Arkansas, U.S. businesses still nervous as broader COVID-19 reopening gets underway

May 11-17, 2020

By Daily Record Staff


As Arkansas small businesses begin returning to work following a nearly two-month stay-at-home order, many are taking baby steps before jumping back into the fray due to anxieties over workplace safety, testing and social distancing policies related to COVID-19.


In releasing another round of state funding under the omnibus $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston both acknowledged that small businesses across the state are feeling antsy about reopening.  


“As we begin to lift some of the restrictions for businesses in the coming weeks, it is important that both employees and consumers feel confident that their is safety is our top priority,” Hutchinson said as state Economic Development Commission launched the Arkansas Ready for Business Grant Program to oversee distribution of $55 million in federal funds coming to state companies through the CARES ACT.


Unlike the more recognized and larger Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration in Arkansas, the AEDC grants are intended to help cover COVID-19-related costs of ensuring the health and safety of employees and patrons at Arkansas companies.


“We know that in these trying times, Arkansas employers are eager to return to normal but must do so in a safe and responsible manner protecting their employees, customers and their business,” said Preston. “This grant program provides employers with a resource that will assist them in the cost of reopening and operating in a way that meets new health guidelines, which will ensure confidence in their employees and their customers. I encourage all eligible organizations to apply.”


AEDC, which is now housed in the newly created state Department of Commerce, initially launched the Ready for Business grant program on April 29 with over 2300 successful applications submitted in one hour. Due to overwhelming demand during the program rollout, AEDC quickly revised the allocation of funds among qualified applicants in order to provide assistance to more Arkansas businesses.


Under the AEDC rules, qualified applicants may receive grants up to $1,000 per full-time employees and up to $500 per part-time worker. AEDC restarted the program again on May 5 for a 48-hour window to allow other businesses to submit online grant applications for amounts between $1,000 and $100,000.


“This grant program will be a helpful resource for business owners to get back on their feet and will provide the assistance they need to ensure the highest health and safety standards for their employees and customers.”


Of the new crafted state rules for the CARES Act funding, at least 75% will go to businesses with less than 50 employees and another 15% of the recipients will be minority and women owned businesses. To be eligible for the highly sought after grants, funds must be spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) and no-contact thermometers for employees and customers, no-contact Point of Sale (POS) payment equipment or supplies and disinfectants to initially deep clean premises and for use on an ongoing basis.


Grant recipients can also hire a third party to perform periodic deep cleaning services, hand sanitizer stations, and restocking of necessary supplies or raw materials, or use if for other one-time expenses associated with reconfiguring Arkansas businesses to meet recommended health and safety guidelines or reopening for normal operations.


Altogether, the CARES Act provides $150 billion to Arkansas and other 49 states and U.S. territories to mitigate COVID-19 related costs by the of 2020. On March 30, Hutchinson issued created a steering committee composed of 15 appointees and six members of the Arkansas General Assembly to identify the needs of the state and make recommendations for the best use of the state’s $1.25 billion portion of federal CARES Act funding.


Safety First


Meanwhile, some of the nation’s largest trade groups that representing much the frontline retail, restaurant and hospitality sector are implementing their own plans to get the U.S. economy back on its feet. To do that means rebounding from more than 30 million job losses in the past six weeks and negative Gross Domestic Product growth of 4.8% in the first quarter, according to recent federal data.


On April 27, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) released a “Blueprint for Shopping Safe” plan outlining a phased-in approach to reopening retail. The plan urges governors to issue uniform, statewide protocols for retailers to adopt as they reopen stores and work to keep employees and customers safe.


RILA members include more than 200 retailers, product manufacturers, and service suppliers, which together account for more than $1.5 trillion in annual sales, millions of U.S. jobs, and more than 100,000 stores, manufacturing facilities, and distribution centers domestically and abroad. NRF is the nation’s largest retail trade group, representing Walmart, Target and most of the nation’s top brick-and-mortar and online vendors.


“As conversations turn to the reopening of the economy, retailers are uniquely situated to provide input, because we’ve been on both sides of the stay at home orders,” said RILA President Brian Dodge. “Groceries, pharmacies and other retailers that have remained open have implemented practices and protocols that are keeping employees and communities safe. The Blueprint released today builds off those successful operating practices. Our goal is for the safe reopen of retail, and we want everyone, policymakers, employees and our customers to know that the industry is ready to Shop Safe.”


NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay added: “Since the onset of the pandemic, retailers have been following the guidance of CDC and other public health experts and are taking additional measures to keep their employees and customers safe.”


The plan of action by the nation’s top retail trade groups was developed in accordance with CDC guidelines and benchmarking by leading retailers with a focus on ensuring the health and wellness of employees and customers. Retailers have also learning from each other throughout this crisis, sharing leading practices and protocols to keep stores clean and sanitized, and keeping customers and employees as safe as possible.


According to RILA and NRF officials, the plans for reopening the nation’s retail sector includes the following three stages: 

Phase 1 – Allow E-commerce, Contactless Curbside Pickup & In-Home Delivery

Phase 2 – Re-Open Stores to the Public, with Social Distancing Protocols & Reduced Occupancy

Phase 3 – Establish Protection, Then Lift All Restrictions


The National Restaurant Association has also released its COVID-29 primer called “Industry Blueprint for Recovery,” which sets out a specific action plan that creates a targeted relief plan for the nation’s food and hospitality industry to help mitigate exposure to the highly contagious virus. 


The guidance focuses on food safety, cleaning and sanitizing, employee health monitoring and personal hygiene, and social distancing. The trade group for the nation’s second largest private sector employer said the association’s plan builds on already established best practices and available requirements that address specific health and safety concerns related to the spread of COVID-19.


“By combining this guidance with a restaurant’s existing policies gleaned from the FDA Food Code, ServSafe training, and recommendations from local health officials, they can help secure a safe opening,” said Sherman Brown, executive vice president of training and certification for Washington, D.C.-based trade group that includes chapters in all 50 states, including the Arkansas Restaurant Association.


Under Arkansas’ reopening transition that includes recommendations from several COVID-19 related task forces, Gov. Hutchinson said the lifting of social distancing guidelines and easing of other restrictions must be based on up-to-date data, protects the most vulnerable citizens, and must minimize the risk of a resurgence.


Based on those guidelines, Hutchinson set May 4 as the date to begin lifting some of the restrictions social distancing and stay-at-home restriction that have been in place since March 11. Due to the importance of the tourism industry to the state’s economy, Arkansas State Parks began a limited reopening of some facilities for Arkansas residents on May 1, three days ahead of the broader reopening plan.


“Closing our parks, campgrounds, and visitor centers has been one of the toughest restrictions during this pandemic, but it was necessary,” Hutchinson said. “I am elated that we can give Arkansans the opportunity to get out of their homes to enjoy our natural resources again.”


Barber shops, body art establishments, body art schools, cosmetology establishments, massage therapy clinics and spas, and medical spas may resume operations on May 6 under Phase 1 guidelines that include pre-screening employees and clients, prohibiting walk-in appointments, and use of gloves at all times. Those establishments must also implement use of face masks as services permit, and appropriate social distancing, officials said.


On May 15, state parks will reopen to Arkansas residents, cabins, lodges, and RV rental. At the same time, Arkansas will also open state-operated visitor information centers, museums and exhibits, gift shops, golf pro shops, marinas, and equipment rental. Those facilities will limit the number of visitors and enforce social distancing. 


Indoor venues in Arkansas such as theaters, arenas, stadiums, and auction houses that are designed for large groups may reopen on a limited basis on May 18. That directive allows the venues to open for audiences of fewer than 50 and that requires strict social distance among performers, contestants, and members of the audience.


Hutchinson, however, has extended Arkansas’s COVID-19 public health and disaster emergency order he declared on March 11 and later amended on March 26 for another 45 days. His original declaration forces all travelers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Orleans, and all international locations to follow state quarantine directives.


“Every industry sector in Arkansas has been affected by the outbreak of COVID-19,” said Hutchinson. “The pandemic continues to have a statewide impact on grocery stores, small businesses, pharmacies, hospitals, and restaurants to name a few. It’s important that we continue to adequately support and protect our industries and people until the threat is no longer imminent.”  


PHOTO CAPTION:  (Photo by Bryan Clifton/UAMS)


Many employers are nervous about the reopening process while dealing with workplace safety, testing, financial and other issues related to COVID-19.