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Post-Coronavirus Business Operations May Look Different in California Versus Florida

Friday, April 24, 2020

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(Politico) Retailers are considering “sneeze guards” and ways to quarantine fitting room items. Restaurant owners are imagining a future with masked servers and temperature checks. Industries built on the personal touch are looking to eliminate physical contact.

Businesses may be appealing to Congress for more aid, but they know key details about the economy’s reawakening won’t be hammered out in Washington. The states, counties, and even cities are widely expected to decide when each business can open its doors and under what conditions.

Industry groups are pleading for coordination as they brace for a jumble of evolving state and local orders that could be nearly impossible to track. And various sectors are jockeying to ensure they can operate as governments ease restrictions in waves.

“My suspicion is it’s going to be kind of clunky,” said Jot Condie, head of the California Restaurant Association, who said he expects a challenging “patchwork in the lifting of restrictions.”

Governors in Northeastern, West Coast, and Midwestern states have announced regional coordination efforts, while protests in state capitals following the president’s calls to “liberate” states could foretell a more chaotic timeline. States like Florida and Minnesota have allowed access to some beaches and parks, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — also under pressure to loosen restrictions despite a death toll double California's — has said she hopes some businesses might reopen May 1.

But testing capacity is far below the benchmarks set by public health experts, and Covid-19 is quickly becoming one of the leading causes of mortality in the U.S. with over 42,000 dead as of April 21, according to Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center. Those facts weigh heavily on many business leaders as they think about the coming months.

“We’re all grasping at straws here,” said Marc Freedman, vice president of workplace policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “When things get brought back online there’s going to be a certain amount of people holding their breath and hoping it doesn’t blow back in their face. Because we haven’t done this before.”

Until last week, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom first broached the subject of restarting the economy, it almost felt taboo to discuss the question openly, said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association.

“No one was ready for that conversation,” she said.

That’s quickly changed. Newsom did not provide a timeline, but he laid out benchmarks the state would use to reopen the economy. They include criteria for testing and contact tracing, health care capacity and development of treatments for Covid-19, among others.

Newsom last week also announced that business luminaries, labor leaders and all four living former governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, would serve on a task force on the state’s economic recovery. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented a matrix showing what types of businesses would likely be able to open first.

“We’re really hoping we’ll get a little more clarity from the state and from the governor on what it’s going to take to reopen because our member companies are ready to step up and we want to be part of conversations with him,” Michelin said.

Some promising public health measures — such as temperature-taking, which governors have proposed — should be considered along with their logistical, legal and even safety risks, business leaders said. Michelin said she received a disturbing report of a customer spitting on an employee who was simply trying to enforce a city’s mask ordinance.

But customers who have been cooped up in their homes could be more amenable to stringent safety protocols than they might have been before the world turned upside down, business leaders say.

“I think people right now, they just wish they could get to the point where they could get in a restaurant,” said Tom Bracken, president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “I think if the time comes and they’d have to wear masks and take their temperature, and that’s the price of admission, they’ll do it.”

Eileen Kean, a New Jersey lobbyist and state director for the National Federation for Independent Business, said she watched the power of advocacy at work as Gov. Phil Murphy defined what businesses were deemed “essential” and allowed to operate. An executive order this month allowed construction crews of five and fewer to build homes if they took certain precautions, a change for which she and others had pushed. Similarly, she noted, some states allowed liquor stores to remain at least partially open while others shuttered them.

Those types of decisions, she said, will be in play again as state and local governments assess the risks of restarting the economy. “Lobbyists are in demand,” she said. “Even as you look at reopening, we’re in demand.”

One county supervisor from California’s Palm Springs area described the pressure he felt to ease restrictions on certain sectors.

“There are some industries there that are knocking on my door, they're asking me to consider,” said V. Manuel Perez, chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. “And I will be considering that, but once again, only after we have enough information, enough data to say, 'You know what, I think we can go ahead and move forward with modifying some of the guidances and be willing to take that risk,' if you will. Knowing, though, that what we don't want is another surge, and quite frankly, being at the center of being blamed for the possibility of more positives and the possibility of more deaths.”

The federal government has a critical role to play in protecting workers from catching the deadly virus, and it’s too soon to discuss a broader reopening of the economy, argues Rebecca Reindel, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO. The labor federation represents many of the employees who have continued to report to work during the crisis.

“There’s totally inadequate worker protection on the job, and that’s happening now,” Reindel said. “The thought of bringing more people back under those conditions, we’re not there yet. Those are some things that can’t be figured out state by state because an infectious disease doesn’t have state boundaries.”

Shuttered businesses that intend to reopen are looking to essential industries for safety ideas. Michelin said retailers around the nation are sharing ideas such as removing the once-ubiquitous cosmetic and perfume samples from makeup counters, installing shields and creating contact-free checkout options.

Until there is a vaccine or proven treatment, the customer experience might be starkly different than it was before the pandemic, said Allan Zaremberg, who heads the California Chamber of Commerce. But that might be exactly the kind of assurance that gets people in the door.

“Nobody wants to be in the ICU,” he said. “Nobody wants their parents to be in the ICU, so I think it’s a reflection of what the public is going to expect.”

Category: COVID-19, Business News, Economic News

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