Hair salons and other businesses hoping to reopen as soon as Friday wanted to know what precautions they’ll have to take before they welcome customers back.

Others, from bowling alleys to public services such as libraries, were left wondering where they fit into the state’s plan to gradually reopen the economy. And campgrounds and shops that cater to tourists wondered how they could possibly do business when visitors from away have to quarantine for 14 days.

Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement Tuesday of a multistage reopening plan for the state’s economy left many Mainers confused and uncertain Wednesday, and eager for more details and answers to countless new questions.

At an afternoon news conference, Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, urged patience and flexibility as state regulators wade through problems that have no modern precedent in public health or economics.

“We’ve never had to grapple and come up with a theory of how to reopen businesses after a global pandemic,” Johnson said. “No one has really come up with an answer to any of these questions, not right now, not really ever. What we know today might be different than what we know two weeks from now, so we’ll be ready to adjust our response.”

Mills released a revised executive order on Wednesday that extended the existing stay-at-home order until May 31, and adds provisions including the power to enforce the reopening plan. By Wednesday evening, the only missing piece of information was the most specific: The actual required steps and guidelines for the group of businesses that will be the first permitted to open on Friday. Those details are expected to be released online Thursday morning, Johnson said.

Government officials, health experts and business professionals have gone back and forth over the recommendations, and the resulting documents will represent a compromise between protecting public health and restarting the state’s economy as quickly as possible, Johnson said.

The only businesses that will be allowed to reopen Friday without special approval from the state are hair salons and barbershops, drive-in movie theaters, health clinics that had canceled elective procedures and nonessential appointments, car dealerships, car washes, golf courses, and a group of outdoor-related businesses and activities that were previously ordered closed, including golf courses, marinas and state parks. Limited religious services also will be permitted to resume if the faithful are able to drive to the service and remain in their vehicles for the duration.

Businesses not specified for Stage 1 reopening, but whose owners believe they can be opened and operated safely, may request a dispensation from the DECD, Johnson said during the news conference.

Johnson and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, also sought to recast the public’s thinking about business closures and how they will be reopened.

“As we move forward toward reopening it’s a lot less about essential versus nonessential, which has been the lens through which we’ve looked for a while now,” Shah said. “It’s now about what can be done safely, and what can’t be done safely.”

Some businesses may come back sooner than others, and it’s the ability of a business to be operated safely that will drive Shah’s assessment of where it will fall in the tiered scheme.

“A business that’s not able to satisfy each and every criteria on the checklist should rethink opening,” he said. “We’re still in the middle of this. The outbreak is still with us.”

Any business that was permitted to remain open during the quarantine period will not be affected by the new rules, as they already have adopted many of the practices that the government is likely to recommend widely, such as protective screens installed at cashier checkout counters, maintaining 6 feet of physical distancing, and limiting the number of people who may occupy a store at one time.

Questions about later stages – including reopening restaurants, bars and some hotels – were too far off for Shah or Johnson to discuss in specifics. Both officials stressed repeatedly that what is recommended today may change tomorrow. Even the state’s planning document for reopening business presents a single sentence for the final stage of reopening business and society.

“STAGE 4, TBD,” the plan states. “All businesses are open and operating with appropriate safety modifications.” It offers no further elaboration.

In the case of hair salons and barbershops, Johnson said one example of a new practice is to eliminate any congregation in a waiting room, and instead have customers wait outside or in their cars.

Each sector in the first stage will have to agree to follow the practices by signing an online form. Businesses that sign up to follow the recommendations receive a graphic badge to be used online or in stores that is designed to quickly convey that a business is following best practices.

Johnson said complaints about businesses not following the guidelines would likely result in education by the state rather than enforcement action, although the order issued Wednesday by Mills gives the state the power to revoke a business’s right to operate during the state emergency if a business is not in compliance, or the guidelines are changed because they were not effective enough.

The complete check lists are expected to be released Thursday morning, but a sample list applying to car dealerships was released Wednesday.

It is both a detailed and generalized document, with broad-sounding best practices that could apply to nearly any organization or entity along with industry-specific guidance, showing the challenge of crafting guidelines that are prescriptive enough to ensure public health and safety, while offering enough flexibility to fit multiple businesses of different sizes and operational styles.

The checklist gives guidance for determining who is considered high-risk, how to deal with potentially sick customers or employees, and even offers ideas about what objects and surfaces should be disinfected.

For instance, car dealerships are permitted to reopen showrooms, but may be forced to reduce the number of vehicles inside, along with limiting the number of customers who are permitted to peruse the floor at any one time.

Service departments are encouraged to close down or limit access to waiting rooms and stop serving snacks and coffee. Car keys should be handled by gloved hands. Sales staff will not be permitted to ride along during test drives, and customers and employees should use different pens when a buyer agrees to sign on the dotted line. More business will be conducted by appointment.

Any vehicle taken out on the road by a prospective buyer must be disinfected afterward, and in a specific manner. The same goes for vehicles brought in for service. It also recommends canceling altogether promotions or events that would draw large numbers of people to the business.

Many additional questions remain about other types of business and services that were not mentioned in the plan that Mills released on Tuesday, from libraries and community centers to bowling alleys and brewery tasting rooms.

The formal order to be released Thursday is expected to have more specifics about business reopenings and timetables, but the phased-in reopening will remain flexible and will be adjusted if there are new virus outbreaks or inadequate testing capacity, state officials said. They didn’t, however, provide specific metrics they would use to judge, for example, what constitutes a new outbreak or adequate testing.


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