Safety emphasized as businesses get ready
Clothing stores will be urged to put a garment aside for at least 24 hours if someone tries it on but doesn’t buy it.
Hairdressers and nail salons are advised to have masks and gowns for staff and clients.
Restaurants will have to space tables 6 feet apart and keep a log of diners’ names and contact information in case health officials need to trace people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
As the state allows more types of businesses, including retailers, hair salons, and restaurants to re-open, business owners and employees are confronting conflicting impulses — eager to be back on the job but nervous about taking the plunge.
Business owners are drafting plans outlining how they’ll keep staff and customers safe, marking 6-foot increments on the floor, and stocking up on protective gear and hand sanitizer. Restaurants and taverns, which are licensed by Okanogan County Public Health, will need to submit a plan for approval, according to Roni Holder-Diefenbach, executive director of the Okanogan County Economic Alliance.
This week, the alliance issued a tool kit to help businesses as they move through the four phases of reopening established by the state. The kit includes safety plans that can be adapted for specific needs, signs for staff and customers, and recommendations from Okanogan County Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some guidelines, such as keeping people 6 feet apart, will be standard. But others apply only in certain sectors, and they can be exacting for personal services and hands-on specialties like hairdressers and massage therapists. There will also be suggestions for ways to protect employees who can’t wear a mask for health reasons, such as shields and other protective gear, Holder-Diefenbach said.
“Businesses, as we know them, will no longer look the same, so that they can protect themselves and their customers,” she said.
The alliance held a webinar for businesses and chambers of commerce last week to go over the guidelines. The Winthrop and Twisp chambers are also providing guidance to their members.
Many business owners are especially worried about enforcement, concerned the police will show up to monitor their compliance, Holder-Diefenbach said. She emphasized that these are guidelines, not the law.
“Some people say, ‘I have to open my doors. I’m going to be as safe as possible, but I have to have some income so I can make it,’” she said. “Everyone wants them to be back in business, but to be safe.”
Some businesses are willing and able to stay closed longer to protect their employees. But others, especially in the tourism sector — who rely on summer for the bulk of their income — are struggling.
The situation is complicated by contradictory attitudes. “It’s frustrating, because there’s people who believe it [the level of risk], and those that don’t,” Holder-Diefenbach said.
Eager but nervous
Many employees are eager to be back on the job and to collect a paycheck. But some are nervous. Room One has been hearing from furloughed employees as businesses call them to report to work, Interim Director Kelly Edwards said. Many laid-off workers are finally receiving unemployment benefits and are anxious about being in a public workplace, not knowing what precautions they can expect, she said.
In general, if an employee is asked to return to work and refuses, that person no longer qualifies for unemployment benefits, according to the state Employment Security Department (ESD).
But during the coronavirus pandemic, the state allows some good-cause reasons for not returning to work. People with an underlying health condition that puts them at greater risk for COVID-19, and those who are caring for a vulnerable family member, can apply to continue to collect unemployment, according to the ESD. Individuals caring for a child who have no other child care options may also be able to get a waiver.
Expanded family and medical leave in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act has been a boon to individuals who needed to leave work to care for a family member, Edwards said. People are eligible for either family leave or unemployment, but not both.
Little Star Montessori School has been providing essential child care since April 20 in Winthrop and Twisp. The number of children has increased every week as parents exhausted makeshift arrangements and more businesses reopened, Executive Director Dani Reynaud said. Little Star expects to have 40 children next week. Classes are limited to eight children, with two teachers each.
Because Little Star typically serves 130 children up to age 5, many families still aren’t being served. They’ve also added children who weren’t previously enrolled at Little Star.
All Little Star teachers are still working, but not all of them are providing in-person child care, because of age, health concerns, or the need to care for their own children, Reynaud said. As the state eases restrictions and the student body expands, she hopes teachers will feel safe to return.
“But it’s a good question — what happens if people are not comfortable returning to work?” she said. “Our goal is to weather this storm and open, when it’s safe to do so, at full capacity.”
Some businesses that won’t be permitted to open at full volume have been polling their employees to see who’s available to work, Edwards said. For some restaurant servers, the perceived risk of returning to work can outweigh the income they expect with reduced occupancy.
Many workers wonder what it will be like to interact with the public again. Some worry about handling money and how they’ll keep up with recommended hygiene, Edwards said.
Workers who are concerned their workplace isn’t safe should tell a supervisor, Holder-Diefenbach said. If the problem isn’t addressed, the state Department of Labor & Industries has oversight. Customers can also report concerns.
There is still no date set for when the state will move to Phase II, although 21 counties had been approved to skip ahead as of May 24. Okanogan County applied for a variance to move to a partial Phase II, but it hadn’t been granted as of press time.