symptoms and presumed positive cases. Hospitals must have the ability to treat patients without crisis care and extensive testing needs to be available for healthcare workers.

Foreman displayed a slide outlining what could happen during Phase I, which would be implemented after the 14 days of declining positive tests. Vulnerable individuals would still be required to shelter in place and social distancing in public would be required. Gatherings would be limited to ten individuals and non-essential travel minimized. Employers would still be asked to encourage teleworking, returning employees to work in phases. In addition, anyone who is in the vulnerable population should be provided special accommodations in the workplace. No visits would be permitted to senior living facilities and hospitals with large venues and restaurants able to open under strict guidelines. Gyms could upon with strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols, elective surgeries could resume but bars would remain closed.

“As you can see, Phase I would not be normal by any means,” Foreman said. “If this is the sort of dance we must do, how do you as business owners feel you could operate under these perimeters? What do we need to provide for you to be able to open under these guidelines?”

DeStefano then presented the guidelines for Phase II which would require an additional 14 days of declining numbers.

“As you can see, we would still require vulnerable populations to be protected,” DeStefano said. “We would also still require social distancing, no visits to senior living facilities and we would require workplaces to close common areas. However, gatherings would increase to 50 people, moderate physical distancing protocols required at restaurants and large venues, and bars would be able to open with reduced standing-room occupancy. Non-essential travel would be permitted. We need to make it clear that we do not want to move into Phase II and then have to back up to Phase I again. Therefore, we want to be sure that when we move into another phase, we are ready for it.”

Once the state completed the presentation at each meeting, they opened up the panel to questions from business owners.

“You’ve talked about different phases and phasing things in,” Jeff Gosnear of Grotto Pizza, said. “Especially in the restaurant industry there are certain ways they are going to do that. Are there going to be any guidelines on what that phase would look like? Are we going to have to put dividers between our booths? Are we going to be limited to 50 percent capacity? What kind of bar business will we be allowed to have? To do these things, we need to be prepared. We have a workforce we could bring back to work to get this implemented right now. The sooner we know this, the more prepared we can be when Phase I begins, but we need to know as soon as possible.”

Theirry Langer, owner of Kaisey’s Delight, suggested a method to reopen restaurants that had been used in France with great success.

“In France, they are requiring restaurants to increase outdoor seating as a way to combat the virus,” Langer said. “This could easily be done here with changes to local legislation that would allow restaurants to place tables outdoors. If it means we need to close off streets to only pedestrian traffic, that could be done easily. There are definitely streets in Rehoboth and in other towns that could easily be closed to vehicle traffic to allow more outdoor seating.” Foreman felt that this was a very good suggestion and would definitely look into how that could work.

Many small business owners in the town halls provided details on how they had already changed their business to accommodate social distancing. Andrew at Combat Barber pointed out that barbering and other forms of cosmetology were already heavily regulated regarding infectious disease.

“We have to use hospital grade cleansers and other products designed to keep people safe,” Andrew said. “I, myself, have over 4,000 hours of training in customer safety. We are well-versed at keeping the publics health in mind and we can use very low contact methods. We can accept Venmo and PayPal or a hover over POS to pay for services. If I need to wear a facemask, I would do that as well. I think we have a lot to offer if you just let us do what we have been trained to do.”

Several gym owners explained that they had marked off machinery and workout areas so each person could safely social distance. Many stated that they had sanitation products available for customers to use before and after their workout as well as a system for assigning areas to protect people. One gym owner explained that he would schedule appointments with a 20 to 30 minute downtime between them for cleaning purposes.

“My office will be able to open when we move into Phase I,” Dr. Heather Boyle of Family Dental Associates, said. “My biggest concern is getting my hygienists back in to see patients. We need to get word out to our patients. People are fearful about coming to the dentist anyway, so this virus does not help them feel more comfortable. We may need to see people on an urgent basis who have had to put off dental work while we are closed. I think it is pretty clear that a dental office is well-versed at infection control. You cannot have a successful dental practice if you don’t control infections.”

DeStefano confirmed that the metrics in all three counties were trending downward as of May 7 and that all three counties appeared to be moving in the same direction.

“Businesses have already made plans to open,” Judy Diogo of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, said. “That is what is at the forefront of every business owner. I don’t think as a state government we need to get into the weeds to outline what people need to do. There are going to be multiple levels of customer contact. What we need to do is give our small business community the opportunity to open and we need to do that this month. We are making start-up kits to get supplies to those that need it. Our businesses are in a financial crisis just like those suffering from COVID-19 are suffering. We need to hear them.”

Restaurant owners expressed concerns that opening at significantly reduced capacity could make it difficult for them to meet their financial goals. Some were afraid that full seating could not occur before Halloween. Others felt that there was evidence that herd immunity might help reduce numbers but that keeping people from being together was slowing the spread of herd immunity. Almost every business owner who spoke pointed out that large retail outlets, where thousands could gather, were allowed to be open yet smaller businesses who offered similar products were forced to remain closed.

“I am a retail store,” Dale Teat of Earle Teat Music said. “I sell guitars and I offer lessons. I get calls every day asking when we will be open. One of my stores is 5,000 square feet and the other is 3,600 square feet. People come into my store and buy something, they don’t usually browse because they know what they want, unlike in Walmart and Lowe’s. We have a front door and back door so I could have people enter in one and exit in another. This is my busiest time of year with tax refunds and now the stimulus checks. Instead of coming to me, people are online buying from Amazon so that money is leaving Delaware. We clean our products all the time. In Walmart, a customer can pull Cheer from the shelf, change their mind, put it back and grab the Tide. The next customer comes along and grabs the Cheer that the other person just touched. In my store, I can keep that from happening.”

In addition, Teat stated that the store offers lessons that many people are not getting with the closure.

“We can sit them six feet apart for a guitar lesson with no problem,” he explained. “We cannot do Zoom lessons because there is a delay between the two people who are playing. With guitar lessons, you often need to play together, and it is not possible using virtual lessons. We are ready to get back to business and willing to do anything we can to keep people safe.”

Governor John Carney announced on Friday that he hopes to begin Phase I of the Open Delaware plan on June 1. He relaxed some restrictions, allowing some stores to operate on an appointment only or curbside pickup basis, including department, clothing and shoe stores, craft or hobby retailers, book and magazine retailers, tobacco and vape shops, thrift stores, rentals and office supply locations. Video game and electronic retailers were also included in the order. Pawn shops, jewelry stores, furniture stores, sporting good retailers, music and musical instrument retailers were also permitted to open on an appointment only basis.

Hair salons were permitted to open by appointment only with a maximum of two appointments per half hour. Only essential personnel could receive hair services and doors must include signs that walk-ins were not permitted. Magazines or other reading materials could not be provided, strict social distancing of six-feet between customers and sanitation of all equipment is also required.

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