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Businesses Tiptoe Into a World of Masks, Gloves and Wary - Press "Enter" to skip to content

Businesses Tiptoe Into a World of Masks, Gloves and Wary Customers


ATLANTA — Weeks after a deadly virus reordered daily life in America, shuttering most businesses and forcing most people indoors, three states on Friday took tentative steps toward something resembling normalcy. But across Georgia, Alaska and Oklahoma, it was anything but business as usual.

A barber giving a trim in Atlanta, with a face mask and latex gloves in place, was dressed more like a surgeon preparing for an appendectomy. Beauty salons were asking customers to sign legal waivers before they had their hair colored or curled. And Georgia officials recommended that salon owners perform temperature checks at their entrances.

Not everybody listened.

Chris Edwards opened his Atlanta barbershop on Friday at 7 a.m., just as he did before the pandemic swept the country. He wore a blue surgical mask and squeezed his hands into latex gloves that barely covered his palms. He did not think he would be busy, given the controversy over the governor’s order to let shops like his reopen in Georgia.

And yet a modest stream of customers soon arrived, some braving the wait inside in chairs spread several feet apart, others hanging out just outside the door or in their cars.

“I didn’t think I would be slammed,” Mr. Edwards, 47, said. “Some people are scared to get out. I get it.”

The relaxed rules varied in the handful of states that took initial steps this week to reopen. Most of the nation was being far more circumspect, aware that the United States has turned into the country with the highest number of known cases. Although there are signs that the alarming growth in Covid-19 infections has slowed, the national death toll continues to climb, with more than 45,000 deaths combined across every state, Washington, D.C., and four U.S. territories.

On Friday, there were little windows opening: Alaska allowed limited in-store shopping at retail stores. Oklahoma reopened its state parks. South Carolina, which was in front of the rest of the country in its effort to draw residents out of their homes, once again allowed access to public beaches.

Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa on Friday said she would allow farmers’ markets to reopen and let doctors perform nonessential surgeries beginning on Monday. That came as the state health department announced that the state had confirmed 521 new coronavirus cases and 11 deaths in a 24-hour period, its largest one-day jump in cases.

Some other states — including Pennsylvania, Illinois and North Carolina — were being far more cautious, with governors announcing extensions of their stay-at-home orders for another few weeks.

And in New York, where deaths from the virus continued their gradual descent, with the state recording 422 on Thursday, the smallest number since April 1, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he would not decide until next week whether to keep New York City’s schools closed for the rest of the academic year.

The state-by-state approach meant there was no one unified strategy for reopening the nation.

Supporters of the relaxed rules said it was time to end the stranglehold on states’ economies and allow business owners to open when they were ready.

Mr. Trump signed a $484 billion relief bill into law on Friday, replenishing a fund for small businesses strapped by the lockdowns and providing money for hospitals and increased testing, as the Congressional Budget Office said it expected the federal budget deficit to hit $3.7 trillion for the 2020 fiscal year and unemployment to hover at about 12 percent.

State Representative Kasey Carpenter, a Georgia Republican who represents the city of Dalton, plans to open the two restaurants he owns with limited seating starting on Monday, when Mr. Kemp’s order allows restaurants to begin dine-in service again.

Mr. Carpenter lauded the governor’s decision, and compared the situation, favorably, to the aftermath of a shark attack: Some beachgoers, he said, would rush right back into the water. Others would stay safely on the sand.

In most of Alaska, rules for restaurants, while formally allowing them to reopen, were so tightly constrained that it would not make economic sense for most to open, at least anytime soon, said Sarah Oates, the president and chief executive of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association.

Indoor seating in restaurants there is limited to 25 percent capacity, and tables must be 10 feet apart, measured edge to edge.

In Midwest City, Okla., customers sat in pickup trucks outside Joe’s Barber Shop on Friday morning, waiting for their turn to go in one at a time. After shutting down for five weeks, the owner, Joe Gann, said he was booked for appointments all day.

“I’m glad it’s starting to open up,” Mr. Gann said, speaking through a white surgical mask as he gave a customer a tight crew cut. He had grown frustrated during the shutdown, wondering whether officials had overreacted.

