Risky business: Dover, Milford adjust within challenging times

DOVER — An anticipated Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brew restaurant, along with TenderBones Rib Shack, have yet to open in Dover, both caught up in what City Planner Dave Hugg referred to as “never-never land” amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Mr. Hugg said the establishments have just been victims of bad timing during the pandemic and that both still have plans to open their doors, hopefully soon.

Both Mr. Hugg and Rob Pierce, city planner for Milford, said that it has been surprisingly close to “business as usual” over the past couple of months following Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency declaration in March, which closed numerous small businesses in both cities.

The city planners expect business activities to pick up in their respective cities next Monday when Phase 1 of the governor’s economic reopening plan goes into effect, which is designed to allow retail establishments — including small businesses — and restaurants to expand operations while maintaining social distancing to prevent spread of COVID-19.

While Mr. Hugg and Mr. Pierce both said they can understand the pain that small business owners have experienced under the state of emergency, their respective city planning and inspection offices have remained surprisingly busy over the past two months.

“It’s been difficult … I wouldn’t describe it necessarily as ‘trying,’” Mr. Hugg said. “We had to make some adjustments obviously to minimize any contact face-to-face with anybody. We’ve pretty much done that. We’ve only had a couple of limited occasions where we’ve had to meet with somebody, and then in those cases we’ve had masks, the social distancing and all the rules.

“It’s kind of strange when you’re used to interacting with people sort of one-on-one as necessary and now you have to go through and figure out how you can stay six-feet apart and meet all the rules or do a conference call or Webex.”

Mr. Hugg said building applications have been slightly down for Dover but didn’t attribute it to COVID-19.

“Some of it was a factor of we had a lot of big projects last year, which typically means you don’t have too many big projects this year — that’s the cyclical nature of permitting,” he said.

Mr. Hugg said he returned to his office at Dover City Hall on Tuesday after working from home for the past couple of months and said his staff has remained busy over the past couple of months.

“We’ve been getting a reasonable number of applications,” said Mr. Hugg. “I’m sure it’s down from last year, but surprisingly, we’ve been seeing a steady number of activity. My building and inspections people have been in here every day processing documents and arranging inspections and what have you. They’ve been pretty busy.

“Some of those people, unfortunately, their timing was really bad. When I came by (Tuesday) it looked like the Crab Du Jour (restaurant at 889 N. Dupont Highway) might be open or opening, but a couple of them are just in that never-never land.”

He added, “For example, Hobby Lobby plans are here, and they’re being reviewed and they’re moving forward, and Red Robin is pretty much ready to open. The big new office building out there on Bay Road is under construction and moving along. We’ll probably get plans from the two new (Capital School District) middle schools here in a couple of months, so it’s been pretty busy.”

Mr. Pierce said that Milford has been experiencing many of the same sort of things, with a Surf and Turf restaurant still waiting to open.

“We’ve continued to perform building inspections,” he said. “The executive order from the governor didn’t stop construction. I know the movie theater (being built at the former Walmart/Sitel building next to Food Lion in Milford), is still building and moving towards completing the construction project, as are similar projects. We had a couple of other ones break ground during the shutdown.

“There’s a medical office building over on Silicato Parkway that started erecting steel here maybe last week or the week before. I think a lot of the things that were pending or were in the beginning stages of construction are forging forward.”

Signs of life around the corner

Mr. Hugg and Mr. Pierce believe that business activity will be picking up the pace more quickly once several government restrictions that have been placed on what were labeled “non-essential businesses” begin to loosen up next Monday.

That’s the day when Delaware retailers and restaurants are scheduled to open their indoor spaces at 30 percent of stated fire capacity during Phase 1 of the state’s economic reopening. The additional interim steps are designed to give retailers and restaurants new ways to safely expand their operations by appointment and outdoors.

“This is another step forward in the rolling reopening of Delaware’s economy,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “It’s our hope that these additional steps will safely bring some relief to Delaware businesses and workers who have made real financial sacrifices during this COVID-19 crisis.

“But as we reopen, Delawareans should stay vigilant. Keep your distance from others. Wear a face covering in public settings. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently. That’s how we’ll limit community spread of COVID-19 and get Delaware’s economy back going again.”

Mr. Hugg said the wheels will start to turn again next week for the many small businesses who have felt the brunt of the state of emergency restrictions.

“A lot of things will start happening in the next week or so because of the governor putting out all the June 1 regulations and allowing businesses to start open up again and I’m starting to see some activity there,” he said. “People are starting to get back to something approaching normal.”

Mr. Pierce said he has been tuned into many of the developments that have been taking place behind the scenes prior to the start of Phase 1 next Monday.

“I’ve sat in on a lot of the conference calls or Zoom meetings with the different economic development agencies and the state and there’s just a general feeling, I think, particularly from a lot of the smaller businesses that have been closed down, that they just want to reopen,” he said. “They also wanted to know from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or the state what they should be doing or what the precautions should be.

“I think they’re trying to put together a 10-point checklist of things that the businesses can do so that they’re compliant and the state can give them some kind of sticker to put in their windows saying that this business is meeting the standards set forth by the state.”

Nonetheless, it will still be far from business as usual as retail establishments – including but not limited to clothing and shoe stores, used merchandise retailers and florists – will only be able to operate by appointment only and can only accept two appointments per half hour while adhering to strict social distancing and cleaning guidance from the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH) and the CDC.

“I think we’re going to see businesses start to come back and I think some of the hair salons, barbershops and places like that, we’ll probably see them start to get open again,” Mr. Hugg said.

Adjusting to the times

One way that restaurants, bars, tap rooms and craft breweries might take advantage of the “operate at 30 percent capacity rule” is to add additional outdoor seating. There have been many businesses in Dover and Milford that have been discussing that option.

“I’ve had conversations with at least one food establishment that is entertaining the idea (of expanded outside seating) and I think they are looking for some direction on that,” Mr. Pierce said. “I think the city (of Milford) will want to be flexible during this time to allow those types of combinations to (help businesses) on a temporary basis.”

Mr. Hugg expects a large increase in those type of requests.

“I expect we’re going to see some requests from folks to open up either existing patios or use some temporary space for outdoor dining,” he said. “Vincenzo’s (Italian Restaurant) got permission at the end of last week to put some tables out at what used to be the drive-thru at the bank where they’re now located. We’re still trying to figure out how to handle some of these outside dining requests.”

While many people might think that COVID-19 has led to total business disaster this year, that has not necessarily been the case, while small businesses have taken a huge hit.

“We’re currently on a pace to build 200 new homes in Milford this year, which is the number of houses that were built in the city last year,” Mr. Pierce said. “So, the city itself has remained busy throughout (the pandemic).”

Both city planners for Dover and Milford also agree that while next week’s Phase 1 is not going to be business as usual, at least it’s going to be a little bit closer to normal.

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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