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Northern Virginia businesses devise reopening plans despite confusion over start date

Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday that most of the state will likely be ready to reopen May 15, but Northern Virginia may need to delay.

CLIFTON, Va. — Small business owners in Northern Virginia are working to reopen, despite initial confusion about when that would happen. Gov. Ralph Northam cleared it up Tuesday, when he announced that NoVA would stay in phase one until May 29.

"It's nowhere near the level of business we’d be doing if we’d be open," Victoria Trummer, owner of Trummer's Restaurant in Clifton and Trummer's Coffee and Wine Bar in Gainesville, said. 

Trummer said she and her husband shut down their businesses in mid-March before they were even required to do so. Soon after, they started offering takeout and delivery options, but they're looking to get back to what they do best -- serving their customers in person.

"I’ve been trying to follow whatever the guidelines are they are giving to us," Trummer said. "As a business, we feel a very big responsibility to our guests and our employees…Is the time right? I have no idea." 

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Credit: Victoria Trummer
Victoria Trummer and her husband pose in front of their restaurant, Trummer's Restaurant.

On Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the state would likely be able to start phase one of the reopen plan on May 15, which prompted an outpouring of concern from Northern Virginia leaders.

The chairs of the Board of Supervisors from Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and the Alexandria mayor wrote a letter to the governor over the weekend, requesting a delay in reopening.

The governor responded Monday in a press conference, agreeing that NoVa could have to open more slowly than other areas of the state, given its population density, proximity to D.C. and higher rate of positive tests.

Gov. Northam said that 25% of Northern Virginia's coronavirus tests have come back positive, compared to 10% in most other areas of the state.

"I also recognize that we live in a diverse commonwealth, and different regions face different challenges," Northam said. "That’s why the phase one restrictions are a floor, not a ceiling. While no region may move faster to ease restrictions, we’re open to some regions moving more slowly." 

A spokesperson with Alexandria's government told WUSA 9 that they are recommending the closures continue until at least May 29.

RELATED: 'We're not ready' | Montgomery County won't reopen yet, officials say

Credit: Victoria Trummer
Victoria Trummer is hoping to reopen her restaurant's patio at 50% capacity when NoVA is allowed to reopen.

"The original plan was May 15 to open up the patio at 50% capacity," Trummer said. "The real challenge for us is how many employees to have and to figure out what’s the safest way to keep us working together but apart…If employees are required to wear masks, but guests aren’t, what position is that putting my employees in?" 

The state has issued the following rules for businesses that decide to reopen as part of phase one:

  • Operate at 50% of the lowest occupancy level
  • No more than 10 guests at a time
  • Maintain social distancing of six feet
  • Employees must wear face coverings

RELATED: Johns Hopkins scientists release COVID-19 risk plan to help businesses safely reopen

Depending on the type of business, other requirements apply. The businesses that the governor's order says are allowed to reopen are certain restaurants, dining establishments, food courts, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, farmers markets, brick and mortar retail businesses, fitness and exercise facilities, personal care and grooming services, campgrounds, and indoor shooting ranges that can adhere to specific guidelines.

In Fairfax County, Alicia Russman is working to figure out how to follow the rules to reopen her clothing store, Undeniable Boutique. She said technically, she didn't have to close in March, but she did for the safety of her employees and customers.

"We’re going to be looking at different ways of making sure that we’re keeping items sanitized and clean in between people trying them on," she said. "So if people do try them on, we’ll be moving them to a back room for a 24-hour holding period." 

Russman said they're also looking at limiting hours and plan to require customers to wear a mask when entering the store, which she said they will have for sale.

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Credit: Alicia Russman
Alicia Russman poses in front of her store, Undeniable Boutique.

Businesses don't only have to worry about complying with new pandemic-related restrictions. Business and consumer lawyer Brandon Davis said they still have to make sure they are following standard employment laws throughout the process.

"There’s no better defense against liability than just being honest with your employees," Davis said. "If someone needs an accommodation, and you can’t quite do it, exhaust all your options to try to let your employee know you’re doing all you can." 

Davis owns Barbute Law Group and has been posting coronavirus recommendations for businesses throughout the shutdown. He said businesses should ensure they are paying attention to the Virginia Human Rights Act and Age Discrimination Act, for example, when devising plans.

As Russman works to keep everyone safe while boosting the business she opened nine years ago, she said the biggest challenge is the unknown.

"Right now it’s managing the uncertainty," she said. "Just not knowing with so many variables and so much in flux …just trying to keep my business alive. That’s the hardest thing right now." 

With some more clarity on the timeline, some businesses, like Great Harvest Bread Company in Burke, VA, are happy that the governor has delayed reopening in Northern Virginia. Still, they're doing their best to prepare for when they can reopen sit-down service.

"I want to see what it’s going to look like, because [of] the sanitation, keeping everything clean," Jeannette Moler, one of the owners, said. "We’re food service, we keep everything clean anyway, but  I just feel like just wiping everything down constantly, so right now being carryout and curbside only is the way we’re going to go."

Moler and her business partner, Jeffrey Connelly, said they have been offering takeout and participating in socially distanced farmer’s markets throughout the pandemic.

Now, they're looking at opening up their outdoor seating, because they’re confident the seats are far enough apart. They've also been donating bread to different pantries and organizations like DC Central Kitchen. You can donate here.

Over in Annandale, Zaid Bakeer, who owns Hayadi Salon, said his business is already set up relatively well for social distancing. Bakeer said seats are six feet apart, so they’re focusing on potentially adding barriers to shampoo stations and removing any of the things you’d typically see in their waiting rooms, like magazines and candy.

"Some things that are not gonna change [after all this] are stylists wearing masks to perform services," Bakeer said. "I think that's something we should be doing on a regular basis anyway. We do come in contact with a lot of people and we could be a cause of spreading germs around."

Credit: Jeffrey Connelly
The Great Harvest Bread Company in Burke, VA preparing bread for the day.

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