The road to reopening
Businesses around the U.S. are reopening after the coronavirus pandemic, but different places face different challenges
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Hair doesn’t stop growing in social isolation. That’s why on May 25, when John Floyd reopened the Brownsboro Center Barber Shop in Louisville, Ky., customers wearing face masks were waiting outside. Floyd began work at 4:30 a.m. that day and stayed busy until his shop closed 14 hours later.
Some procedures were different. Floyd wore a black face mask sprinkled with white hair clippings. He walked to the door to let in each customer. He pulled disposable masks from a cardboard box for customers who didn’t have one. After each haircut he walked the customer to the door, changed his black rubber gloves, grabbed a disinfectant wipe, and cleaned the door.
Floyd and many of his customers are white-haired, so they face more risk from COVID-19 than the young. But with extra rules in place from the Kentucky Board of Barbering, Floyd was ready to move forward: “We’re doing the best we can.”
Eight World Journalism Institute students in eight different states heard similar sentiments. While some large cities remained under lockdown, smaller ones—particularly in the Midwest and the South—were reopening, and sometimes tiptoeing around the orders of perhaps-overreaching governors.
GAZELLE SPORTS IN KALAMAZOO, MICH., for example, abided by the letter of the state executive order that required Michigan businesses to operate by appointment only—but staff members counted walk-ins as appointments as long as the store didn’t exceed capacity limits. On May 26, store manager Joe Trupp stood outside, armed with a face mask and clipboard to keep track of the number of customers inside. Staffers encouraged customers to wear masks, but they didn’t kick out unmasked customers: Instead, they served them in a separate section of the store.
“It’s not about rights, it’s about making sure everyone is comfortable and safe,” Trupp said. Staffers didn’t touch customers’ items during checkout. They wiped down every contact point after a customer left. By offering online shopping, virtual fitting appointments, limited walk-ins, and curbside pickup, Trupp hopes to bring back many former customers: “If we even get to 40-50 percent of what we used to be, we’ll be sustainable.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s latest executive order—which she later canceled—extended a stay-at-home order until June 12, much to the dismay of Caffè Casa co-owner Kathy Beebe: On May 26, with the Kalamazoo restaurant sporting more potted plants than customers, she said that unless the state reopens more, her business is “on the chopping block.” Only a few customers trickled in that day under a “NOW OPEN” banner above the door, and Beebe doesn’t make them wear masks. Acoustic music echoed in its empty storefront. Blue tape on the floor marked spots for customers to stand 6 feet apart.
According to Michigan’s Department of Health, the county by then had suffered 801 confirmed cases and 49 deaths.
“These past weeks are the first time I can ever remember being lauded as heroes and being told we’re essential.”
WEST MICHIGAN BEEF CO. in Hudsonville, Mich., sits an hour’s drive up U.S. 131 from Kalamazoo—and company owner Don Vander Boon does not need a governor’s speech to tell him about COVID-19 dangers. By May 26, eight of his about 50 employees had tested positive for COVID-19. On May 1, one employee’s wife died from it, after probably contracting the disease from a noncompany source.
Vander Boon closed the beef processing plant on May 4 and reopened it two weeks later after a floor-to-ceiling sanitization. Among the changes: Another company steam cleans the break room, locker rooms, and offices four times each week. Employees who work within 6 feet of each other wear masks. Vander Boon and executives removed all tables from the break room and set up a tent outside for employees to go in during breaks. They check workers’ temperatures each day when they walk in. The plant is now back to processing 300,000 pounds of meat per day: “These past weeks are the first time I can ever remember being lauded as heroes and being told we’re essential.”
LIFE AND DEATH DID NOT APPEAR so close at hand at a Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts) 400 miles south in the downstate Illinois city of Jacksonville. One employee sang along with a radio tune. Employees chattered, coffee brewed, and spoons stirred. Manager Jacob Goeringer said his Dunkin’ had increased weekly sales by roughly 46 percent during the coronavirus shutdown: Other coffee shops closed, so many new customers came to Dunkin’.
