The gradual process of lifting pandemic restrictions continues this week as government offices, funeral homes, retail shops, and restaurants begin to reopen under guidelines issued by Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration. Small group gatherings of 10 people or fewer will also be allowed starting May 22.
These changes come as the state pushes for even more testing options across the commonwealth and launches contact tracing and real-time surveillance of infection data in hopes of containing further spread of COVID-19.
But as more people venture out for work and pleasure, public health officials warn that the novel coronavirus remains a significant threat to people across the state.
“I’m very worried that, in general, the public is becoming too comfortable that this is not a danger, that they are not going to take as seriously as they need to the things we’re urging them to do,” says Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack.
Some 8,000 Kentuckians have tested positive for COVID-19 since the state’s first confirmed case in early March. The virus has killed about 350 people in the commonwealth. Dr. Stack says older patients are at greatest risk.
“If you get this disease and you are over 80, there’s a very good chance this is fatal,” says Dr. Stack. “If you are over 60, your risk is substantially elevated.”
Public health officials are also tracking a new threat to the youngest patients. While most children who contract COVID-19 do well, Dr. Stack says a few patients later develop what’s being called Pediatric Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome (PMIS). Symptoms can include prolonged fever, abdominal pain, runny nose, and a rash. Left unchecked, PMIS can affect the child’s blood vessels, heart, or kidneys, and can lead to respiratory or circulatory collapse and even death.
So far, four Kentucky children have been diagnosed with the syndrome.
“Though it is uncommon, if you get it, it’s really bad and it could be a life-ending condition,” says Dr. Stack. “So even if it only happens to a few [children], it’s something we really want to avoid.”
Given the lingering health risks, Gov. Beshear and other state officials have taken a gradual approach to reopening businesses. The first phase started with health care in late April, then moved to construction, manufacturing, and professional services on May 11. The next phase includes retail shops, which can reopen on May 20, and restaurants, which can resume in-person service on May 22.
All businesses must comply with basic guidelines such as masking and daily temperature checks for employees, enforced social distancing of employees and customers, and closure of common areas like public waiting rooms and employee break rooms. Certain sectors must adopt additional guidelines before reopening.
What to Expect When Shopping
While many essential businesses have remained opened during the crisis, most retailers have been closed for two months.
“Retailers, by and large, are super excited about the May 20th option to reopen,” says Kentucky Retail Federation President Tod Griffin. “But they’re also cautiously apprehensive a little bit. Some just aren’t ready to do it yet.”
Like many businesses, Willis Music Company temporarily shuttered its retail stores in Kentucky and Ohio and laid off employees during the pandemic. Although the company has offered limited curbside and mail-order service out of its headquarters, Wills Music President Kevin Cranley says business is down at least 30 percent. Once his stores reopen, Cranley says he expects to return to full capacity. He says all employees will be masked, and stores will have hand sanitizing stations and shields at cash registers.
“Sometimes when one retailer or one church does something wrong, we all tend to get painted by that same brush,” says Cranley. “I can tell you that retailers all over this state, they’re very responsible, good people. They’re your neighbors and they just want what’s best for their employees, their customers, and their business.”
Cranley says the one service that won’t resume for now is private lessons. He says one-on-one instruction on a musical instrument makes it difficult to maintain proper social distancing.
Beyond the minimum Healthy at Work guidelines required of all businesses, retailers and stores in shopping malls must follow additional protocols. These include:
- Retailers must limit the number of customers to 33 percent of maximum capacity allowed for the facility. They must also enforce six-foot distancing among customers and employees. If the establishment can’t maintain that distancing in the store and at check out, then customer capacity should be further reduced.
- Retailers should use contactless payment options and electronic forms and e-signature options as much as possible.
- Customer access to bulk bins of products or cosmetic samples should cease.
- Surfaces in common areas, workstations, and fitting rooms should be frequently sanitized. Shopping carts and baskets should be sanitized after each use.
- Clothing or other items that are tried but not purchased should be sanitized before being put back into stock.
- Businesses should establish a policy as to whether to serve customers that aren’t wearing masks. (They may refuse service to patrons who refuse to do so.)
- Employees should wear gloves when doing high-touch activities, shipping and receiving, or in-home installations.
