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Most agree businesses are trying to comply despite many headwinds

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After shutting down for the weekend, Steve Montgomery allowed The Starboard to be used as a site for COVID-19 testing on June 29. Restaurants in Dewey Beach closed down for the weekend after seeing a spike in positive coronavirus cases in the area.

DEWEY BEACH – Gov. John Carney visited the iconic Starboard restaurant and Bethany Blues in late June at the invitation of owner Steve Montgomery, Delaware Restaurant Association Chairman Scott Kammerer, and Delaware House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf.

 “We talked about table spacing and how it’s not always possible to have a table 8-feet apart when you’ve got a corner or glass partition, or booth,” Montgomery said. “He was shown how in restaurants that have a booth with high backs, they shouldn’t have to go every other booth. It should make sense to go every booth.”

Montgomery closed Starboard and its sister Starboard Raw location June 27 after a handful of Starboard employees tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. His goal was to get all 100 or so staff members tested. Other Dewey Beach restaurants followed Montgomery’s lead, and thousands of restaurant employees, locals and visitors got tested during the week of June 29. Results were not available at press time.

But then Carney also added restrictions that limited bar owners to table service, effective July 3 – just before the very profitable Fourth of July Weekend – and decided to delay the move to Phase 3, which many thought would start on July 1.

In a July 1 letter to the community, Beebe Healthcare President and CEO Dr. David Tam said, “Anecdotally, there has been an increased relaxation with regard to wearing face coverings and physical distancing. There is [clear scientific evidence for wearing] a face covering in public when going out to dinner, the hair salon, the grocery story, or a doctor’s appointment.”

Visitors on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk.

Has the messaging been clear enough?

The analogy that multiple people interviewed for this story used to describe the problem with the state’s COVID-19 response: If someone tells you that you probably shouldn’t drive so fast on a road, that’s guidance; if the government putsup a speed limit sign, that’s a rule.

And therein lies the problem.

Business leaders contacted for this story generally praised Carney for the way he’s managed through the pandemic, but many criticized the quality and consistency of the messaging – particularly about what’s guidance and what’s required.

Social distancing guidelines along the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk

“I think the messaging coming from the governor’s office has confused Delawareans and the business community. First, he talked about positive cases, then hospitalization, and now he’s talking about positivity rates,” said Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman.

The challenge, she said, is that cases are going up because the state is testing more people but hospitalizations have declined sharply and few deaths have been reported in the past few weeks.

“We need to caution against shutting down sections of the economy based on fear,” she said. “You can’t make decisions based on what’s happening in South Carolina, Texas, and Florida.”

Hospital and state officials agree that the three primary metrics all matter because they tell a different story. Right now, percent of positive has the highest profile because it indicates localized spread. At the same time, those who look at the daily dashboard posted by the state at coronavirus.delaware.gov often see shifts in data that can change what was a negative trend into a neutral or positive view.

Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH) spokesperson Jen Brestel explained that the Delaware Health Information Network (DHIN) updates the numbers based on changing patient classifications, such as confirmation of suspected cases and the hospitals finalizing coding as patients get closer to discharge or even after discharge.

As of the writing of this story on July 2, here’s where Delaware stands:

• Statewide hospitalizations fell below 100 on June 12 and stood at 67 on July 1.

• The percentage of people who tested positive over a rolling five-day period has climbed fairly steadily since June 11, when it was 2.4%, to 6.6% on June 30. The one-day figures have had a number of recent spikes, with an 8.1% rate on June 29 after testing tied to nine teens who attended Senior Week parties in Dewey Beach contracted the COVID-19 virus and then went to other beach businesses.

• The number of deaths between June 17 and July 1 were limited to eight people, bringing the total to 510.

• The state added 160 new cases to its July 2 report – the most since May 17 – and will receive a flood of new test results over the next few days.

New Positive Cases of COVID-19 in Delaware

Percentage of Persons who Tested Positive for COVID-19 in Delaware

“Delaware has done a great job of not focusing on just one metric,” said new Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) Secretary Molly Magarik. “We are reopening and people expected the numbers to go up. But we have seen a bit of gyration in the data. Some are lagging indicators, and some are more real time [like hospitalizations]. Anecdotes about what people are doing is not on the same level as data [in making decisions], but it gives us some perspective on whether people are being compliant.”

Still, Magarik concedes that “there’s still a lot we don’t know. As we see data from other states that have reopened, we see the percentage of positive tests and cases on a steady uptick. The question is when that starts to raise alarm bells. We are seeing that the states having the most dramatic upticks are the ones without face coverings.”

“I’m not happy with the constant changing of the goalposts,” said state Sen. Dave Lawson (R-Marydale), who hosted a “Stand Up Delaware” rally at the Dover Mall on June 30 in support of more aggressive reopening. “First, we were told to watch the hospital numbers, then we were told we needed more tests, even though there’s admittedly a 30% error rate. I don’t believe the numbers. They’ve changed so drastically, even changing the way they count the deaths.”

The state increased the death toll by 67 in late June after looking at death certificates and realizing there were many cases that had not been reported to DPH.

That said, Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lauren Weaver generally agrees with Lawson’s view.

