Plan shows possible path to reopening many small businesses

Plan to reopen Ala. businesses

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Many currently shuttered businesses in Alabama could reopen over the next few weeks under new recommendations from a task force created by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth.

Some establishments like restaurants, hair salons, child care centers and small retail stores would open immediately under the plan, while others like medical services, casinos, gyms and entertainment venues would need to wait until May 1. The state's beaches would also open May 1 and youth sports could resume starting May 11, under the plan from the Small Business Emergency Task Force, which was formed by Ainsworth earlier this month.

The recommendations have been sent to Gov. Kay Ivey, who said she would take them into consideration when formulating next steps in Alabama's response to the coronavirus outbreak. The state remains under a stay-at-home order limiting residents to only essential errands until April 30.

Ainsworth and State Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, who chaired the task force, said the recommended course of action is based on data showing improvement in Alabama's handling of the coronavirus and the need to get state businesses up and running in a safe way.

"When it comes to reopening the economy and putting people back to work, I want everybody in Alabama to understand that we believe every business is an essential business," Ainsworth said. "Each day that our economy stays closed, the ripple effect continues to go throughout the state."

As of Friday afternoon, there were more than 4,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, nearly 100 confirmed deaths and nearly 600 hospitalizations, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The 155-plus page report lists detailed instructions for how to safely operate businesses in each sector, including appropriate social distancing, limited capacity and sanitation guidelines. Garrett said the group's members worked long hours to be thorough in their recommendations.

"This virus has not only impacted individuals' health, it has impacted the livelihoods and the financial security of hundreds of thousands of business owners," Garrett said. "In talking to hundreds of business owners from different industries, what became clear to us is that, as bad as they want to reopen, they want to reopen safely."

Ainsworth said it's not fair for larger stores like Walmart and Target to be open while smaller retailers were closed, and that allowing them to open would spread customers around.

"It's currently considered safe to go to a box store and buy furniture. It's currently considered safe to go to a box store and buy clothing. It's currently considered safe to go to a box store and even buy jewelry. Our message is simple: social distancing is about spreading people out, and the committee says that it's not fair for small businesses to be [closed] and be penalized and we believe smaller stores can actually mean smaller risk," he said.

Business groups like the Alabama Retail Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Business Council of Alabama all had input on the plan through representatives on the task force.

"The recommendations made in the Reopen Alabama Responsibly plan are a critical first step in revitalizing Alabama’s economy and getting citizens back to work in a safe and responsible manner," said Katie Boyd Britt, the Business Council of Alabama's chief executive officer.

Recommendations for reopening racetracks, bingo halls and casinos includes limiting occupancy to 35% of the maximum allowed by the fire marshal.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians operate three casinos in Alabama and Robbie McGhee, the tribe's chief government and public affairs officers, said it supports that capacity recommendation.

“We want any opening to be safe for our employees and customers, and we will do our best to ensure appropriate measures are in place before any reopening occurs and we hope that everyone going forward will be cognizant that we all have an individual responsibility to do our part in providing a safe environment for any business here in the state that chooses to reopen,” McGhee told Alabama Daily News.

Ainsworth’s report also recommends that state beaches open for recreational use on May 1. Congregating on the beach or the use of chairs, umbrellas, or tents will be prohibited, the report says. It also suggests that no groups larger than 10 should be on beaches.

Gulf Shores Police Chief Edward Delmore told ADN that so far they haven’t arrested anyone because of the beach closures and those they do come in contact with are usually unaware that the beach is closed.

“The first assumption is that they are unaware that the beaches are closed so the first step is education, followed by a warning, followed by if there is a lack of compliance then the person could be cited, then the last resort is the person be arrested,” Delmore said.

Delmore said he plans to follow the same kind of protocol if Ainsworth’s recommendations are approved but said he is hopeful that Alabamians would voluntarily comply with the orders.

Chief Deputy Officer Anthony Lowery from Baldwin County Sheriff’s office said their police force, along with Gulf Shores' and Orange Beach's police department, would have sufficient enough staff to handle the crowds that may appear on beaches if allowed open.

“We’ve all worked really well together and we have a lot of spring breaks under our belt so I don’t think it would be a lot different from that to be honest,” Lowery told ADN.

While the plan outlines how the state could proceed over the next month, the recommendations remain just that - suggested steps for Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris to consider as the state adjusts to the developing outbreak situation. Earlier this week, Ivey said Alabama’s social distancing measures appear to be slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but that it is too soon to say when shuttered businesses could reopen.

On Friday, Ivey said she was in receipt of the recommendations and that her Coronavirus Task Force would be "looking at these suggestions and start plugging them in, where appropriate, as we weigh all our options about opening up the economy."

Ivey also mentioned President Donald Trump's announcement Thursday of a three-phase federal plan to open up sectors of the economy. She participated in a conference call with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence this week.

“Consistent with what we’ve been saying all along, the president made it clear that the return to 'normal' won’t be a quick or simple process," Ivey said. "We will need to see declining cases – and stronger testing – over at least 14 days – to make certain we don’t see a return in the spike up of the infection."

More than 265,000 Alabamians filed for unemployment in the three weeks following health orders that closed some businesses and told people to stay home as much as possible.

Besides the impact on businesses and residents, Alabama leaders are also watching state tax revenues, especially income and sales taxes, which are expected to dip considerably. Those numbers though likely won’t be available for several more weeks.

Ivey and Harris said the latest projections show cases of COVID-19 will peak in Alabama next week.

Alabama Daily News reporters Mary Sell and Caroline Beck contributed to this report.

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