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Business owners push back on lengthy post-covid reopening plan

Commissioners Bill Lapsley and Rebecca McCall co-chair a committee of business owners advising the county on how to reopen for business. Commissioners Bill Lapsley and Rebecca McCall co-chair a committee of business owners advising the county on how to reopen for business.

In their third meeting on reopening the county for business post-coronavirus, business owners pushed back on a phased plan they said was too rigid and time-consuming.

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners appointed the Post-Covid 19 Task Force last month to advise the elected board on guidelines for safely reopening the county’s economy when the current statewide stay-at-home rules are eased or lifted. When the committee wrapped up its third meeting on Wednesday, little had been settled and the boundaries of its advisory power was in question.

Co-chaired by commissioners Bill Lapsley and Rebecca McCall, the 21-member panel reacted to some of the guidelines proposed in a four-phase reopening plan. Several business owners urged the commissioners to move as aggressively as possible to permit businesses to reopen. The proposed four-phase timeline, they said, will take too long.
When they first formed the committee, commissioners “really weren’t looking for this group to get involved in the timing,” Lapsley said. “We emphasized that we wanted the focus to be on guidelines that should be followed when either our governor opens up the business community or if and when the county commissioners get the opportunity to reopen the community. So we really didn’t want to get with you folks in a debate over the timing. That’s an issue the commissioners have to deal with with the governor.”
But during the hour and 20-minute meeting, Lapsley and McCall listened as business owners from a cross-section of sectors — services, shops, dining, lodging — implored them to accelerate the reopening timeline as much as they could.
“That’s an issue and that’s something that I think the commissioners want to know,” Lapsley said at the close of the meeting. He urged the business owners to make their feelings known about the timing of reopening and whether phasing should be collapsed into a shorter time frame. Let commissioners know “if you have strong feelings about this timing," he said. "You don’t want four phases, you’d rather have two.”

How does screening work?

Caroline Gunther, owner of Wag! A Unique Pet Boutique on Main Street, said the proposed reopening plan was too rigid.
“My first thought is this phase plan seems much more restrictive than the state’s to start with and I was surprised to see it because I did not think that was the direction we were going in the first place,” she said. “Employees screened daily and wear face masks. I know these are suggestions. What do you mean by screening daily? A questionnaire, a test, do you mean temperature taking?”
The screening recommendation, she added, is burdensome without necessarily being effective.
“These are employees,” Gunther said. “What good does it do asking it of them when you have members of the public at large walking in every day?”
Smartrak manager Chris Hytek described the drive-thru screening station the Fletcher plant created. Screeners ask employees whether they’ve had cold or flu symptoms in last 14 days, whether they’ve tested positive for Covid-19 or had contact with or cared for someone with Covid-19 and whether they had run a fever in the last 24 hours. The plant also takes the workers’ temperature. If it’s under 100.4 they can enter.
“It’s worked for us and it’s not too oppressive,” he said.

Jennifer Hensley, a chiropractor, said herd immunity is a better public health solution than continuing a broad lockdown.
“I assume a lot of people suspect that a lot more of the population has had or has been exposed to the virus” than tests have shown. “If this virus were to cycle back around next flu season, in my opinion I would feel better about Henderson County having 50-60 percent immunized or exposure than 10 percent. The goal of the initial slowdown or flatten the curve was never to stop people from getting this virus. The goal was to not overwhelm our health care and our hospitals. The healthy people — we actually want them to be exposed to the virus because heathy people getting the virus then getting well are how we as a whole in public health develop immune system and strengthening measures that we didn’t have two months ago.”

Salons make coronavirus adjustments

“I do have some concerns with the social distancing and limiting to 10,” Hair Gallery owner Martha Huggins said. “Most business owners, we are all going to go back doing business differently. I think we are all very much aware business cannot start out being like it was before.”
In her shop on White Street, she is putting up plexiglass between stylists’ chairs. The salon and spa are separated.
“I am really glad to hear that we are going to be given discretion on the guidelines and letting each owner decide how to best run their own business,” she said. “If the county gets control from the government, please put us in phase 1.” The salon had added aggressive sanitation techniques “even before we stopped business,” Huggins said, and will do more when it reopens.
The shop will sanitize between every appointment, keep hand sanitizer at each chair, have clients wait outside in their cars. All employees will wear masks and gloves. “I think we are one business that is well prepared to go back at the first possible time,” she said.
McCall said: “Quite frankly, I’d like to be in phase 2 the day we open.”

Restaurants disadvantaged

Mike Wiemers, owner of Surf 'n'  Brew and Salty Landing, said the guidelines are too rigid for restaurants.
“In phase 1, we’re still only open for takeout, yet we’re allowing people inside retail shops,” he said. “I’m not sure why we don’t have exteriors open right now as long as they’re spread apart.”
A requirement that customers always make reservations at least one hour in advance is unworkable, he said, “because I don’t do reservations.” He suggested that be changed to ask customers to “call the restaurant when you’re there.”
Restaurants that are still open have seen business plunge by 75-85 percent, he said.
Drive-thru chains and places set up for delivery are doing better. “I’ve heard some of the pizza delivery places, their sales are up as much as 50 percent,” he said.

Beth Carden, executive director of the Tourism Development Authority, thanked the panel for drafting guidelines that can help businesses reopen. Many of the businesses represented on the advisory committee are tourism-related, she said. “We have a tremendous need for a solution to this quicker rather than later,” she said. “We’re just getting ready to go into our summer season, which is very important for everyone.”
If the county is too cautious — taking small steps in a series of phases —tourism may not recover.
“We’re getting tremendous requests for information from people that are wanting to travel to Hendersonville from around the country. It is certainly a pickup demand that we’re going to see and I believe our economy is going to kick back really quick when we start to open up.”

 Cooper ignores county's request for flexibility

John Mitchell, the county’s director of business and community development, told the business owners that the staff had compiled recommended guidelines for reopening by industry.
“These are all guidelines that have been suggested by the group,” he said. They could be tweaked in the coming days.
“I think at this point we want to give everybody the opportunity over next 3-4 days to go through these and point out changes,” Lapsley said. “This whole exercise could be for naught. The governor is in control of the situation. Until we hear otherwise, everything we’re doing here is a draft. It’s a document we’re trying to have ready should the governor give the county any flexibility… We want to say to the community, we’ve already studied this, we’re ready to go, this is what we want to do.”
Wiemers asked whether Gov. Cooper had responded to the county’s letter seeking the authority to guide the reopening of business and industry.
“No, we’re not heard a word from him,” Lapsley said. “Apparently, there’s been about four or five county commissions who have sent letters to the governor, none of whom have gotten a response. At the moment, we’ve had no correspondence.”
Commissioners may adopt a resolution — thought to carry more weight than the April 14 letter — on Monday night.
“My feeling, yes, Monday night we will pass a resolution,” Lapsley said, emphasizing that he is one of five voters. McCall said she, too, supports a resolution.

Personal Protective Equipment

Mitchell said the county is working with the Chamber of Commerce and Partnership for Economic Development to locally source personal protection equipment and offer a clearinghouse of suppliers on its website.
“We anticipate there’s going to be a lot of questions about how one would secure personal protection equipment,” he said. “We’ve been working with partners to identify industries that will be making PPE. We’ve had some success and some false starts but there are local industries which are making different kinds of personal protection equipment.”
Mark Williams, executive director of AgHC, the farm advocacy agency, praised Manual Woodworkers’ partnership with agriculture. The company is one of the cut-and-sew plants that pivoted to make PPE.
“We have ordered through Manual Woodworkers these masks and we’ll be handing them out to our farmworkers,” he said.
The county will update its website with links from the chamber and the economic development agency to businesses that are making personal protection equipment. The county website will also contain links to videos of the Post-Covid panel’s past meetings and recommended guidelines for reopening by industry and links to the guidelines from the White House and state websites.