April 24, 2020

Weekly line: Working, shopping, dining out—it will all be different when America reopens

Daily Briefing

    Several states this week announced plans to begin reopening nonessential businesses after about a month of closures intended to curb the new coronavirus' spread in America.

    2 emerging solutions that could help reopen America

    The timelines for opening those businesses vary by state, and states are setting new requirements intended to protect workers' and customers' health. That means your work environment, shopping at your favorite retailer, and even eating at your favorite restaurant could be very different than it was before the country's coronavirus epidemic—and those experiences could vary depending on where you live.

    States announce different timelines, requirements for reopening businesses

    Several states have formed regional coalitions to examine when it will be safe to reopen nonessential businesses and ease social distancing guidelines and to forge a collective plan to do so. In addition, some states—like California and New Yorkhave said they'll need to meet certain metrics for testing residents for the new coronavirus, tracing the contacts of those who test positive for the virus, and being able to treat patients with Covid-19 before they reopen businesses and relax social distancing measures.

    But other states already are forging ahead to reopen nonessential businesses and ease social distancing requirements. For example, officials in Montana began lifting some of the state's coronavirus-related restrictions last week, and officials in Texas and Vermont allowed certain businesses to reopen on Monday. Florida and South Carolina have reopened beaches in the states, and Georgia allowed a broad range of businesses—including barbershops, nail salons, and tattoo parlors—to reopen Friday. On Monday, movie theaters, private clubs, and restaurants in Georgia may open, as well.

    Many states' plans to reopen businesses come with new requirements intended to protect both workers and customers—though those requirements also vary. For example, Georgia's plan calls for businesses to follow new rules regarding hygiene, facemasks, and physical distancing among employees.

    Alabama's proposal includes new requirements that vary for different types of businesses. For instance,  businesses at which employees interact closely with customers, such as barbershops and nail salons,  would be required to have employees wear both masks and gloves, while workers at other businesses, such as jewelry stores, would only have to wear gloves and real estate agents would have to wear masks when showing houses. Others, such as restaurant workers, wouldn't have to wear any protective gear, but could do so if they chose. In addition, some businesses, such as tattoo parlors and museums, would have to check workers' and customers' temperatures daily.

    Governors in other states have suggested there could be limits on the number of customers permitted in restaurants at one time, that restaurants could be required to space dining tables farther apart, and that servers could have to wear gloves and masks.

    Politico's Katy Murphy notes that new requirements could vary even within a state, as some counties and cities could implement their own plans for reopening nonessential businesses. Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, told Murphy, "My suspicion is it's going to be kind of clunky," with a "patchwork" of plans to lift restrictions currently in place.

    Employers could adopt their own unique approaches to reopening

    But experts note that decisions on when to reopen—and the level of precautions taken—ultimately may fall on business owners.

    Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, told Murphy that retailers throughout the country are discussing steps they can take to protect workers and customers, such as installing so-called "sneeze guards" at sales counters, removing cosmetic and perfume samples, and launching contact-free checkout systems. Retailers also could set physical distancing requirements and capacity limits for customers.

    Other businesses could implement universal and regular coronavirus testing, temperature checks, and other screenings for employees and customers, enhanced sanitation practices, and physical distancing requirements—and some have already launched such efforts. For example, UCSF Health is requiring workers to answer Covid-19 screening questions before reporting for work.

    Businesses that have been able to continue operations by allowing employees to work from home could extend those policies and allow workers to return to offices gradually, which could allow for continued social distancing and prevent spikes of new infections among staff. Companies also could opt to continue conducting more dealings virtually to reduce business-travel costs and workers' chances of exposure to the new coronavirus.

    And business owners realize they'll be scrutinized for the decisions they make. Marc Freedman, VP of workplace policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Murphy, "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."

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