But not everyone was so quick to return to business. Two storefronts down, a nail salon was still shuttered. And in Norman, Okla., where Mayor Breea Clark had issued a stay-at-home order, local restrictions remained in effect until at least May 1.

In South Carolina, traffic was light along the Savannah Highway, a typically bustling corridor of car dealerships, restaurants and stores near Charleston. Grocery stores were busy, but most of the locally owned shops and all the spas and salons remained shuttered.

In Georgia, Mr. Kemp received the most national attention — and condemnation — for his particularly aggressive plan, which takes place even as the virus continues its rampage and despite guidance from federal health officials that states should first record 14 days of a downward trajectory of cases. Georgia began the month with fewer than 5,000 known cases and fewer than 160 coronavirus deaths. In about three weeks, that figure has grown to 20,905 cases and 871 deaths, the majority of them black residents, even though they account for about one-third of the state’s population.

A few hours before the first barbershops opened, Mr. Kemp again defended his decision on Twitter. “Now, with favorable data and approval from state health officials, we are taking another measured step forward by opening shuttered businesses for limited operations,” he wrote.

Atlanta on Friday hardly felt like a city back to normal. Streets typically snarled with traffic still experienced a light trickle of vehicles. A number of stores that were allowed to open — hair places, nail salons, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys — remained shut.

Midtown Bowl, a 60-year-old Atlanta staple, was dark. But 25 minutes away in the suburb of Kennesaw, Ga., Bowlero, a sprawling bowling alley and arcade, had opened with special hours. All of the games were lit up and the prize counter was staffed, yet no one was playing. Bowlers were using only a couple of lanes.

In the Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead, cars cruised by Mr. Kemp’s office, drivers honking their displeasure in a planned motor protest. A sign affixed to one car highlighted the first letters of the governor’s last name, declaring, “Killing Everyone’s Meemaw Prematurely.”

The Georgia cosmetology board issued guidelines for reopening spas and salons, suggesting the use of masks for clients and workers, temperature checks with infrared thermometers, screening questions (“Have you had a cough? Have you had a fever?”), and by-appointment-only rules. But the guidelines were not being followed in many reopened salons visited on Friday.

In one neighborhood, a tattoo and piercing parlor called Be Iinked was busy, with 10 customers crammed into the small space. Brian Penn, the shop owner, was offering $10 piercings to walk-ins to his nearly 40,000 Instagram followers for the first day back open, and many people were taking advantage.

Mr. Penn said they were being careful to keep things disinfected. But he was not wearing a mask, and only some workers and customers had them on. No one’s temperature was being taken. And while he said he was concerned about safety, he also wondered if the virus was as dangerous as had been reported.

“I still say stay at home,” said Amanda Jackson, a customer and a nurse at the public hospital downtown. But she made an exception for her birthday — to get a tongue piercing.

At the Silver Star barbershop in the heart of Sweet Auburn, one of Atlanta’s most storied African-American neighborhoods, there were three barbers with gloves and masks, and two men without masks getting haircuts.

“People will have to get the word out that we’re open,” said Will Edwards, a co-owner of the shop. “It’s going to take some time.”

Mr. Edwards said he supported the governor’s order allowing places like his to open. “If people don’t want to come, they don’t have to,” he said.

Mr. Edwards said the barbershop applied for a federal loan from the Small Business Administration but had not received any assistance. That left the business little choice but to open its doors, he said. It was not checking customers’ temperatures with infrared thermometers because he had not received the shipment he had ordered.

Some health experts and activists argue that the reopening of businesses could increase the risks for infection among the most vulnerable, noting that many of those returning to their jobs will be low-income workers who have limited access to health care.

Activists have noted the racial and socioeconomic disparities among those who have received coronavirus diagnoses, and the overlap with who has less access to health care.

“One of the things that concerns us greatly,” said Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, who is part of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, “is this rush for going back to work is built on a premise that our workers and our people are replaceable.”

Experts said it was critical for more widespread testing to be conducted to help protect these workers.

“Otherwise, we are sending our people into a roaring furnace to get burned up,” said Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, a professor of community health and preventive medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Reporting was contributed by Sonam Vashi from Atlanta; Kirk Johnson from Seattle; Sarah Mervosh from Canton, Ohio; Ben Fenwick from Midwest City, Okla.; and Chris Dixon from Charleston, S.C.


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