With Illinois in stage three of five reopening stages on May 25, restaurants could open with outdoor seating but only for 10 people: Stage four allows for gatherings of up to 50 people, and Goeringer was eager for that. His doughnut sales have decreased—coffee and sandwich sales took off—but he expects them to rise when customers can come in. On May 25 in the eating area, 18 chairs sat upside down on tables, and a sheet of plexiglass guarded a cash register. Many times each hour an employee wiped the counter around the register.
When Dunkin’ opened its dining room, stickers on the floor encouraged social distancing. On May 25, an employee without a mask took a Dunkin’ bag to a silver car outside and handed it to the customer through the car window. Goeringer was glad to see cars in a drive-thru line extending to the street, but he wants to see a line of people out the front door again. Morgan County had had only 34 known cases of COVID-19 and one death at the time.
DRIVE ANOTHER 100 MILES SOUTH and we’re in Town and Country, Mo., where patrons of Napoli 2 no longer had on their tables napkins carefully rolled and tucked into wine glasses. Salt, pepper, olive oil, and Parmesan were also missing. Guests who received their silverware rolled into a napkin had to pack their own to-go boxes.
Because of COVID-19, general manager Ande Pietoso furloughed most of his staff on March 16. The restaurant switched to curbside service, with a plan to open its dining room on April 1. Every night, Pietoso worked alongside his cousin, his chef, and one other employee to keep the business afloat. Running the restaurant usually requires 40 staffers. He eventually chose to shut down completely for the month of April before resuming curbside service only on May 1 and opening again for limited seating on May 18. But the fine-dining experience is not the same.
Some guests ordered meals when Pietoso transitioned to curbside service. Others purchased gift cards and tipped extra—some left a tip as large as the entire bill. Pietoso hoped by early June the restaurant could operate at 50 percent capacity—and later, he hopes, “the hugging and the shaking hands and the backslaps and the kisses of the guests” will return.
Restaurant reopenings are coming after a long period of uncertainty for St. Louis area residents. In late March, the number of active COVID-19 cases peaked. The state of Missouri decided to start phase one of reopening on May 4, but both the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County delayed for two weeks. They accounted for more than half of Missouri COVID-19 cases by May 4.
ROADS ALONGSIDE THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER take drivers north from St. Louis through Mark Twain’s Hannibal, picturesque cities like LeClaire, Iowa, and Potosi, Wis., and onward to Minneapolis. There, the work of hospice nurse Sheryl Seignious in a Twin Cities suburb never seems to cease. She contracted COVID-19 mid-April, and fatigue made work exhausting for a month. But in late May she was once again visiting patients in their homes and nursing homes.
When Seignious enters a COVID-19 unit in a nursing home, she wears full personal protective equipment. Her asthma makes breathing through an N95 mask difficult. Instead, she uses a mint-green tie-on medical mask under a clear plastic face shield. As she talks, her glasses and the shield cloud up. The sleeves of her blue polyester smock—too large for her 5-foot, 2-inch frame—fall to her hands. Now she has a new smock with elastic cuffs that make it easier to avoid contaminating her gown when she washes hands between patients.
To avoid spreading the virus, Seignious schedules visits with healthy patients first, then COVID-19-positive patients: “I’ve had people on hospice for six months to a year. They get COVID, and they are dead within 24 hours to five days.” She remembers a two-week period in April when 12 patients died, eight of them from COVID-19.
Seignious isn’t sure when long-term care facilities will reopen to the public—guidelines change daily, and patients may remain isolated through the summer. Minnesotan tragedies have grabbed nationwide headlines: Eighty-one percent of deaths in the state came from long-term care facilities and nursing homes.
ONE THOUSAND MILES EAST lies Corning, N.Y., which advertises itself as the “Most Fun Small Town in America.” Just after Memorial Day a duct tape aid to social distancing marked Glaswerk Optical’s brick walkway. A masked woman faced optician Martin Ennulat at a temporary stand outside his storefront. She tried on frames, placed them on a table, and strolled away. Ennulat picked up the frames, dipped them in a sanitizing solution, and returned them to a rack. Then he wiped the tabletop.
That’s what Ennulat’s days are now like at what he calls his “lemonade stand.” Wearing a face mask and latex gloves, he makes sure his stand has eyeglass cleaner and isopropyl alcohol. Despite the sanitary precautions, halting traffic prompted Ennulat to close shop in mid-March and furlough his only employee. The situation in Corning, 250 miles northwest of New York City, was far different from the highly publicized crisis in the metropolis. Steuben County had only 241 cases and 41 deaths in late May.
