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What businesses and consumers think about state moves to reopen

Weeks into the social distancing driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, some states are beginning to lift restrictions -- while others are extending them. How do business owners and customers feel about the decision to reopen? John Yang talks to Bill Nigut of Georgia Public Broadcasting and Anna Rau of Montana PBS about what they are seeing in their states, which are attempting a phased approach.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As more and more states begin to loosen their stay-at-home restrictions, others are extending them.

    John Yang begins our coverage of how some businesses are taking their first steps toward the new normal.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, in Georgia, one of the states where restrictions are easing, some business owners are eager to reopen. Others are doing so with misgivings or simply shut.

    Let's hear from two of those voices.

  • Shannon Stafford:

    Speaking for my industry, we have the ability to travel as a cosmetologist and barbers and nail techs.

    So, a lot of us in our industry were able to go to homes or have someone to come to our homes. And it really put us at a more vulnerable situation. So, the reason why I was excited to be able to get back, because it allowed us to have a more controlled environment.

  • Stacia Familo-Hopek:

    Last week, when Governor Kemp announced that restaurants could begin reopening this week, my husband I just kind of looked at one another and both shook our heads as to say, no, we wouldn't open up to dine-in service this week.

    And we know that the recommendations are that we should see at least 14 days of declining cases before we start to consider opening up. And we also are thinking about our own staff and whether or not they would feel comfortable coming back to work yet.

  • John Yang:

    To hear how things are going in two states where businesses are reopening, we're joined by Bill Nigut of Georgia Public Broadcasting. He's in Atlanta. And Anna Rau of Montana PBS is in Missoula, Montana.

    Welcome to you both.

    Anna, I want to start with you, because today was the first day that businesses were allowed to reopen, if they wanted to, some businesses in Montana. But tell us what the situation in Montana is with the virus. How badly hit is — has Montana been?

  • Anna Rau:

    Well, we have actually been pretty lucky.

    The governor got on things very quickly and closed schools and businesses early on, before we had a lot of cases. So we stand at about 450 cases today and only 14 fatalities thus far. Any fatality obviously is too many, but that is a pretty low number, given what could have happened.

    So I think, at this point, the governor and other officials that run the state have decided that it is at a point where we can kind of crack the door open. And if we start to see something rebound a bit here, we could trace it, follow it up, and isolate some of these people. We have enough testing to do that at this point.

    So, I think just the low number of cases and the low number of hospitalizations has made the governor and officials feel comfortable doing this kind of soft opening.

  • John Yang:

    And is Montana hitting the White House guideline of 14 days of declining numbers?

  • Anna Rau:

    Yes, we have had declining numbers since the end of March. The last couple of days, we have had some days where we have only had one case or none at all.

    So, we have definitely seen a downward trend in the cases and in hospitalizations. So it's looking quite good. And I think that makes people feel confident we can do a little bit of a reopening.

  • John Yang:

    And with the reopening today, are you seeing — what are you seeing? Are a lot of businesses reopening that can reopen? And are a lot of consumers heading to stores?

  • Anna Rau:

    No.

    And I think that was one of the concerns going on going into this, is, will the customers show up? The businesses can open, but will customers want to come shop and go back into retail businesses?

    And at this point, also, a lot of them weren't ready to open. And so they have to order a bunch of things. They have stringent guidelines, if they would like to reopen. They have to keep the number of people in their store below 50 percent occupancy what they normally would have. And they also have to keep people social-distanced.

    And that's part of the requirements in the governor's phase one reopening. So this is not just anybody can open up. You have to open with stringent social distancing guidelines in place.

    So I think that some people have been nervous about that. They also need to disinfect. There's some businesses, they're expecting customers to touch things, and they'd have to disinfect those.

    So nobody really knows what they're going to need to do to make sure customers feel safe, but they want to make sure they feel safe before they come back. So that's what they're looking at right now.

  • John Yang:

    Bill Nigut, in Georgia, of course, some businesses were allowed to open starting on Friday.

    What's the weekend been like there? Have a lot of businesses opened, a lot of people going to stores, going to these places?

  • Bill Nigut:

    We have only anecdotal evidence, obviously, at this point.

    But, Friday, it was hair salons, barbershops, massage therapists, bowling alleys, of all things. And we found that it — barbershops on Friday morning in some locations actually had lines and people waiting to get in the door.

