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Testing crucial before reopening, retailers say

Shop owners and restaurateurs says broad testing is needed before retail can reopen. [PHOTO BY SAM DEAN] Shop owners and restaurateurs says broad testing is needed before retail can reopen. [PHOTO BY SAM DEAN]

The brand of downtown historic Hendersonville is small town, friendly and personal.


“What we sell is an experience and you simply cannot translate that experience to something on line,” Caroline Gunther, owner of the Wag! pet store on Main Street, said Monday.
Gunther was one of around 25 people on a committee of business owners county commissioners appointed to begin looking at how the county might go about reopening for business when the threat of a coronavirus spread eases.
Meeting by Zoom, the committee representing everything from small shops to large manufacturers showed a spirit of cooperation and caution. The panel meets again on Friday, and in the meantime commissioners who lead the panel — Bill Lapsley and Rebecca McCall — asked the business owners to email specific requests or concerns about reopening. Lapsley told the business owners that commissioners want to know what they can do to prepare for a safe reopening when Gov. Roy Cooper lifts or modifies the statewide stay-at-home order.
The committee heard from factory managers who describe careful spacing, constant cleaning and universal use of masks, from restaurateurs who said diners will have to feel safe before they return, from salon owners who say the availability of sanitizers is one factor that will determine whether they can reopen and from a commercial real estate broker who said the coronavirus outbreak does not appear to be “as bad as it’s been advertised.”
Those in retail were unanimous in emphasizing that broad availability of antibody testing is critical to keeping employees safe and restoring the public’s confidence in going out and mingling with strangers.

Clear guidelines

Clear guidelines, Gunther said, is one of the most important ways county commissioners can help.
Gunther said she had been active on social media and even made cold calls to customers to try to push sales. “And I still have people that had no idea I was open or that any of the restaurants on Main Street was open,” she said. “I still have a large amount of people that are 70 or older are really just scared to come out.”
When she polled stores on Main Street, one shopkeeper said she would feel safe with six people in her 1,000-square-foot space and another with a 3,000-square-foot space said two would feel safe.
Policing customers is next to possible, she said.
“It’s hard to tell kids don’t touch stuff and don’t touch your faces. You can say it all day but they’re cute and unwieldy. … It is impossible for our staff to be 6 feet apart. If we’re going to be in the same space for more than 5 minutes it’s not going to matter anyway. We have to lift things together and it’s impossible to stay 6 feet apart.”

At Smartrac, a Fletcher-based manufacturer of radio frequency identification tags, workers are innovating while remaining 6 feet apart.
“An employee sent us this article from Facebook that said, ‘Hey, this Boy Scout came up with these straps that you can use to get the mask off your ears,” vice president Chris Hykin said. “We’re wearing them every single day. We’re starting to see complaints from people that they’re cutting into their ears so we set up our 3D printer and we started making these and we’ve actually started to donate these out and we’re sending them out to some of our medical establishments. We can make these things available and let’s get them out in the community if they’re helpful.”
Real estate broker Steve Dozier said listings fell to 27 during a week earlier this month compared to 69 a year earlier.
“Closings have not really slowed down much,” he said, because the final paperwork generally comes 45 days or so after a sales agreement. “I think we’re going to see our closings fall off big time in May and possibly June. We’re concerned when we can get back into a normal state of business but we don’t want to rush into it either.”


Can kindergartners socially distance?

Henderson County schools are in “a holding pattern,” schools Superintendent Bo Caldwell said. Under the current order, school would resume May 18 but no one knows whether that’s realistic. In the meantime, the school system continues its learn from home process, serving 6,000 meals a day through school pickups and Meals on the Bus feeding sites, and providing day care for the children of first responders.
Is the school system prepared, Lapsley asked, “to protect not only the customer, in this case the students, but the employees?”
Caldwell said school leaders don’t know what that will look like.
“When you talk about social distancing, you’ve got 20 kindergartners in a classroom running around? Is that going to be truly reality to keep those kids 6 feet apart? That’s going to be extremely hard for us,” he said.
School leaders have tossed around numerous scenarios of children back in school observing safety: “Half the kids can come back on Monday and Wednesday, the other half can come back on Tuesday and Thursday. Every kid would wear a mask.”
Ultimately, Caldwell said, the advice of public health professionals will guide the schools’ actions.
“You put 800 middle school kids together — social distancing, I just don’t know if it’s going to happen.”

