May 13, 2020 — “We’ve joined the rest of the world in facing this historic pandemic head-on, taking extraordinary measures to save lives,” Gov. Kate Brown said in public remarks last Thursday as she unveiled specific details on reopening the state, including guidelines for retail stores, restaurants and bars and personal services, along with guidelines for the general public.
It had been two months since the state began to shut down in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. On Thursday, Oregon officials stated the measures worked, with the state ranking the fourth lowest in the nation for infections per 100,000.
But now Brown and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) are faced with balancing reopening the state to bolster the economy, while simultaneously preventing the spread of a disease that still little is known about.
Over the past week, the state has been releasing specific guidelines for a variety of businesses, including outdoor businesses and spas. Siuslaw News looked at three businesses to understand what the requirements may bring — retail stores, bars and restaurants, and personal services, such as beauty salons and barber shops.
For many businesses, the requirements are minimal and could potentially cause few disruptions. However, others could see a steep loss in clientele or be prevented from opening up all together in the state’s blueprint for the new normal.
When will we begin to reopen?
To reopen, each county must prove to the state that it can meet specific guidelines, including declining COVID prevalence, a contact tracing system and sufficient healthcare capacity. If that criteria is met, the county can begin to reopen this Friday, May 15.
Lane County was one of the first counties to submit a reopening plan, and all indications from state officials point to the request being approved, though at press time Tuesday, no official announcement has been made.
The county’s application lists a host of measures it has taken to help curb the spread, from additional testing capacity to stronger contract tracing protocols. So far, the county has seen few cases, though it pointed out that testing in the early parts of the pandemic were limited. However, the rates of hospitalizations due to COVID have been minimal, and the county believes it can respond to any flare ups that occur.
Even if the county’s application is rejected, “standalone furniture stores, boutiques, art galleries and jewelry shops” will be allowed to open on March 15, regardless of the county’s status, the state said.
What will retail stores look like?
Retail stores will see the least amount of requirements, beginning with maintaining at least six feet of distance between employees and customers.
“Store management should determine maximum occupancy to maintain at least six feet of physical distancing, considering areas of the store prone to crowding (like aisles) and limit admittance accordingly,” the OHA wrote in a list of rules and regulations.
Stores must post clear signs listing COVID symptoms, encouraging physical distancing, and asking customers with symptoms to stay home.
“Frequently clean and sanitize work areas, high-traffic areas and commonly touched surfaces in both customer/public and employee areas of the store,” OHA wrote. “Wipe down changing room doorknobs, walls and seating between each customer use.”
Finally, all employees are required to wear cloth, paper or disposable face coverings, with no exceptions being listed. Businesses must provide those coverings for employees.
However, customers — although encouraged — are not required to wear masks.
“Strongly encourage all customers to wear cloth, paper or disposable face coverings,” OHA said. “If a store sets a policy that all customers are required to wear cloth, paper or disposable face coverings, store management should consult with their legal counsel to determine whether such a requirement can be enforced.”
The state has not required citizens to wear masks, though it strongly suggests people do so, particularly in enclosed settings or while indoors. Instead, the state has put the onus on businesses to decide on whether to require customers to wear a mask —putting businesses in a difficult position. While on one hand there’s the safety of their clients and employees, the majority of handmade masks don’t protect the person wearing them from contracting the virus. Instead, they help prevent the wearer from spreading the virus. Because of that, current mandates protect customers, but not employees.
However, it’s not always easy for businesses to require or even request face masks be worn. Nationally, businesses and states have faced boycotts, social media harassment, with people threatening physical violence against employees — including, in one case, the fatal shooting of a security guard who had asked a customer to wear a mask.
Without clear guidance from the state, a business can be faced with a decision of either potentially endangering the health of its employees or the health of its bottom line.
There are other suggestions that OHA makes that retail stores should follow “to the extent possible,” but are not required. These include encouraging one-way flow with marked entrances and exits, placing clear barriers in front of cashiers and prohibiting customers from trying on items that are worn on the face, such as cloth masks, scarves, headbands and eyewear.
What will a restaurant or bar look like?
The most notable change in restaurants will be how they are set up.
“Ensure tables are spaced at least six feet apart so that at least six feet between parties is maintained, including when customers approach or leave tables,” OHA requirements stated.
Bar seating that faces an employee, such as a bartender, are prohibited, though tables facing a window or wall are acceptable if a six-feet distance is maintained.
