Area leaders say another business shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic would have a significant impact on area businesses, but some lessons learned during the initial wave of restrictions this year might help prepare for what may come.
There has been a lot learned about the virus since March, and things such as wearing face masks, washing hands often and social distancing have proven critical to slowing the spread, said Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.
"We also know that more recent spread of this virus is occurring by larger, at-home gatherings and not by limited business activity," English said.
Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, on Tuesday announced a new COVID-19 County Alert System
to pinpoint counties with the highest levels of viral spread and offer specific recommendations to bring numbers down, according to a news release.
Officials said that the tool would aid local leaders’ decisions to understand the virus’s spread and make decisions to slow it down.
And last week, the governor lowered the limit on the number of individuals who could gather indoors from 25 to 10, a move officials said was aimed to slow the spread as cold weather moves more people indoors.
Nationally, COVID-19 cases are on the rise as some states across the country begin talks about another shutdown.
In North Carolina, however, those particular talks have not yet surfaced publicly.
For most area leaders, however, another shutdown or added restrictions to business could mean more closures throughout the Wilmington area.
During the first shutdown earlier this year, some businesses had to close for good, English said.
"Small business owners extended credit lines and took on loans to keep their teams on payroll expecting shutdowns would be for a limited period of time," she said. "Many surviving businesses are just now starting to recover and may not survive another shutdown."
English said the chamber, however, is continuing to monitor Cooper's updates for any indication that new restrictions are being considered.
"The business community is doing its part to stop the spread of COVID-19. We need other members of our community to help prevent further shutdowns by following the 3 Ws," she said. "Extended and more extensive shutdowns could mean our friends and neighbors will lose their businesses and jobs.”
Business Alliance for a Sound Economy (BASE) and its partner organizations are constantly talking to elected leaders at all three levels of government, “not just about potential shutdowns, but how to keep our communities safe and the economy moving forward,” said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of BASE.
One lesson learned from the initial lockdown and business restrictions was that clear and consistent communication by decisionmakers is key, he said.
“We have heard very clearly from our members that there is a definite need to communicate accurate, timely information as the situation evolves,” Newman said. “That's especially true in light of Governor Cooper's press conference yesterday [Tuesday] and the shift to the county-specific information and potential local restrictions.”
One of the challenges businesses faced this spring was navigating the various state and local restrictions, “which were overlapping or conflicting and could change quickly,” he said.
“That ended, to a large degree, once the governor announced his phased reopening plan … At the same time, conflicting and confusing restrictions in different parts of the region can be unwieldy for businesses and citizens alike,” Newman said.
There are concerns among those in the downtown business community that the governor would further restrict business occupancy and the hours that alcohol could be sold at establishments statewide, said Terry Espy, president of Downtown Business Alliance (DBA).
“Wilmington, in general, has played by the rules, and it’s kept our outbreak controlled more so than a lot of the rural areas,” she said.
At the local level, one of the big initiatives started by DBA and other partners to help businesses in light of the COVID restrictions this year was a program called Downtown Alive, which helped facilitate the opening up of downtown streets for businesses to have more seating and retail options outdoors.
“The way we set up Downtown Alive, it was intended to be a safe environment and a controlled environment. And it succeeded,” Espy said.
DBA is now going back to the city of Wilmington with a plan to set in place a permanent parklet (the closing off of parking spaces in front of businesses) program to keep up the Downtown Alive initiative, which is slated to end Nov. 22, she said.
“There’s a task force to move forward with a proposal to the city to implement a permanent parklet program … if you look at the cities that are being hit with shutdowns right now, some of them are not allowing any indoor dining, only outdoor dining. And these are cities with weather more extreme than ours,” Espy said.
"The downtown business owners right now are really nervous, because Nov. 22 is the day that the barricades are supposed to be going back," she said. "So we are doing an emergency plea right now to see if the city would allow businesses to even pay for these barricades for the short-term themselves to remain open, just in case we do get an order to close the dining rooms."
Espy is also hoping, along with many businesses, that additional government-led subsidies come out to help offset economic hardships due to the pandemic. Businesses, she said, are going to need the subsidies, adding that the area is possibly "going to see businesses shut their doors during the next couple of winter months."
"A lot of it is really about local support and making sure that if there's a business struggling, that they put the word out so that way, other businesses are aware of it, and we can help each other," Espy added. "We know that the public came out this summer, and has been really supportive of everything that we've done thus far. And what we see in responses on social media is that that support will continue. But we just got to figure out how to keep the doors open, and control the virus and stay safe."
Also in Wilmington, as practices of social distancing and wearing masks are ongoing, a new initiative in partnership with New Hanover Regional Medical Center has rolled out to place 50 hand sanitizer stations throughout downtown, said Dane Scalise, chair of Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) executive board.
"Any new heavy-handed business shutdowns are going to be really burdensome on our business community, not just in downtown but across Wilmington," Scalise said. "And we need to be laser-focused on the effort that we make to ensure that, while we're keeping the public safe, we're also not destroying our businesses at the same time.
"I really hope that the powers that be will make the right decisions when it comes to further shutdown conversations and keep business open," he added. "It's essential that our small businesses have the opportunity to operate."