    But I think, for the most part, over the weekend, we saw a great deal of resistance to people wanting to get out and patronize these establishments. And more to the point, many businesses chose and are continuing to choose to remain closed.

    Today, the governor allowed restaurants and social clubs to open for business. And here again, for the most part, most restauranteurs are saying they do not want to open, they don't feel comfortable, they don't feel safe.

    And, at the same time, we have some who have said, we have got to get back to work, we need to start making money again.

    So it's been a very mixed reaction. And Governor Kemp's decision continues to be incredibly controversial here.

  • John Yang:

    And talk about that. What's the — what's been the public debate about this? We have seen polls from Pew last week that said most Americans were worried that restrictions would come off too soon, rather than not soon enough.

    What's the public debate been like in Georgia?

  • Bill Nigut:

    Well, it's been exactly that.

    There are people who say — look, there's no question that Georgia, like every other state, is suffering extraordinary economic distress, and is going to continue to for the time being. But there are many, many people here who believe that the governor has chosen the economy and trying to kick-start business over public safety.

    He even got attacked, as you know, by the president last week, who said that Kemp was moving too quickly. That stunned the Kemp people, because Kemp and Trump had been quite close for a long time.

  • John Yang:

    And, Anna, in Montana, the governor, of course, is a Democrat, Steve Bullock.

    What's the public discussion been there about whether this is a good idea or not?

  • Anna Rau:

    Well, there was a lot of concern going into it.

    And I think, when people actually found out, this is kind of just, like I said, cracking the door open, it's not throwing it wide — restaurants and bars and distilleries are still closed. They're not allowed to open until next week. And, again, they have stringent social distancing requirements.

    So, I think, as they read the governor's plan, and they have looked at each of the steps, and then he talked about there are certain requirements we have to have in place in order to open the economy — one will be enough personal protective equipment, PPE. And another is to have enough testing in case we start to see this rear its head again and we can follow it quickly.

    And both of those things are now in place, that they can test symptomatic individuals with confidence. And we have enough hospital space. So, I think all of these decisions have been thought through before they decided to open things up.

    And with this opening up, it's just some things. Schools are still closed. Schools can remain closed, gyms, all those places, bowling alleys, bingo halls, music halls all closed. And you can't have anybody over a group over 10.

    So they're still keeping it pretty tight, and you're supposed to still work from home. So not much has changed, just enough.

  • John Yang:

    Has the governor indicated when he's going to take the next step or look — look to take the next step, see if there's a rebound in cases and move to the second phase?

  • Anna Rau:

    Right.

    I talked to a doctor who actually attended some of the governor's task force planning about this. And he said, we do want to be realistic.

    When we open this up, we are going to see an increase in cases. So we have got to expect that. However, we don't want to see a huge number of cases, and we want to be able to track the ones we do see.

    So, really, how well this goes will decide when we go to phase two. Phase one could last three weeks, a month. And we kind of see what happens. And if we like how things look, we can go on to phase two. By the way, there's three phases to this plan.

    And then we would move to phase three when that was OK. But if, at any time, the governor doesn't like what he's seeing, he will absolutely move it back to a shelter in place and get rid of phase one.

    So, I think that's the — what they're going to do is track it very closely. And if they get uncomfortable with what they're seeing, and people aren't social distancing, and they're not washing their hands, and people aren't being safe, he will take it back to shelter in place.

  • John Yang:

    And, Bill, in Georgia, of course, the governor, Kemp, has been seen as being pretty aggressive on this.

    What's the sense of what — has he said what his next steps are? When do you move to the next phases of this?

  • Bill Nigut:

    Well, he's got a very important decision to make.

    At the end of the day, on Thursday, April 30, his shelter-in-place order will expire. We are waiting to see whether he is going to extend that order to all of Georgia. He has already said that older Georgians and people at medical risk should shelter in place until May 13.

    But now that he said that many businesses can open again, what will he do about extending the shelter in place order for all people? And we're all very eager to hear what he decides about that.

  • John Yang:

    Bill Nigut, Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, Anna Rau, Montana PBS in Missoula, thank you so much to both of you.

  • Anna Rau:

    Thanks, John.

  • Bill Nigut:

    Thanks, John.

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