After two months of social distancing and the closure of many businesses deemed non-essential, Gov. Ralph Northam launched a soft reopening of the state on May 15. While some local businesses welcomed customers through their doors and onto patios over this sunny weekend, others remain hesitant and concerned.

Guidelines for reopened businesses in Phase I include: 

  • Routine cleaning/disinfecting of high contact surfaces/areas
  • Limiting occupancy to ensure social distancing
  • Encouraging the use of face coverings for customers and employees

Three Notch’d Craft Kitchen & Brewery in Charlottesville is among eateries that have opened their doors this past weekend. Its founder and president, Scott Roth, said his staff has been taking numerous safety measures to serve customers, including wearing a mask and gloves and a weekly call to discuss ways to better serve customers, separate tables and creating a smooth flow for customers. 

“I’m 100% confident that we can service our guests on the patio in a social distance setting that is safer than the majority of the activities that people have been performing — just going out to get their necessary goods,” he said. “We have a very great flow. We have a good program. We have awesome people who are taking care of the guests.”

Speaking on how business went since offering outside seating, Roth said Friday was a steady day, adding that people were respectful. He said his Charlottesville restaurant location is well set up, allowing his staff to follow social distancing state regulations. But everyone’s circumstances are different, so he said he will continue to provide curbside and pickup services.

For those not adhering to social distancing rules, Roth said his staff will handle it in a professional manner as they would in any circumstance, which include politely asking the person to return to their seat. And if the situation escalated, the staff will, of course, contact the authorities.

“That’s the best way to handle these situations,” Roth said. “Charlottesville is an awesome place. All of our customers have been super respectful. I was very impressed with the response of not only the staff but the general public. Everyone totally gets it.”

Roth stressed that people have been onboard, and they don’t want to jeopardize the small amount of freedom they’ve been given through Phase I by not respecting social distance.

Roth added every business makes its decision to open based on its location, explaining he has an out-of-town eatery that couldn’t open because the patio is right by a sidewalk.

“We do daily checks for our staff,” said Roth, plus the staff has a strict hand-washing protocol after they change activity or interact with a guest.

Royalty Eats, which only offers indoor seating, is taking orders to-go. Owner Nakesha White said that if she were allowed to open completely, she wouldn’t yet. 

Safety measures include wearing a face mask or any type of covering the face to protect staff and customers and a hand sanitizing booth. She added that her staff sanitize their hands before touching the door and going back out. Additionally, after every few customers, they wipe down surfaces that have been touched.

“I feel like it’s at everybody’s discretion when they feel they’re ready to open. I just don’t feel like I’m ready,” White said. “I still see a lot of people not using the safety precaution, and I just don’t want to take that risk for myself and others.”

White said she will think about fully reopening once she notices a steep drop in statistics.

“I don’t know when I’ll be ready ’cause I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said.

White who celebrated her business’ first anniversary this year said she’s thankful for the support she received from the community for keeping her busy. She’s aware of businesses that have been operating for 20 years that shut their doors completely during the pandemic.

“I was actually sad for them,” she said, adding she has made it to her first year and has many more years to come.

"I feel like it's at everybody's discretion when they feel they're ready to open. I just don't feel like I'm ready."

Nakesha White Owner, Royalty Eats
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Nakesha White is the owner of Royal Eats. The eatery, which only offers indoor seating, is taking orders to-go.

Credit: Mike Kropf/ Charlottesville Tomorrow

While business owners have been deciding whether to reopen in various capacities, some state legislators have expressed concern to the governor on behalf of their constituents who are in more vulnerable communities.

Ahead of May 15, Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus expressed opposition to the launching of Phase I, calling it premature. The group noted that racial disparities have been exacerbated or highlighted by the pandemic, with some Black and brown Virginians working essential and service jobs, as well as seeing disproportionate infection rates. 

The caucus, composed of 23 Democratic legislators in the General Assembly, penned an open letter to Northam calling for “an equity-focused plan that clearly addresses disparities for Black Virginians, Virginians of color and other underserved and vulnerable communities.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who is co-chair of the caucus, said there is a “fear that on the workers’ side, they will have to choose between their jobs and their family’s health and well-being.”

“That’s particularly a concern, because our understanding is if they choose not to go to work because they don’t feel safe or don’t have childcare, they cannot continue to receive unemployment compensation,” McClellan said.

During his May 18 press conference, the governor reiterated options for people who find themselves in such predicaments, such as contacting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“It’s important to our administration that if people don’t feel comfortable in their workplace, they are able to make that known,” Northam said. “Could things be better? Obviously, but we are working very hard to give people information that if they are not comfortable, they can have a discussion with supervisors at work.”

As part of the Congress’ CARES Act, Virginians on unemployment as well as those in gig economies or who are self employed and would not otherwise qualify are able to receive unemployment benefits due to the pandemic as well as the minimum $1,200 individual stimulus check. 

On Monday, public health commissioner, Dr. Norman Oliver reported that statewide, 4,864 of COVID-19 cases were among African Americans, while 9,434 were among Virginia’s Latinos. 

“The other concern is, from the beginning, there has been a shift. It’s clear that this virus doesn’t recognize jurisdictional boundaries,” McClellan said. 

While Northam granted a two week delay in launching Phase I for the city of Richmond, Accomack County and Northern Virginia, McClellan says it may not matter to many Virginians who traverse multiple jurisdictions between home life and work. 

“It doesn’t help the Richmond resident whose job is in Henrico [County] and whose boss says ‘you have to come back to work’ or who already had to go somewhere else for food and necessities.” 

As for assessing the requirements and suggestions for Phase I, Northam said he  is planning to keep taking things into consideration while sticking to the current guidelines. While a lot of reopened businesses follow the same overlapping safety requirements, not all require face coverings or masks to be worn  something Northam is monitoring. 

“A lot of it has boiled down to those who serve others in our restaurants, grocery stores, those types of things. If we need to require a mask, I will take that into consideration,” Northam said.

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White — who celebrated her business’ first anniversary this year — said she’s thankful for the support she received from the community for keeping her busy.

Credit: Mike Kropf/ Charlottesville Tomorrow