Virginia business owners weigh the realities of reopening during COVID-19

Posted at 6:41 PM, May 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-06 08:03:59-04

RICHMOND, Va - Virginia businesses are weighing two difficult options, one day after Governor Ralph Northam extended his closure order to May 15th: open their doors with restrictions to start making money again, or remain closed to protect the health of their employees and customers.

Alex Zavaleta and his co-owner at Charm School Social Club, an ice cream shop in downtown Richmond, have been hand scooping to-go pints for weeks after having to lay off their staff in mid-March when the virus began spreading in Virginia.

“We had to keep everyone home and safe. That also meant having to basically furlough them. Basically be like: apply for unemployment, we’re going to lay you off. The second we get back up and running, your jobs are here,” he said.

Northam said Monday that he anticipates business restrictions can be eased on May 15, which would be the beginning of phase one of his three-part plan to lift restrictions and begin reopening the state.

Phase one would allow barber shops, salons and gyms to reopen as well as allow restaurants to resume dine-in seating with restrictions on capacity and seating that adheres to social distancing standards.

Even if allowed to open during phase one, Zavaleta said Charm School will keep their doors closed, continuing with the to-go pints model even during the all important summer months.

Ice cream shops, he said, do the majority of their sales then.

“I don’t fault a business for wanting to be open doing things. I have plenty of friends businesses who probably could safely open a little bit, but for us it just doesn’t make sense. We’ll continue doing what we’re doing now,” he said. “As a business owner making a business decision, I will air on the side of caution. So will my business partner, and we will continue doing what we’re doing. It’s just not worth risking our workers’ safety for. . . ice cream.”

Other Virginia businesses and organizations have said that lifting restrictions is long overdue. Churches and gyms have filed lawsuits against Northam and the state, asking courts to allow them to reopen their businesses.

NFIB Virginia, which represents small and independent businesses in the Commonwealth, said a survey of their members finds more than 75 percent felt they could safely open back up by May 8th, the original date of the Governor’s closure order.

“Small business owners are telling us they think a gradual reopening should start very soon, and most believe they can handle health and safety requirements,” said NFIB Virginia State Director Nicole Riley. “But they are concerned about customers’ fears and getting them to come back to their businesses.”

While picking up a Cinco de Mayo take out order from Tio Pablo’s in Shockoe Bottom, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he was waiting to review reopening guidelines released by state agencies like everyone else.

“As I’ve stated, the virus will dictate the timelines on this. I don’t want to be one of those localities or one of those states that rushes back into this and we see a spike in infections moving forward. Slow and cautious will win the race,” Stoney said. “At the end of the day, it’s about protecting peoples lives. I know folks want to protect their livelihoods, but you can’t have a livelihood if you don’t have a life.”

Ward Tefft, the owner of Chop Suey Books in Carytown, said data, not politicians, would dictate when they open the store again. Chop Suey is taking phone and online book orders with pickup or delivery options.

“It’s been about three times the work, and half the sales,” Tefft said. “Personally, I do not see use opening up the store anytime soon. It would be a great risk to my coworkers; it would be a great risk to my customers.”

“I can’t put my finances or my exhaustion level ahead of someone else’s safety, and I won’t do that, whether it be my co-worker or my customer. And because we’re talking about one person’s safety, we’re talking about the whole community’s safety,” he continued. “When this finally does easy up, I’m worried that we’re going to have lost a lot of our favorite businesses here, and that’s very sad.”

Tefft urged consumers who have the means to support local restaurants and shops trying to operate under COVID-19 restrictions to keep their businesses afloat while protecting public health.

Virginia Together: The Rebound Richmond campaign is here to help. Find information on who is hiring, investigations into unemployment payment issues, financial advice on making ends meet, and mental health advice on managing the pressures. These stories will be featured often on CBS 6 News and can be found by clicking this link.