Reopening the economy won’t mean business as usual



Area businesses and other organizations are gearing up to reopen and resume in-person operations now that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has begun implementing portions of her MI Safe Start Plan. This week, auto dealerships and retail businesses were allowed to reopen statewide by appointment.

Tomorrow, May 29, health care providers across Michigan may resume performing nonessential medical, dental and veterinary procedures. In addition, small gatherings of 10 people or less are allowable if participants practice social distancing. These announcements follow the partial reopening of businesses in the Traverse City area and Upper Peninsula, including bars and restaurants.

This is certainly welcomed news as our communities emerge gradually from the statewide quarantine meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. Without question, the social distancing and other measures mandated to protect public health have been difficult for most businesses and households. However, based on the latest data for new infections and COVID-related fatalities, the curve has flattened to the point where our hospitals are not currently in danger of being overwhelmed.

But all of that can change quickly if we aren’t prudent. COVID-19 is still very much a public health threat and, despite encouraging progress, a vaccine still isn’t available and won’t be for many months, according to epidemiologists.

So, while the move toward reopening our businesses is gathering steam, vigilance is key to conducting commerce and other activities in a safe and healthy manner to protect our customers, clients, employees and ourselves.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers guidance for protecting workers from exposure to, and infected with, the virus that causes COVID-19. The federal public health agency also urges employers to adopt “infection control strategies based on a thorough hazard assessment, using appropriate combinations of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent worker exposures,” according to CDC’s COVID-19 website.

Large employers like General Motors and Lear Corp. have developed detailed return-to-work playbooks that specify how their manufacturing facilities will operate under the current conditions. Offices, retail establishments and other workplaces are likely to undergo significant changes too, from the use of PPEs by staff to requiring regular deep cleaning to physical improvements, such as spacing desks farther apart and adding partition walls and plexiglass dividers.

Meanwhile, remote technology and “virtual” meetings and engagements, which became tools of necessity during the Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order, are likely to become a fixture in our daily work lives.

The expense associated with some of these improvements is why the Flint & Genesee Chamber launched Restart Flint & Genesee, a special recovery grant program to assist small businesses in Genesee County that have suffered economic distress because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The grants, made possible with generous support from the Consumers Energy Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, will help cover expenses associated with reopening a business under guidelines and requirements for social distancing and safety of clients/ customers.

It is too soon to know how the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic will affect the employment picture going forward. The impact will likely vary across industry sectors. For example, a restaurant that now can seat only half as many customers as it could pre-coronavirus may be faced with some difficult staffing decisions. The important thing now is to focus on how to restart the economic engine responsibly to prevent another major catastrophe down the road.

As we adapt to the new “normal” of the foreseeable future, customers and patrons also have a responsibility to practice social distancing, wear facial coverings and follow proper prevention hygiene. A little extra patience would help too. We are all in this together, and together we will see our way through.

Tim Herman is the CEO of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce.