Delaware business owners face uncertainty about reopening
DOVER, Del. (AP) — Business owners in southern Delaware are mulling what they can do to hasten the time when they can reopen, while seeking more guidance from state officials on how and when coronavirus restrictions might be lifted.
State economic development officials held an online town hall Monday to hear the thoughts and concerns of business owners in eastern Sussex County, the heart of Delaware’s billion-dollar beach tourism industry.
Sussex County also has become a flash point for the coronavirus in Delaware, with more cases, and an infection rate more than three times higher than northern Delaware’s New Castle County, which is much more heavily populated. Officials have said the virus has become particularly prevalent among the Hispanic and Haitian communities and Sussex County’s poultry processing plants.
“Phase 1 is miles away based on the numbers I’m seeing coming out of those processing plants,” said Jim McGrath of Bethany Surf Shop in Bethany Beach, suggesting state officials have exercised “poor oversight” over the poultry plants.
“We’re going to sit on zero for a while until they get control of that,” McGrath added.
Kurt Foreman of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, a public-private group that leads Delaware’s economic development efforts, said he understood McGrath’s frustration. But he also defended public health officials, saying they’ve been working overtime while responding to the virus.
“We have to get things in a situation where we can open so it’s safe for you and safe for the public,” Foreman said. “If they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to come even if your open.”
While Democratic Gov. John Carney has said Delaware’s economy won’t begin to reopen until there are 14 days of declining COVID-19 cases, some business owners believe a better metric might be the number of hospitalizations and deaths.
As of Sunday evening, state officials reported more than 4,160 cases of COVID-19 in Delaware and five additional deaths, bringing the total to 125 fatalities. Almost two-thirds of the deaths involve long-term care facilities.
Meanwhile, some owners of small businesses are chafing at having to remain closed under Carney’s emergency declaration while big-box retailers such as Lowe’s and Walmart are allowed to operate.
“If Walmart which sells jewelry, furniture, collectibles can be open with loads of people to shop, why can’t my business have 4 to 6 people come in?” wondered Mauria Stein of Stuart Kingston Gallery in Rehoboth.
Foremost on the minds of many business owners is whether economic restrictions will be lifted in time for them to try to save the make-or-break summer tourist season.
“We really need guidance so that we can start getting ready,” said Mariah Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. She wondered whether Delaware officials are coordinating with their counterparts in neighboring states in assessing the summer tourist season.
“We are trying to make sure we don’t cause troubles for each other,” answered Foreman, one of three Delaware representatives on a seven-state coalition of Northeastern states working together on reopening their economies.
Lyn Shoop of Dewey Beach Rentals wondered whether officials would take different standards into account when deciding when to lift the current ban on short-term rentals.
“Opening a single-family home would be different than opening a hotel,” she noted.
Damian DeStefano, director of the Delaware Division of Small Business, told Shoop that officials are mindful of creating “competitive inequities” between businesses operating in the same economic sector.
Meanwhile, restaurant owner Thierry Langer suggested that, in order to reopen while complying with social distancing requirements, restaurants should be allowed to significantly increase their outdoor seating — even if it means shutting commercial thoroughfares to vehicles and making them pedestrian-only.
“I think that’s a way to have our local industry survive,” said Langer, owner of Kaisy’s Delights in Rehoboth.
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