Ready to roll: Delaware businesses begin Phase 1 opening

Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder Rehoboth Beach workers set up barriers to allow for outdoor dining and pedestrian safety along Rehoboth Avenue on Saturday.

Wondering when the business closures would hit was like “watching a thunderstorm coming off in the distance,” said Mike Tigue, general manager for the Inn at Canal Square in Lewes.

“And then all of a sudden we’re in the midst of it,” he continued. “All of a sudden we started getting five and 10 cancellations every day, and then 15 to 20 cancellations, to the point then when the governor just shut us down and we had to call all of our remaining reservations for the next month and a half. That kind of was a shock to the system.”

For many businesses in the state, that thunderstorm ebbs today as Delaware enters Phase 1 of its recovery plan. The phase softens restrictions on businesses like hotels, restaurants and retail establishments, but maintains the need for face coverings in public settings, strict social distancing and hygiene and disinfecting practices.

During Phase 1, capacity will be limited to 30 percent of fire code occupancy, excluding staff. Many businesses, including casinos and fitness centers, reopen today after being shut down since mid-March. Eat-in dining returns to restaurants, which have been limited to delivery and take-out.

“The last couple of months have been very trying. It’s been very dismal, and I don’t think any of us have ever seen, in our lifetime, where our companies have been closed down like this,” noted Judy Diogo, president for the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce. “So it’s been very difficult for the business community in Delaware.”

At the Inn at Canal Square, prepping for reopening began three weeks ago, as housekeeping returned to “tear down the rooms and essentially do a forensic cleaning of every room,” Mr. Tigue said. In addition to that, the staff do “electrostatic disinfecting,” which hospitals and public areas of cities were also utilizing.

The business model will also adapt as the hotel begins to reopen for the summer, switching its typical continental breakfast to prepackaged items that are more grab-and-go.

The Hyatt in Dewey Beach saw a quiet April, like the industry did globally, said general manager Drew DiFonzo. The complex, which is multi-use, remained open as people quarantined in condos and the hotel was open to essential personnel.

“It’s been really interesting. Just even the simplest task of taking someone’s credit card, you have to relook at that and change the way you’ve always done it because you want to try to stop the passing on of germs or not sanitizing certain items, so it’s definitely been an educational experience,” Mr. DiFonzo said.

In May, the hotel picked up a National Guard group, which had them running at about 25% occupancy every day in the month, he added.
“So much better than April, but definitely, comparatively speaking to where we usually are at this time of year, very quiet,” he said.

Day-to-day, the staff has adapted to continuously update its response to operating amid the virus.

Today, when the hotel can begin to accept guests they haven’t been able to for months, the business will continue to stay-up-to-date in its ways of checking people in, serving food and cleaning, he said.

“It’s definitely been different. We clean rooms differently than we’ve ever cleaned rooms before, focusing really on high-touch areas, such as light switches, remote controls,” Mr. DiFonzo said. “You’re removing items out of the room that could potentially be high touch, like collateral pieces or pens, notepads, anything that would be in a room that you can’t really clean and that we normally would reuse.”

At Westown Movies in Middletown, staff returned last week to begin reading through the policies they must follow, and began preparing markings of 6-foot increments, installing sneeze shields and locating masks for all the employees, said managing member/owner Arthur Helmick.

“We just went in to try to figure all that out and, luckily, our lobbies are large so we’ll be able to make this work pretty well,” he said.

Both Westown and the Inn at Canal Square are taking precautions in distancing. When moviegoers buy tickets for their assigned seats, the seats around them will be blocked off from purchasing. Groups of households will be able to sit next to each other. When travelers check into their rooms at the Inn, only odd number rooms will be available to start.

Barriers are set up in front of Grotto’s in Rehoboth Beach.

Blooming Boutique owner Michiko Seto said her biggest priority is making customers feel safe when they come back to her stores throughout the state, from Lewes to Millsboro to Milford.

“We’ve been ready for two months; we could have had one-on-one appointments since we closed because we went and made sure we have steamers that can steam the clothing at 142 degrees, and just having one person in the store with someone else with a mask on,” she explained. “We have plenty of masks, plenty of sanitizers. We even have little infrared wands and stuff like that. So we’ve got all the tools, now it’s just we need to get to business.”

The unanticipated changes to their businesses have also been a hurdle as their doors open. Ms. Seto noted that the stores have products that should have sold in the spring, and summer products should be stocked. But they will be adding hand sanitizers to their shelves, which can be refilled when customers come back in.

Release dates for many films were ultimately pushed back to the fall, so the theater will be showing some recent and older releases, at $3.99 when Westown opens Wednesday.

“It’ll be running just like a normal theater, but we’re just going to reduce the prices,” Mr. Helmick said.

The business community, however, all feel that there will be a sense of hesitation from consumers.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a big run on anything,” Ms. Diogo said. “I think people are going to come back cautiously.”

Ms. Seto agreed, noting that she thinks people are still concerned.

“I mean, I’m hoping people want to come back out, because this is really going to be a tough year for any type of small business or restaurant,” Ms. Seto said.

Gradually, things have been improving for the Inn at Canal Square, Mr. Tigue said, with travelers booking accommodations once more.

“In our area, in the Lewes area, mostly because the typical Lewes traveler is usually 55 or older, I think we’re not going to see as much of the beach-goers as they do in Dewey, Rehoboth, Bethany or even Ocean City, [Maryland],” he said. “I think a lot of our travelers are going to be a little cautious. We’ve already gotten a lot of questions asking about what we’ve done in our rooms, what we’re doing differently, what restaurants are going to open and what the restaurant policies are, and the different aspects of that.”

Caution is something that will be emphasized to both staff and guests as hotels open back up, Mr. DiFonzo said, but he does foresee an enthusiastic response to coming to the beach.

He noted that nearby Ocean City is a bit ahead of Delaware in reopening, where the Hyatt’s company also has hotels.

“All of our hotels sold out last weekend,” he said.

He said that it was a holiday, “but we fully anticipate a wave of business to come to the beach.”

“I think people want to come to the beach, but we have to do that in a safe way, and I think people will be more cautious,” he continued.

Generally, the businesses hope for a successful return.

Mr. Tigue is optimistic they’ll have a summer similar to how Memorial Day weekend played out, where people respected the guidelines, he said.

“Even though a lot of things weren’t open, the beaches were open and all that and that it actually went really well,” he said. “So I’m pretty hopeful that the summer is going to end up the same way.”

Mr. Helmick said that, in the past, the community seems to come together in the lobby of the theater, catching up with people they haven’t seen in a bit. There’s that same camaraderie of watching a movie, he said.

“What’s better than sitting in a big room and watching a movie, and people are — they’re not totally strangers, you live in the same community, but you don’t know each other, but yet you share the experience because you can hear it, when something happens and people go, ‘Oh,’ or, ‘Ah,’ or they laugh or they clap,” he said. “It happens instantaneously and it gives you a validity to the fact that, ‘They feel what I feel watching that. They’re moved by what I was just moved by.’”

Ms. Diogo emphasized that if people feel unsafe or uncomfortable shopping as businesses begin opening up, the first phase is not “forcing them to do anything,” she noted.

Those who do feel comfortable, she added, should still be cautious and follow the guidelines laid forth in Phase 1.

“The last thing we want to see is anyone getting sick. No one wants that to happen,” she said. “We all have to do our part now as consumers. Our business people are doing their part; they have readied their places of business, they have reconfigured what their stores look like, they have reconfigured how they will operate, how they will address their customers, how their customer-interaction is going to be. They have done all that; they’ve taken all the precautions.”

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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