What will reopening the economy look like?

Chambers of commerce  offer help, information to local businesses

Despite Gov. John Bel Edwards’ extension of a stay at home order until May 15, businesses throughout the area are preparing to reopen.

Shreveport-Bossier got a preview last month of a post-coronavirus business world with guidance on how to navigate the uncertainty that follows it.

The weekly webinar hosted by the Greater Shreveport, Bossier, and Shreveport-Bossier African American Chambers of Commerce focused on the future as plans are starting to form to reopen businesses following the COVID-19 pandemic shut down.

The inspiration, or even optimism, to look ahead was driven by President Donald Trump’s road map to reopening the national economy he unveiled in mid-April.

The plan is founded upon a three-phase approach to restoring normal activity in places that have strong testing capabilities and a trend of decreasing COVID-19 cases.

In phase one, the plan recommends strict social distancing for all people in public, gatherings larger than 10 people are to be avoided, and nonessential travel is discouraged.

In phase two, people are encouraged to maximize social distancing, limit gatherings to no more than 50 people, and travel could resume.

Phase three envisions a return to normalcy for most Americans, with a focus on identification and isolation of any new infections.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards responded by creating a task force to help state officials decide when and how to reopen sectors of the economy currently limited or shut down.

Mark Cooper, Gov. Edwards’ chief of staff, was on the chambers’ call to give insight to the governor’s plan.

He explained that Edwards’ goal is to be at Phase I by April 30, but the state may even be able to do some progressive things before that time. 

He noted that Edwards is talking to the Louisiana Department of Health and planning what to do in regard to allowing elective surgeries and opening dental offices. Beauty and cosmetology salons and gyms would also open back up under Phase I, pending adherence to guidelines of how they handle customers and wearing of facial masks and gloves.

“Nobody wants to open things up more than the governor. But this is not turning on a light switch, it’s a dimmer,” Cooper said metaphorically.

He also offered the encouraging information that more businesses are currently able to operate than “they might realize.”

“I think a lot of businesses would be surprised to learn that they can be open. They just have to follow the guidelines that are established,” Cooper said.

On an April 24 teleconference, U.S. Representative Mike Johnson (LA-04) noted that he believes “lives and livelihoods” can both be protected and doing so “isn’t mutually exclusive.” 

“We can reopen our economy and do so with wisdom,” he said.

He went on to note that the process should be on a parish-by-parish basis.

“The same rules for New Orleans are not going to apply to Bossier Parish,” Johnson added.

As of April 23, Louisiana had 26,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and 1,540 deaths. In Shreveport-Bossier there were approximately 1,400 cases.

Cooper gave credit to the local area, citing Bossier as a “leader in the state” with adherence to Edwards’ Stay-At-Home Order.

“We are seeing the state doing better at reducing the number of cases and that is due to what’s going on with your corner of the state,” Cooper said.

The conference call also featured a broader view of the future of a post-corona business climate with a presentation from Jack Howard, senior vice president of congressional and public affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Howard discussed the national conversation regarding the what, when, and how of reopening the country’s economy. He explained that the U.S. Chamber has started the conversation with their member companies to plan now so employers can reopen as safely and quickly as possible.

“We’ve found it’s going to require constant social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment for employees,” Howard said.

His chamber engaged the White House with a focus on defining essential services, regulatory and liability issues, and ongoing support needs for people and businesses.

“We were very involved with helping them develop that broad plan for reopening,” Howard revealed. “A lot of what was incorporated was based on our discussions with state and local government.”

Those discussions established a set of criteria that must be satisfied before any effort can be made to reopen a state’s economy. Primarily, a downward trajectory of virus symptoms, documented cases, and positive tests in a 14-day period; hospitals must be able to treat patients without crisis care; and businesses are implementing robust testing programs for at-risk workers.

“All of that is going to require robust testing and monitoring to be in place. In order to put all that in place, it’s going to take a minimum of six weeks or longer,” said Howard.

This means, he added, that states have safe and efficient screening sites, tracing of symptoms, and ongoing surveillance sites for asymptomatic cases; healthcare capacity; access to critical medical equipment to handle surges; and regulations regarding social distancing and facial coverings.

“From our viewpoint, the following things are going to have to happen at the state level: broad-based testing, surveillance and tracing systems, adequate supply of PPE, and clear social distancing guidelines,” Howard said.

He also noted that the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program had run out of money by mid-April, however the following week, a further $250 billion for the program was injected by a bill from Washington.

Dana Cawthon, Louisiana Small Business Development Center regional director, tagged on to Howard’s comments to note that more than 17,000 Louisiana businesses have benefited from the program.

“We have a 14-parish service area and I hear desperation, fear, and panic,” she said. “I encourage our small businesses to begin to think about what your business’ environment looks like with social distancing and the threat of the coronavirus lingering.”

 —BIZ MAGAZINE