A person wearing a mask flips a businesses open sign hanging on a glass door.
As businesses reopen throughout Virginia, owners, employees and the general public will have to adjust to an environment where social distance and masks are the norm. (Getty Images)

As businesses begin reopening, they must instill confidence to get people in the door

This new phase will be just as challenging as the shutdown, health experts and business leaders say. “The psyche of business owners and consumers is very fragile right now.”

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Virginia businesses are going to start reopening, and that means people must begin acclimating themselves to a new way of life in a pandemic, according to panelists on a webinar hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health

“We are not so much talking about a new normal but a new abnormal,” said Peter F. Buckley, M.D., interim senior vice president for VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health, who moderated the discussion. “We are going to have to be flexible and adaptable.”

ChamberRVA President and CEO Brian Anderson said Richmond business leaders have been meeting since the stay-at-home order was enacted. Initially, the conversations revolved around federal aid and how to survive the crisis. Now, the discussions have shifted and business leaders are talking about instilling confidence. The community must believe businesses owners are taking the novel coronavirus seriously and implementing safety recommendations. 

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The chamber is rolling out several resources to aid in the reopening process over the next few weeks, Anderson said. The first is an online resource where business owners can access guidelines for reopening. Secondly, the chamber will be handing out safety boxes to business owners that will contain personal protective equipment and material on responding to the pandemic. 

Anderson said each business and industry will respond differently as the orders are lifted. Some, such as businesses where people work in an office, might continue to telecommute. Others, such as hair salons and restaurants, will need to reopen.

“We think there has to be some level of confidence building,” Anderson said. “The psyche of business owners and consumers is very fragile right now. Everybody is not going to open right now even if they are allowed to under the governor’s order. How do we give people confidence to open as a business owner and also to go out and be the consumer you were before this hit?”

Anderson said the recovery will be just as difficult as the shutdown. Businesses and the general public are going to have to operate in an environment where social distance, masks and proper hand hygiene are the norm. 

Richard P. Wenzel, M.D., emeritus chair and professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at VCU, said business people need to ask themselves several questions as they plan to reopen. What is the goal of reopening? Once that is answered, the business owner must determine long-term strategies to get to that goal.

“The third question is one that is rough and most people don’t ask: What is your risk tolerance?” Wenzel asked. “How many of your workers who get sick will you tolerate? How many who get hospitalized? How many who get on a respirator? And how many deaths before you say ‘enough, I’ve got to start doing something else.’”

Wenzel said testing is going to have to be part of the equation to instill confidence in employees and consumers. A business should consider testing employees on a regular basis to ensure they are not infecting other employees or the general public. He said he understands that this could be considered burdensome to employers, but it is part of the process of restoring confidence. Employees and customers have to feel safe.

Anderson added that businesses must show the community they care and have empathy about the situation. Businesses have to make sure they move forward in a responsible manner. If businesses do not act responsibly, a second wave of the pandemic could occur. 

“When we have the opportunity to reopen, we have to do it safely and responsibly,” he said. “If a restaurant does open its outdoor patio, it must be socially distant. Everyone wears [personal protective equipment], and we practice the other measures. Nobody is going to wave a wand and confidence is there. I think the numbers in China show retail has only come back 40% and hospitality has only come back 30%. We would expect the same here.”

What is your risk tolerance? How many of your workers who get sick will you tolerate? How many who get hospitalized? How many who get on a respirator? And how many deaths before you say ‘enough, I’ve got to start doing something else.’

Gonzalo Bearman, M.D, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at VCU, said the community should understand that a lot is still unknown about the virus. There is no approved treatment or vaccine and testing availability is limited. Social distancing, hygiene and masks are the only way right now to slow the spread of the virus. 

“We are pretty confident we will have a positive impact to decrease transmission if people follow the recommendations,” Bearman said.  

He warned, however, that the disease affects everyone even if data shows that it heavily impacts older adults and people with preexisting conditions. In recent weeks, children have started to develop an inflammatory syndrome thought to be related to the disease. 

“It’s still a potentially dangerous virus for broad swaths of the population,” Bearman said.

Testing and tracing need to become part of the solution to make things safe, he added. Businesses need to require employees to wear masks and gloves. Sanitizer needs to be available to customers. Businesses such as bars and restaurants must limit the number of patrons to prevent overcrowding. 

Bearman was a little skeptical about day care centers reopening, calling it a “tricky” situation. Day care centers must limit overcrowding and do the best they can to follow social distancing guidelines. Hand sanitizing and hand washing must be practiced. 

“It can be very challenging in a day care situation,” he said.

Thomas Briggs, assistant vice president for safety and risk management at VCU, said the university is developing protocols to slowly reopen the campus and be ready for students to return in the fall. He said the key is personal responsibility. If people become sick, or show signs of being sick, they are going to have to isolate themselves. The only way a large community like VCU will be able to function is with people following guidelines and holding themselves accountable.

Students, faculty and staff will be asked to answer 10 or 11 questions on a daily basis and monitor their own health. While the hospital is doing temperature checks before people enter a building, Briggs was not sure that would work in a campus setting.

Many questions still must be answered before campuses reopen, he said. For example, how do buildings function at reduced occupancy to meet social distancing requirements?

“Even though we are talking about a phased return, it’s still not going to be business as usual come September,” Briggs said. “It has to be reduced occupancy in the buildings and continue with virtual methods where we can continue to do so. It’s the only way I think we can come back.”

No matter what decisions organizations or businesses make to reopen, everyone on the panel acknowledged that the risk increases. As people interact more, there is a greater chance of the virus spreading. The challenge becomes managing that increased level of risk. 

“There is going to be risk,” Wenzel said. “The real question is how much risk are you willing to take.”