California Gov. Gavin Newsom

In a few weeks’ time, business in California and some other Western states may be starting to reopen, but how they operate will be much changed.

Unlike the states of Georgia and Texas, which are rapidly moving to a full reopening of business with minimal restrictions even as cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. topped 1 million on Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials laid out a much more cautious phased plan for the lifting of restrictions on nonessential businesses. The plan also broadly includes the states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Nevada, which have all signed on to a Western States Pact to ensure all five states will work together to help limit the spread of the virus.

“We believe we are weeks, not months, away from making meaningful modifications,” Newsom said during a teleconference, referring to the statewide lockdown that told California’s 40 million residents to stay home and closed most businesses, including nonessential retail. He pointed to the increase in daily testing in the state, up to around 25,000 a day, as well as signs PPE is getting more accessible for workers.

Newsom and Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the Department of Public Health, laid out a four-phase plan that will see California, and likely other states in the pact, move over the next month or so from the current state of lockdown to the soft reopening of nonessential retail and manufacturing, dubbed Phase Two. Phase Three, likely several more weeks out, is the reopening of “high risk” businesses that require close proximity of consumers and workers, like hair and nail salons and spas, as well as some public spaces, such as hiking trails. Phase Four will be the lifting of statewide “safer at home” orders, an eventuality that is still many months off.

“The virus has not gone away,” Newsom said. “There’s durability to it and there may be seasonality, we’ll see, but we could be lulled into this sense of false confidence.”

He added that should there be another wave of the disease when lockdown measures start to loosen up, as has been seen in Germany, Singapore and regions of China, the state will immediately “toggle back” and revert to lockdown.    

Nevertheless, Angell expressed “cautious optimism” about the state’s ability to allow some nonessential businesses to start operating again in the coming weeks. 

There is not yet a published specific framework of how retailers and manufacturers that are allowed to reopen as part of phase two will need to modify their businesses, but Newsom said he’s starting this week to meet with retail business leaders (Tuesday with Gap Inc. chief executive officer Sonia Syngal) to get one laid out. He did make clear that the intended easing of the lockdown will not mean a sudden return to pre-COVID-19 ways of doing business.

“We are not going back to the ways things were until we get some kind of immunity we’re all looking forward to, or a vaccine,” Newsom said. “We have to be patient in this space.”

The governor did mention the need for people to continue social distancing practices and the wearing of face coverings when in stores or spaces where keeping a space of six feet isn’t possible. Angell said companies that can do so should continue allowing employees to work remotely, noting those that can’t will need to modify workplaces to ensure physical distancing among workers. Both Newsom and Angell also mentioned more than once “curbside” pickup and ordering for nonessential retail when such businesses reopen, something that is being used primarily by major big box stores like Walmart and Target. These retailers, as well as stores such as Costco, supermarkets and drug stores, have been allowed to operate for the duration of the coronavirus as essential businesses.

Even this intended easing of restrictions on business in the state could be upended should there be a sudden increase in new cases or hospitalizations — something that could be possible as people in Southern California have been flooding accessible beaches in Orange County and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles. An estimated 40,000 people were on the beaches of Newport Beach this past Saturday, as the politically right-leaning town decided they did not need to be officially closed. Over the weekend, L.A. police increased the patrol of beaches as the previous week saw them ordering hundreds of people off of roadside accessible beaches in Santa Monica and Malibu.

Should the downward trajectory of the virus continue, it still looks like major gatherings of people, be it for conferences, sporting events or music festivals, will not return until sometime in 2021. Newsom did not offer a timeframe for such events but said their return “will take some time.”

“We don’t make decisions based on what we want or hope, but based on what actually is,” he said.

Some leaders in other U.S. states do not share that point of view. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that his state will reopen, allowing any and all businesses to reopen, including retailers, restaurants and movie theaters, while ordering all to limit occupancy to 25 percent of capacity. The state went into lockdown toward the end of March.

“Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said when signing an executive order on Monday.

However, Eric Johnson, the mayor of Dallas, one of the biggest cities in Texas, is still urging people to stay home and businesses to wait it out. But he cannot override the governor’s order.

Elsewhere it’s a similar case of mainly Republican state governors allowing businesses in their states to fully reopen and people to move more freely, while local leaders urge the opposite.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was the first to allow last week businesses including barbers, restaurants and even bowling alleys, to reopen — businesses that require workers and patrons to generally be in close proximity, even as a highly contagious virus continues to spread. Meanwhile, local officials in Atlanta, the state’s biggest city, told residents to stay home, whenever possible, and businesses to keep closed.

In South Carolina, too, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster gave the green light for nonessential stores to reopen on April 21, although major players have only tiptoed back in. Many national chains have not said when they would reopen. However, Charlotte, N.C.-based department store Belk plans to open back up in the state with shortened hours starting May 1.

Other states that have started this week to lift restrictions on businesses and citizens include Ohio, Alaska, Mississippi, Tennessee and Oklahoma. The coronavirus is so far understood to have a gestation period of roughly five to 14 days.

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