COVID-19 FATALITIES were more symbolically evident in the chapel of Farris Funeral Service in Abingdon, Va., where 43 balloons represented 43 people who couldn’t attend a funeral because Virginia’s social distancing guidelines disallowed gatherings larger than 10 people. On April 14, handwritten cards of condolence hung at the end of the balloon strings and showed the concern of friends and family members who couldn’t attend.
Director Kim Luke said she’s seen other funeral homes do drive-by viewings of the casket or drive-in services: She chose to have standard funeral services open to immediate family members. Luke and her staff have handled three COVID-19 corpses since the outbreak and have taken extra precautions, such as wearing a face mask while doing embalming.
More than 1,000 Virginians have died from COVID-19, with most of the cases occurring in northern Virginia, and on May 29 Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state mandate for all Virginians to wear face masks while inside all “brick and mortar establishments.”
Therapists found new ways to help patients, such as by videoconference.
A FEW MILES DOWN THE ROAD, Bristol, Va., sits on the border with Tennessee. The state line runs down the middle of State Street. So did the evidence of the two states’ approaches to COVID-19 precautions: Shoppers standing in the middle see Virginia flags flapping on one side and bright red Tennessee flags on the other. Banners of senior athletes from rival high schools—Tennessee High and Virginia High—hang from shop windows.
Restaurant-goers on the Tennessee side in late May found “dining room open” signs. Laughter and shouts echoed from a newly reopened pub. Across the street, padlocks and “face masks sold here” or “no walk-ins welcome” signs hung on doors. Diners had only one option on the Virginia side: Quaker Steak and Lube, but only for outdoor seating and curbside pick-up.
By governor’s orders Virginia businesses could not reopen until June, while Tennessee businesses were able to reopen on April 30.
IN BRISTOL, TENN., at 7:30 a.m. on May 26, Abram Arwood was helping his first patient of the day rehabilitate an ACL injury at Holston Medical Group (HMG). Sweat seeped through the patient’s face mask and fell onto the handlebars of a stationary bike. Then Arwood walked into a waiting room where 10 people sat on chairs close together. He took the temperature of his next patient.
After Tennessee began reopening businesses, Arwood started seeing more of his patients return to physical therapy. He and his colleague, Dan Almond, worked through the state shutdown, seeing about 25 in-person patients a day between the two of them.
Arwood said patients wearing face masks during therapy run the risk of overheating: “Most of my patients are high-level college athletes who can wring the sweat out of their masks after just a 10-minute warmup.” He wonders how sanitary the masks really are for them, and he thinks about his older patients who don’t hear well: “Do I risk exposing them by pulling down the mask to speak to them or do I keep the mask on and hope they understand what I say?”
HMG adopted hospital-regulated restrictions on March 27. Regular patients canceled in-office appointments, managers furloughed the office staff, and doctors and physical therapists took 10 percent to 15 percent pay cuts. Therapists found new ways to help patients, such as by videoconference, but Arwood chuckled about it: The heaviest weight some patients have at home is a gallon of milk, and “that will get them nowhere in physical therapy.”
THREE HUNDRED MILES FARTHER WEST, and we’re back to Louisville. The week John Floyd reopened his barbershop, Kentucky ranked 33rd in the nation for its number of coronavirus cases, with about 8,950 people infected and 390 dead. Louisville and its suburbs in Jefferson County experienced a quarter of those cases and more than one-third of Kentucky’s COVID-19 deaths. But on May 26 the daily number of new cases had dropped from the 80s to the single digits.
At Chair No. 3 another stylist held a mirror in front of a white-haired man she called George: “Does it look like you again?” Business owners across the United States are asking the same thing: When will America look like itself again?
Some businesses had to take surprising detours off the COVID-19 recovery route. On June 1, reacting to the death of George Floyd, looters in Kalamazoo, Mich., smashed through Gazelle Sports, Caffè Casa, and other downtown businesses. Owners boarded up their stores the next day. Like many Americans, they shifted from one historic crisis to another.