Small businesses face big decisions on reopening

Small businesses are facing tough choices about reopening as governors across the country ease social distancing restrictions even as coronavirus cases continue to rise. 

Thirty states have loosened social distancing and business closure orders that were originally imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 but came at a steep economic cost.

With more than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce likely unemployed because of the pandemic, President Trump and some governors have seized on early signs of progress against the virus to begin reopening parts of the economy.

The gradual loosening of social distancing guidelines will give some struggling businesses a chance to stay afloat amid the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Thousands of smaller firms, which generally survive on smaller margins than their larger rivals, could go bankrupt without regaining some of their revenue soon.

But public health officials warned that a premature break from social distancing could fuel a surge of new cases and force the country into a deeper lockdown. 

“There’s going to need to be a lot of effort made by individual establishments to make sure they’re helping their customers and patrons be safe, and it may be tough at some times,” said Rebecca Fischer, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

“I expect we’ll see a lot of businesses eager to open, and I think we’ll see a lot of businesses remain closed and wait and see what happens as we allow contact to begin again,” she added.

COVID-19’s increasing reach into rural America and decisions from governors to ease restrictions where cases are still rising also raise the stakes of loosening up too quickly.  

And even the most optimistic projections from economists warn of meager economic activity until a vaccine gives workers confidence to gather in close quarters.

Richard Lamondin is the co-founder and president of EcoSystems, a company with teams in Miami and Denver that specialize in making commercial and multifamily housing buildings more water- and energy-efficient. As Florida and Colorado ease restrictions, he and his teams are crafting safety protocols to keep employees and customers safe and reassured.

“Most of our work takes place inside of people’s homes, and, obviously, with what’s been happening, about 80 percent of our business has been put on hold,” Lamondin said. 

“We’re right now waiting for our customers to feel comfortable enough to allow us back into people’s apartments,” he continued, “It’s a very hard line to walk where we open.”

Other businesses such as retailers and restaurants in some states will be allowed to reopen at a fraction of normal capacity to preserve some distance among customers and employees, along with nonessential medical procedures.

Other states such as Georgia and Oklahoma have allowed close-contact business such as salons, bowling alleys, gyms and spas to reopen, in some cases over the objections of local leaders.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) blasted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) actions, saying they could lead small businesses — including her mother’s hair salon — to reopen and bring their employees back to work before it was clearly safe to do so.

“Small businesses like my mother’s shop are indeed ‘essential’ enterprises. But I also know from personal experience that social distancing is impossible while shampooing or cutting a customer’s hair,” wrote the mayor in an op-ed this week in The Atlantic. 

“The workers in these industries should not be forced to choose between going back to work at this crucial time and forfeiting their jobs and livelihoods,” she added.

Bottoms’s concerns reflect a widespread uneasiness within the U.S. about returning to work, especially in close quarters. 

Two out of three Americans are uncomfortable with coming back to their places of work, according to a Qualtrics poll released Friday, and 63 percent want to wait until a formal go-ahead from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vast majorities of Americans also support maintaining social distancing and business closures, according to a slew of recent polls, and governors who acted quickly to contain the virus have generally enjoyed higher approval ratings than those who didn’t.

“People keep getting devastated if we don’t open up. That’s one thing,” Lamondin said. “But if we open up and then have to shut back down, I think the chaos that will cause is definitely my main fear.”

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