Antibody testing is critical


Hannah Flanagan’s owner Matt Johnes said diners won’t come back without assurance that the environment is safe.
“Our big concern is testing,” he said. “In order to get the restaurant fully open you have to be able to sit down in a restaurant and have a complete stranger sit next to you for an hour and that’s not going work until we know who’s sick and who isn’t. Our big focus right now is how do we get the testing part fixed. That’s what’s going to get restaurants open sooner rather than later. I think from the restaurant perspective, if the county or whomever can get testing really going and get folks some clarity on who is safe to deal with and who isn’t, that’ll be the big thing that lets us incrementally open restaurants.”
Southern Appalachian Brewing owner Kelly Cubbin said business can’t return until fear goes away.
“We see it with our customers and our employees,” she said. “No one really knows who may be carrying it asymptomatically.”
Pardee UNC Health CEO Jay Kirby agreed antibody testing — which could signal that people have developed an immunity to the virus — is a key.
“What you will likely see is once that becomes widely available you will see that information provided on one’s cell phone,” as some countries are doing now, Kirby said. “But that antibody testing will not be done in a restaurant or other places” outside a health care provider setting.
Hair Gallery owner Martha Huggins said that before the governor shut down salons, stylists had already been heavily sanitizing their work spaces, chairs, combs, brushes and other tools.
“I believe we cannot reopen until the antibody testing is in place,” she said. “We will have to wear masks and gloves. Each salon has a different layout but I believe if we wear masks and gloves and get the antibody testing, I don’t see a problem.”

‘Not as bad as it’s been advertised’

Summer camps, like schools, are waiting to see whether they’ll have a season.
Yates Pharr, who owns Falling Creek Camp with his wife, Marisa, pointed out that there are almost 20 camps in Henderson County that generate almost $120 million in revenue during the 10-week season.
“We want to keep that business flowing but we want to do the right thing in opening,” he said. “We’re really waiting for direction on what we’re expected to do in order to receive these campers.”
“If we’re looking at contact tracing we have to think about how that would impact going back to these folks’ homes,” Marisa added. “We don’t want to open up and have all the folks spend here, eat here, recreate here, drink here, to be coming and infiltrate the population. How can we make sure people are not anxious about this? … If we get a case, we need direction from the health department on what to do.”
A lack of supplies would also prevent camps from opening. Falling Creek ordered hand sanitizer back in February that it still has not received, Marisa said.
Jeff Justus, a commercial real estate broker and owner of the Mountain Inn & Suites, said the hotel business had fallen to zero, though his car wash on U.S. 64 East “seems to be doing pretty well.”
“The Golden Corrals of the world, they’re just coming to see you and saying, ‘We’re shutting down and we’re not going to be paying rent anytime soon.’”
Justus said he observed over the weekend that although the Hendersonville Lowe’s was packed, shoppers were keeping their distance.
“I just don’t feel like it’s as bad as it’s been advertised,” he said. “There are hot spots. New York City is a catastrophe. The hospitals in the area are going broke. They were expected to be covered up” with Covid-19 patients and dropped elective surgeries and saw other profitable services fall away. He fears that South Carolina, with a much less restrictive shelter-at-home order, may pull retail dollars away from the county.
“If this contamination is going to happen it’s going to happen,” he said. “I would recommend keeping people 65 in as much as possible and maybe helping them with groceries and things like that and allowing the younger people to begin to move and eat at restaurants and just live.”

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Gracie Milner contributed reporting.