It’s up to businesses to determine seating configurations, but they are allowed to remove seating or blocking off every other booth.
Only parties of 10 or less will be accepted, though they do not have to be six feet apart when sitting.
As for employees, “meticulous hand hygiene” is a must, and employees must wear gloves when cleaning and sanitizing. All employees must wear face coverings, even if they work primarily in the kitchen area.
However, customers are not required to wear masks while seated at their table. Obviously, eating with a mask is not viable, but some recent studies have shown that diners without a mask may be particularly vulnerable to catching the virus while sitting in a restaurant. Airflow from air conditioning units or opening doors spread the virus around the enclosed area, which in turn spreads to diners sitting for an extended period of time. However, the science surrounding the spread of COVID-19 is still evolving, and it remains unclear exactly how much risk is involved when eating in a restaurant.
Buffets, salad bars and soda refill stations are banned, as are karaoke machines, pool tables and bowling. However, video lottery terminals will be allowed if users can be six feet apart and the machines are cleaned after use.
Finally, restaurants and bars must “End all on-site consumption of foods and drinks, including alcoholic beverages, by 10 p.m.,” the OHA wrote.
The stated justification for the rule is that as the night wears on and when alcohol gets involved, inhibitions are loosened and social distancing guidelines could be ignored or harder to enforce as a result.
There are a host of non-required requests by OHA, including assigning a designated greeter or host to manage customer flow. Reservations are encouraged, and it is suggested businesses should “assign employees to monitor customer access to common areas, such as restrooms, to ensure that customers do not congregate.”
What will personal services look like?
Customers are required to make an appointment, which includes a prescreening for COVID.
“Contact client prior to appointment and ask, ‘Have you had a cough? Have you had a fever? Have you had shortness of breath? Have you been in close contact with anyone with these symptoms or anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 14 days?’” requires the OHA.
If the answer is “yes” to any of the above, the appointment needs to be rescheduled.
If the answer is “no,” the business should review information on how COVID is spread, then gather the client’s contact information for any possible investigation.
“If there is a positive COVID-19 case associated with the business, public health may need the business to provide this information for a contact tracing investigation,” OHA wrote. “Unless otherwise required, this information may be destroyed after 60 days from the appointment.”
Employers must immediately send home any employee with COVID-19 like symptoms until 72 hours after symptoms have cleared.
When a client arrives, they must “wait in their car or outside to be contacted when the provider is ready for the appointments,” wrote the OHA. When the client does enter, all magazines, service menus, snacks and beverages must have been removed.
Temperature checks for arriving clients is highly suggested, but not required.
Social distancing will still be enforced, except for provider-to-client contact. In addition, only one provider is allowed to work with a client during the appointment. Providers must also be wearing face coverings while working with clients, while clients have to wear a clean cape, if applicable, for the appointment. Providers are allowed to use disposable capes.
Finally, there are several cleaning requirements. While many reflect standard practices, there are new requirements, including requiring clients to wash their hands before services begin. Employees must also wash their hands after “using the telephone, computer, cash register and/or credit card machine, and wipe these surfaces between each use.”
Of the three types of businesses reviewed, personal services has the longest list of requirements and suggestions.
Will all businesses be able to reopen with the restrictions?
Multiple businesses have remained open during the shutdown while adhering to the majority of requirements listed by OHA, though some have been lax, particularly when it comes to employees wearing masks. However, it is hoped that the majority of businesses will be able to reopen in some capacity.
But the requirements will cause some to remain closed, particularly small businesses.
Because restaurants have to remove tables for social distancing, they could see a dramatic decrease in customers they can serve in one day, with some small restaurants forced to reduce to just a few tables. The 10 p.m. curfews on dine-in service could also reduce clientele for late-night bars and diners, leading to low overall sales.
For cash-strapped independent retail stores, cleaning requirements can be an issue, as the extra costs for supplies could hurt an already tight profit margin. And all businesses may have difficulties obtaining cleaning supplies, as nationwide shortages have caused delays in manufacturing and delivery.
And all local businesses will likely see a marked decline in clients due to OHA’s suggestion regarding at-risk residents.
“To avoid exposure to COVID-19, people who are at risk for severe complications (over age 60 or have underlying medical conditions) should stay home even if you feel well,” the OHA wrote.
When will tourism come back?