Griffin says the new COVID reality will change the retailing environment. He says he hopes the rules will relax a bit over time, but until then, he says shoppers and store owners need to get comfortable with a new way of doing business.
“Customers maybe won’t do as many leisurely shopping trips,” says Griffin. “They may make their list or have a couple of things that they need and do a quick in and out.”
What to Expect in Restaurants
The Beshear Administration allowed restaurants to stay open during the pandemic, but only with take out, curbside, or delivery service. As of May 22, restaurants can reopen their dining rooms but, like retailers, they will have to limit indoor seating to 33 percent of normal capacity and ensure six feet of distance between tables.
But restaurants can have unlimited outdoor seating, as long as social distancing rules are followed.
“It gives them options around their business. Maybe they have a parking lot that they can utilize in a different way, or they can expand [into] a side street that’s not utilized,” says Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association. “Being outside makes us all feel better... and this is the time of year we want to enjoy that.”
Bars that have food service permits and shopping malls food courts can also reopen as long as they follow the full list of restaurant guidelines set by the state. These include:
- If the establishment cannot handle 33 percent capacity while enforcing social distancing requirements, they should further limit the number of patrons being served. Restaurants should implement reservations only or call-ahead seating policies to control the number and flow of diners.
- Restaurants should use disposable menus, utensils, napkins, and condiments. They should discontinue use of tablecloths as well as buffets, salad bars, drink stations, or other self-service options.
- Employees should wear masks and gloves. They should regularly disinfect dining surfaces, seating, workstations, and bathrooms. Roof says employees should also expect daily temperature checks and questions about their health.
- Customers should wear face masks when not consuming food or drinks. They should use hand sanitizer or wipes before and after eating. Customers with a fever or COVID-19 symptoms will not be permitted to enter.
- Like retailers, restaurants can establish a policy about serving customers who refuse to wear masks while in common areas.
- Party sizes must be limited to 10 or fewer people. Only people from the same households should be seated at the same table.
“That’s going to be tough because you’re in the hospitality business,” says Roof. “The last thing you want to do is make your guests feel uncomfortable.”
Individual Responsibility Remains Critical
Beyond the requirements for business, Dr. Stack says it’s important for individuals to act responsibly as more establishments reopen. He says people still need to wear a mask in public and practice good hand hygiene and social distancing. Avoid people who aren’t wearing a mask or maintaining a six-foot distance. If you have a temperature or feel sick, stay home and consult with your doctor about medical care and coronavirus testing.
“We rely on the multitude of people to do what needs to be done,” says Dr. Stack. ”We’re not going to send police officers to arrest folks. We have to try to educate people and help them to understand why this is so critical.”
Allison Adams, director of the Buffalo Trace District Health Department in Maysville and chair of the Kentucky Public Health Association, agrees that officials should inspire people to follow the rules, not rely on coercion or force.
"From the local perspective, we’re really trying to inspire our folks that live in each of our 120 counties to do the right thing,” says Adams. “The messaging is more about how much you care about your fellow Kentuckians – to care enough about them enough to comply or adopt these Healthy at Home or Health at Work behaviors.”
Adams says local health departments have used the time when many establishments were closed to help educate business owners on how to prepare for reopening. If someone sees a business that is not complying with coronavirus rules, they can report the establishment to their local health department or call the state compliance tip line at 1-833-KYSAFER.
“When someone is alerted to the fact that someone’s paying attention to their behavior, it has a funny way of helping change behavior,” says Adams.
But Adams says she doesn’t think businesses will be penalized for violating the rules. Instead she says people can simply choose not to patronize those places.
Dr. Stack also encourages people to familiarize themselves with the business guidelines available at HealthyAtWork.ky.gov so you know what to expect when you visit an establishment. He says those that are in vulnerable populations should limit their outings to only the most essential activities.
“If you are over 60 or have a chronic major medical illness, you really ought to stay healthy at home because it is about to become more risky for you than it probably has ever been as people start to socialize.”
So far about 2,700 Kentuckians are known to have had COVID-19 and fully recovered. Dr. Stack says that still leaves the vast majority of citizens in danger and the health care system at risk of being overwhelmed if people return to pre-pandemic behaviors.
“Less than 5 percent less of Kentuckians have probably been infected, which means 95 percent or more are still vulnerable,” says Dr. Stack, “which means the entire crisis we have successfully averted is still waiting to happen.”