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BACK TO BUSINESS: Local businesses must adapt to new normal

Editor’s note: Coping With COVID-19 is a multi-part series about the very personal ways Winchester and Clark County have been impacted by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Gov. Andy Beshear has given some businesses the go-ahead to reopen May 11, but it won’t be business as usual.

Now that the spread of the novel coronavirus appears to have plateaued in Kentucky, Beshear has established a tentative timeline for getting back to normal — or whatever normal will be in the near future.

Doctor’s offices and health clinics were the first to reopen, last week, and beginning next week, car dealers may allow customers to return to their showrooms, construction companies and non-essential manufacturers can get back to work, and professional services, which includes attorneys, accountants and real estate agents, can reopen their offices at 50 percent capacity, although the governor would prefer people who can continue to work from home do so.

On May 20, retailers can reopen, with stringent social distancing rules in place, and on May 25, barbers, hair stylists and cosmetologists can welcome the return of customers.

Restaurants, however, won’t be able to reopen their dining rooms until June at the earliest.

Car and truck dealers haven’t closed during the potentially deadly pandemic, but they’ve had to reduce their sales staffs as a result of the economic downturn and uncertainty about the future.

“We’re still selling cars, but it’s different,” said Mike Wilson, who owns a used car dealership on Lexington Avenue. “We talk to people through the window. We talk to them on the phone.”

Customers are still allowed to test drive cars, but a salesperson can’t go with them. An employee has to open the car, start it, back away and let the potential buyer take the vehicle out without the sales representative to answer questions.

When the rules are loosened, Wilson said, it still won’t be like it was before. There won’t be multiple customers in the showroom.

“I don’t know what the governor is saying, but I know what I’m saying: I only want one in here at a time,” Wilson said.

It so happens that is also what the governor has suggested.

Wilson said he has his office rearranged so his desk is at least six feet from where a customer would be standing, and he has his face mask hanging right by the door for when he has to step outside to talk with someone.

“We’re just being careful … making sure we’re protecting them as well as ourselves,” he said.

Many businesspeople aren’t clear on what the new social distancing and safety guidelines will be because the details haven’t been issued yet, but the Governor’s Office has said they are forthcoming.

“We’ve got some rules we’re going to have to go by, and we’re not really familiar with all of them yet,” said Joe Norton, who owns the Main Street Barber Shop in Winchester.

It’s going to take some time for him to purchase the things he needs to reopen, Norton said.

“We’ll probably have disposable capes. The barber will have to wear a mask, and we’ll have to have hand sanitizer” and the kind of no-contact thermometers that are pointed at a person’s forehead to take their temperature, he said.

Norton is apprehensive about reopening because even though he intends to do everything he is supposed to do to be safe, he doesn’t know whether customers will take the rules as seriously. And some rules might be problematic. The barber can wear a face mask, for example, but it’s hard to cut hair if the customer is wearing a mask.

“I’m a little concerned, because we’re kind of up close and personal with them, you know,” Norton said. “I think everything will be OK as long as everybody follows the guidelines.”

Beautician Connie Reed is looking forward to reopening May 25. She works with other hairstylists at Headquarters, in the same space as a Merle Norman dealer on Hubbard Road.

Many of her clients are women who have been with her for many years.

“They’re not just customers. We’re a family,” she said.

But when they reopen, they can no longer have five or six customers congregating in the shop at the same time, Reed said, and “we can’t be hugging anymore.”

“There’s only going to be two hairdressers working at a time … more than six feet apart,” she said, and so there will only be two customers at a time.

“We’re just going to do whatever the state regulations say,” Reed said. “I know we’re probably going to be taking temperatures, and I’m calling my customers and asking them to wear a mask.”

They will have to sanitize the chairs and everything customers come in contact with, she said.

John and Tiffany Gaunce, who operate Gaunce’s Deli & Cafe on Bypass Road, have been open but operating at about half their usual sales since restaurants were ordered to close dine-in services in mid-March. They’ve had to get by with carryout, curbside service and catering.

“The catering is nothing compared to what it was,” John Gaunce said. “Most businesses aren’t allowing meetings to take place or people to come in. What we’re doing now is walk-ins.”

One or two people at a time were coming in last Friday with their masks on and walking out with their food in plastic bags, but it was at a time of day when the restaurant ordinarily would have been crowded.

They said that when the restaurant’s dining room reopens in June or July, they will have to close off every other table, but probably won’t have to put up barriers. But they aren’t sure yet what they will have to do.

Tiffany said they are grateful for the loyal customers they have who keep coming in for carryout orders.

“We’re in a good place. We’re lucky. We’re going to make it through,” John said.

Mitchell Berryman, a Winchester lawyer whose only employee is his secretary, said not being able to meet face-to-face with his clients has been frustrating.

For a lawyer, there is more to communication than talking on the phone. You have to be able to see people’s faces and read their body language to understand what’s happening, he said.

Berryman said his business has been diminished, and most lawyers would say the same.

“This has been the most difficult time in my practice,” he said. “It’s an almost impossible situation we have right now.”

The justice system has “slowed to a crawl,” said Berryman, who is also an assistant county attorney. Most cases have been postponed until the courts reopen, in June at the earliest, and nonviolent criminals have been released from jail to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus if one of the inmates should get it.

When the economy is good, the legal business is good, and when it’s not, it’s not, Berryman said.

Berryman thinks the country is close to a “self-imposed depression,” from which it may take a couple of years to recover.

“My great fear is that the longer this goes on, the more damage it does to our economy,” Berryman said. “I think people need to get back to work as soon as possible — immediately if possible.”