Statewide, residents are not required to stay within their areas, but it is highly recommended.
“Stay close to home,” OHA advised. “Avoid overnight trips and minimize other non-essential travel, including recreational day trips to destinations outside the community where you live. Travel the minimum distance needed to obtain essential services; in rural areas, residents may have to travel greater distances for essential services, while in urban areas, residents may only need to travel a few miles for those services.”
While these suggestions are ultimately up to personal choice, there are other restrictions that could blunt tourism in the summer months.
Oregon coast state parks such as Jessie M. Honeyman, which attracts thousands of tourists in the summer, will continue to be closed.
As for concerts and festivals, “Restarting events of this size will require a reliable treatment or prevention, like a vaccine, which is many months off,” Brown said.
However, she didn’t rule out festivals entirely, if organizers can get creative.
Of the Oregon State Fair, Brown said, “Some aspects of the fair could continue with physical distancing, face coverings and limiting the number of people.”
However, locally, the Lane County Fair scheduled in July announced Monday that it will not be taking place this year.
But the virus itself could be the biggest halt to tourism. Statistical models on the future of COVID are wide ranging, with some predicting a large, national spike in cases during the next few months. Others show a spike in the fall, or possibly winter. None have shown that the threat of COVID-19 is over.
Will these regulations stop the spread?
“We are venturing into uncharted territory, safely reopening businesses in the midst of a pandemic,” OHA Director Patrick Allen said during the press conference.
Relatively little is known about COVID-19, as state and county officials frequently point out testing was, and in some cases still is, limited.
It is unknown exactly how widespread the virus is in Oregon, how exactly it has spread, or how deadly the disease actually is.
While the rapidly changing science surrounding COVID may change the need for some restrictions, right now the only effective method of abatement that is known is social distancing. This is what OHA has based its requirements on.
But no one requirement has been proven to stop the spread of COVID, and many of the requirements are still not universally accepted in the medical community. While the Centers for Disease Control maintains six feet is a reliable average for social distancing, the World Health Organization only recommends three feet. However, a recent study by MIT has found that COVID can travel up to 27 feet in specific circumstances.
Without clear scientific evidence, OHA is relying on a variety of methods that could stunt multiple possibilities of infections.
“Let me be clear, these choices are not easy,” Brown said, explaining how COVID cases will increase in Oregon as it reopens, even with requirements and suggestions being followed. The goal is not so much to stamp out COVID completely, but to ensure the virus does not spread to the point that it overwhelms medical staff.
“We’re not in the clear, in the country or in our state. COVID infections could spike quickly, if we aren’t careful — all of us,” the governor said
While the state has not mandated such suggestions like masks and restricting travel, they are counting on citizens to follow those rules to ensure stricter measures are not needed.
These suggestions include staying home if they are sick, practicing good hygiene, maintaining social distance and wearing masks.
Is this the new normal?
If a county is accepted into “Phase I,” it has 21 days before it can qualify for Phase II.
During that time, counties have to avoid certain red flags. This includes an inability to meet contact tracing requirements, evidence of increased prevalence of COVID-19 over seven days, or a rise in hospital admission over a seven-day period.
“If any of these metrics are violated, OHA will call an immediate meeting with local public health officials for further discussion and evaluation,” Brown stated.
At that point, a county, or a specific region, could have Phase 1 extended, or even reduced to shut-down level restrictions.
If a county passes all requirements, it will enter Phase II, which will “further expand gathering size, allow some office work, plus begin to allow visitation to congregate care,” Brown said.
Phase II could also see an easing of restrictions on businesses placed in Phase 1. Further details were not forthcoming as of press time.
If a county is able to meet requirements for 21 days in Phase II, it’s possible that it could enter into Phase III, which would represent low risk for COVID and a return to normal. In this stage, concerts, fairs and crowded sports events are allowed.
But the governor reported that these events will be unlikely until a reliable treatment or vaccine is found.
“This virus is still very dangerous, and it still poses a great threat,” Brown said during her conference. “Until there’s a vaccine, unfortunately, we will not be able to go back to life as we knew it in Oregon or, frankly, anywhere.”
Despite the difficulties that many businesses face with the restrictions, there are multiple avenues for financial assistance.
(Editor’s note: In next week’s edition, Siuslaw News will look at a variety of these measures, as well as the rights of employees and employers while working in the new normal.)