Delaware small businesses reopen, albeit with stringent rules

Joseph Chilcote owner of Timeless Barber Shop in Dover uses clippers on Amante Nonkes on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Some of Delaware’s small businesses felt as if handcuffs have been wrapped tightly around their wrists since being shut down in March by Gov. John Carney due to the coronavirus (COVID-19).

However, most enjoyed the feeling of the restraints getting just a little bit looser on Friday.

That marked the day that clothing and shoe stores, book and music stores, department stores, used merchandise stores and other retailers were given the OK to reopen by utilizing curbside pickup, but social distancing had to be maintained.

Barbers and hair stylists were allowed to reopen but could only provide haircuts to people who worked at “essential businesses.” They also had stringent guidelines such as no more than two appointments at a time per location, a period of 15 minutes to properly clean up between haircuts, as well as numerous other restrictions. Jewelry stores could offer services by appointment only.

Earl Teat Music employee Donny Marvel shows a customer a Gibson Humming Bird Deluxe acoustic guitar during curbside service in Dover on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Most business owners seemed to be in agreement that, well, it’s a start.

One business owner even decided to open her doors even though it doesn’t appear to meet the criteria to open — Paradise Tans in Dover.

“It’s been two months and it’s expensive to run a business,” said Amber Roof, owner of Paradise Tans. “Overhead doesn’t stop just because the business does.”

Ms. Roof was not pleased that the small business closures have lasted as long as they have — almost two months.

“Initially, I think there was a valid concern for people’s safety and we obviously needed to get things under control, so I don’t fault the government for the way they responded initially,” she said. “But I think the extent that they’ve gone to at this point is just outrageous.”

On Friday, Gov. Carney said he understands the business owners’ frustration.

“All Delawareans — myself included — are ready to get our economy going again,” the governor said. “But our response to COVID-19 has been driven by the science since Day 1 and will continue to be driven by the science. The good news is our numbers in New Castle and Kent counties continue to move in the right direction. That means Delawareans are doing their part. They’ve stayed at home and practiced social distancing.

“Over the next couple weeks, we will build on the interim steps we took (Friday), allowing certain small businesses to safely operate curbside, or by appointment only. We have heard the voices of small business owners loud and clear and expect to move forward with a rolling reopening of Delaware’s economy. We will not hesitate to allow additional businesses to open before June 1, if we can do so safely.”

Joseph Chilcote owns Timeless Barbershop in downtown Dover — a couple of steps north of The Green.

Surprisingly, Mr. Chilcote said he thought the governor was opening businesses — particularly hair care establishments — prematurely.

“To have the doors open now it’s great, but it’s not as good as the way as it was back in February when I was able to open my shop,” he said. “Being open now there’s a love/hate relationship with it right now with the virus going around. I think it’s a little too soon for us to open, that’s my personal opinion. I’m sure a lot of other barbers or other shops would probably disagree with me.

“Just to get the PPE (personal protective equipment) in order to open the shop is harder than it looks. It’s great to be open and does give us the ability to start working towards it, but at the same time, they say (cut the hair of ) ‘essential employees only.’ When they say essential, I’m knocking it down a little tighter and making it military, doctors, medical professionals … that’s essential to me.”

Many stores remained closed

Many small businesses in downtown Dover and Milford didn’t look like they were in any hurry to join the curbside pickup business, as the majority of them still had “closed” signs on their front doors on Friday.

Dover City Councilman David Anderson said the state government isn’t doing nearly enough — or fast enough — for small businesses to attempt to recover.

“I am grateful that the legitimate concerns of small businesses are being heard by our governor, but the response seems like crumbs are being served to them while the huge retailers are handed loaves,” Councilman Anderson said. “Europe discovered that small businesses are easier to self-police and no greater threat. Health safety and economic security are being treated like opponents unnecessarily.

“Delaware failed to protect the vulnerable in residential health care facilities for weeks but wasted resources closing small businesses. This approach has cost lives and must be rectified.”

Trish Gerken, executive director of Downtown Milford Inc., said most of the businesses are still adjusting to a new normal when it comes to operating in the age of COVID-19.

“While we are all concerned about the safety and well-being of our citizens, we are also concerned about the longevity and health of our business and economic community,” Ms. Gerken said. “By allowing businesses to slowly and safely open back up to the public is allowing our business community to survive. In meeting with local businesses and other Main Street organizations, there is one common trend: They are anxious to open.

“It is incredible how many of them have adapted so quickly to our new ‘normal.’ From converting to a ‘click and mortar’ model, scheduling visits by appointment only, streaming live on Facebook to sell products, and partnering with other local businesses to offer specials, they have thought of great ideas and tactics to adapt. We are looking forward to having our businesses open up safely and responsibly.”

The partial reopening of small businesses on Friday came on the heels of protests and pleas from some Delawareans to loosen restrictions. The House Republican caucus sent a letter to Gov. Carney last week urging him to reopen immediately, and several hundred people gathered outside of Legislative Hall last Friday to rally against the forced closure of most businesses and other organizations.

Delaware announced its first COVID-19 case March 11. Over the next two weeks, the governor ordered people to stay home except for essential travel and shut down most businesses and nonprofits, including churches.

The result has been “economic carnage,” as Gov. Carney put it on Tuesday, with more than 75,000 Delawareans filing for unemployment since March 11. The country has seen about 30.3 million claims over the previous six weeks.

‘Let’s get back to work’

There are nearly 80,000 small businesses (fewer than 500 employees) operating in Delaware. Small businesses write the paychecks for almost half of Delaware’s private workforce.

That’s one of the reasons that Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen was happy the governor started moving toward decreasing restrictions on small businesses.

“I’m quite pleased that the governor will be easing restrictions on small businesses across the state,” Mayor Christiansen said. “In Dover, the backbone of our economy, particularly in the downtown area of our city and many more which are located throughout the community, are small businesses. These businesses generate approximately 40 percent of the jobs in our city.

“I believe that each of these businesses are vital to the life blood of our economic comeback. If giant box stores can control customer populations and social separation, ‘Mom and Pop’ stores can handle their businesses with the same protocols. Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to business sensibly.”

Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce (CDCC), said businesses know they will have to put new restrictions in place when they reopen amid COVID-19. She doesn’t think they will be reopening their doors haphazardly.

“The CDCC sees this as a positive step in the right direction. It is our hope that the Division of Small Business will be allowing our business establishments to open,” Ms. Diogo said. “We all understand that restrictions and recommendations for operations may be a part of the re-opening strategy. It is our belief that our member businesses are ready to open. We believe that they have systems and plans in place to protect and keep safe both their employers and their customers.

“Allowing our businesses to open is important to the overall health of our community because opening businesses is critical to our economy. Again, we are pleased to see these steps, and we continue to encourage our government entities to allow all of our businesses to open. We need to see the movement forward continue.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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