Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday outlined his eagerly anticipated guidelines for Phase One of reopening Virginia, and the eased restrictions have the biggest impact for churches and personal grooming businesses, such as barber shops and hair salons.
Dubbed “safer in place” when the governor announced it on Monday, Phase One could begin at the end of next week if current COVID-19 trends hold.
In Phase One, both churches and hair salons can resume service at 50% capacity and with some other restrictions, such as social distancing inside and face masks required by both the provider and client at salons. Phase One of the state’s reopening could last two weeks or longer, Northam said Friday. He also emphasized that the restrictions are a “floor,” adding that localities that want stricter regulations can reach out to the administration, which will have the final say.
For John Clary, the owner of Studio in the Garden near West Broad Street and Libbie Avenue in Henrico County, the governor’s announcement came as good news for his business, which has been closed since Northam’s order in March to shut down nonessential businesses.
“It’s been traumatic. It’s been horrible not being able to have an income to able to support our family,” Clary said.
Clary was not concerned about Northam’s requirements for masks during appointments.
“We’ve been without any business,” Clary said. “Wearing the masks, the gloves, it doesn’t bother me at all … I want people to feel comfortable in being able to come back.”
Not all salons are planning to open. Pat Heaney, co-owner of Mango Salon, which has three salon locations in the Richmond area that have been shuttered since March 17 because of the pandemic, said the business wasn’t planning to open by May 15, adding that he and others are taking time to ensure they have enough personal protective equipment on hand.
“We’re not going to open until we are 100% confident that our employees, team members and clients will be safe,” Heaney said.
Retail stores, nearly all of which were deemed essential by the state and permitted to remain open with some restrictions, can also open in Phase One at 50% capacity and with social distancing inside. Face masks for employees continue not to be mandated by the state for retail businesses deemed essential, but they will be required for workers at every nonessential business permitted to reopen.
Most of the other categories of businesses that were deemed nonessential by the governor’s office in March must remained closed. Gyms, restaurants and breweries will remain closed inside, but they can offer some service outdoors, such as opening patios or offering small, outdoor fitness classes.
“My initial reaction is confusion,” said Christian Morganti, regional manager for four Richmond-area Gold’s Gym franchises. “Because I don’t understand, given the amount of precautions that our gym, and probably many others, are willing to take, how we aren’t allowed to open.”
Gyms and fitness centers can host outdoor classes with a limit of 10 or fewer people in the class and at least 10 feet between class attendees.
Morganti said he thought the Phase One guidelines would allow gyms to be open inside, albeit with social distancing.
“Compared to other businesses that, by definition, cannot maintain social distancing and the CDC guidelines are allowed to [open], that’s confusing to me,” Morganti said. “We can maintain social distancing at this establishment. You can’t at your dentist office, you can’t at your elective surgeries, you can’t at the barbershop. You can at the gym.”
Still, Morganti said Gold’s Gym will take advantage of whatever easing of restrictions it can, even if it means small outdoor classes.
He just has to “coordinate it with property managers and talk with lawyers about what liabilities that we cover,” he said, but “if that’s what we are given the opportunity to do, we will 1,000% take advantage of that opportunity.”
The local restaurant industry is less excited about its Phase One guidelines.
Restaurants and breweries cannot open their dining or tasting rooms, but they can use their patios at 50% capacity and with 6 feet between parties — provided the patio is at least 6 feet away from the sidewalk or any public area. Restaurant employees must wear masks, have their temperature taken at the start of each shift and restaurants must use disposable menus. In total, restaurants that was to remain open in Phase One must meet a total of 15 daily requirements, according to detailed guidelines posted to the state’s website at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Nearly every other category of business was issued fewer than 10 opening requirements.
“Once again, the restaurants are the ones left fending for themselves,” said Michelle Williams, co-owner of the Richmond Restaurant Group, which owns and operates multiple restaurants around town. “None of it makes sense. It doesn’t seem like people from the industry were involved in this.”
Williams said she’s not sure yet if she’ll open any of the patios at her restaurants next week. She said she was still trying to parse through the requirements and figure out if her restaurants in the city meet the 6-feet-from-the-sidewalk stipulation.
“We haven’t gotten any clear guidance,” she said. “It’s not a ‘flip the switch.’ We didn’t know what [Phase One] meant for us until 2:30 today.”
Williams said there’s the added challenging of bringing staff back, and knowing if limited patio seating will bring in enough revenue to warrant it.
Breweries are in the same situation.
“At this point, not having really enough time to sort of process that information, it kind of creates more questions than it answers for us,” said Tom Sullivan, co-founder of Ardent Craft Ales in Scott’s Addition. “We would not want to re-open simply because there is a business opportunity there without taking into account the safety of our employees and customers, and that gets sticky rather quickly, given the state of things.”
Nancy Thomas, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants trade group, which has about 400 business members in the Richmond region, was hoping the governor would loosen restrictions on restaurants a little more.
“We are encouraged that retailers are able to open at 50% capacity” in Phase One of the plan, Thomas said. “We are discouraged that restaurants were not included in that.”
Thomas said allowing restaurants to offer indoor dining would have given them the opportunity to gauge customer preferences and prepare for the time when distancing rules can be eased enough to allow more indoor gatherings.
Plus, not all restaurants have outdoor seating, though the city of Richmond may be easing its process for restaurants to get them. Jim Nolan, a spokesman for Mayor Levar Stoney, said Friday that the city is hoping to have a process in place soon.
“We are discussing options for how this can be done to ensure public safety and public health and will await further clarity from the Governor next week before determining specific next steps,” Nolan said.
But some businesses didn’t receive any reopening flexibility in Phase One. Recreation and entertainment venues — such as bowling alleys, theaters and music venues — must stay closed. Beaches will remain closed except for exercise or fishing; though outdoor swimming pools may open, but for lap swimming-only with a limit of one person per lane. And a 10-person limit on social gatherings — enforceable as misdemeanor — remains in place, as does the recommendation for wearing masks in public and teleworking for professional businesses.
Northam said Friday that he knows many businesses want to reopen.
“I also understand that there are workers who are afraid to go back right now, because they or their loved ones have underlying health conditions. ... I want to assure those workers, [too]” he said.