“I’m not a scientist, I’m not a public health officer. I have no choice but to trust what the public health officials are finding. My frustration comes from the constant moving of the bar,” she said. “From a business standpoint, [our business owners] are frustrated. We were told we can move forward and that the contract tracing program was going well, but by the [Tuesday] afternoon press conference, we were told a different story. We were shocked to find out that the entire eastern Sussex County, the beach communities, would be included in this.” 

Delaware State Chamber of Commerce Chair Katie Wilkinson, a commercial market executive at Fulton Bank and chair of the Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee’s business subcommittee, said, “I have no reason to not trust the data and how it is being collected. [Looking at significant spikes in other states] it’s exactly what we should be considering as we reopen in baby steps versus bigger steps, since it could mean the difference between a small resurgence or a big resurgence. ”

Are businesses complying with the rules?

By all accounts, most businesses seem to be trying to comply but forcing many customers isn’t that easy.

“We’re getting a clear picture of compliance throughout the state, but the vast majority of businesses are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Jamie Mack, section chief for the Health Systems Protection unit of the DPH, which is responsible for statewide health inspections. “There are a few that are a little behind and we have to be more forceful, whether that’s with fines, reversion to an earlier phase, or even closure until they submit a plan for compliance that we approve. They want to be able to say Public Health [is putting pressure on them] so they can have a less confrontational discussion with patrons.”

After a slow start at the beginning of Phase 1, Mack says his team is closing in on completing 250 inspections over the past month or so. And after consolidating the public complaint process, the division is receiving as many as 100 complaints per day and was expected to conduct site visits over the holiday weekend.

“Our inspectors are now going out and providing more direction with timeframes, maybe scheduling a follow-up inspection,” he said. “Restaurants are still most common, but we’re inspecting supermarkets, gyms, offices. We’ve been to Walmarts, Target, Lowe’s, and Home Depot.”

Leishman from the Delaware Restaurant Association is all for that.

“The epicenter of the problem is not an industry sector; the epicenter is human behavior,” she said. “We’re seeing a visible lack of adherence to social guidelines, and the infection rate went up in Dewey during summer break because of young people. Our industry is sick of being vilified. Our industry is having to police behavior that has not been clearly articulated. The state isn’t shutting down the Wawas and Walmarts; they’re not restricting going to the boardwalk. Until we hold people accountable along with businesses, it’s patently unfair.”

Leishman said she’d prefer the state consult with business owners before making “knee jerk decisions” like the one on June 30 to restrict bar seating in specific Sussex County beach locations, but she was “pleased that the governor chose not to restrict bar seating in Wilmington and New Castle County.”

Carol Everhart, president and CEO of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, said that beach businesses are frustrated by the number of customers who are not abiding by guidelines set by the state, including social distancing and the wearing of face masks.

Montgomery of The Starboard said that his businesses saw very good compliance from customers through the daytime after they reopened, but attitudes became laxer later into the night, especially after patrons had been drinking. That convinced him to start closing The Starboard at 11 p.m. just three days into reopening in order to curb that risk.

“We’ve seen what has happened in other states when folks let their guard down. Let’s not be one of those states,” he said.

New Castle Chamber of Commerce President Bob Chadwick has heard from retailers about customers who don’t want to abide by the guidelines concerning face masks and social distancing.

“It puts them in a bit of a quandary because they’re not in the enforcement business,” he said. “Who wants to go up to somebody and ask them to leave right now, especially when someone might get belligerent. I just got back from Georgia and it was really scary. We were getting a lot of dirty looks for wearing masks in places. I have to give our businesses credit. They’re already facing a tough enough challenge, but I think they’re doing a really good job of following guidelines.”

Lawson said he believes business owners are the ones who have to demand compliance.

“If you’re drunk, a bartender has the right to stop serving you,” he said. “There’s nothing stopping them from saying to a customer, ‘if you don’t comply, it’s going to cost me my license.’ Comply or we can’t serve you.”

How is the governor doing managing the state’s response?

On this topic, there has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking, with the view appearing to depend on the priority they place on the balance between public health and a strong economy. But many appreciate the difficulty of the challenges Carney has faced.

“We need to remember that the reason we closed in the beginning was because hospital systems were overwhelmed and that’s clearly not the case anymore,” says Delaware Business Roundtable Executive Director Bob Perkins, adding that while older Delaweans need to be protected, he believes the governor is being successful taking a more targeted approach as he seeks “to find that delicate balance between being fair and trying to reopen the economy while being cautious to make sure that these outbreaks we’re seeing don’t ramp up to be bigger. If that results in delays, so be it.”

Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sarah Willoughby said that as hard as her job has been, she “cannot even imagine how the Governor keeps going. I can tell you that I am on other calls with other states, and Delaware should be very proud of the work that has been done. Our state is bringing the industries together and working with the businesses to find the best plans to re-open.”

The State Chamber’s Wilkinson said, “I am totally in support with the decisions made based on the data, and I am grateful that we were able to identify a possible resurgence in Eastern Sussex. This was not a reaction to make a total shutdown, but an alternative found based on the data. I’m in support, but I am disappointed that there were more restrictions for bars, as I’m sure everyone is in the business community.”

But Weaver also called for more “consistency with the measuring stick they’re using to making these decisions. We are left with the idea we don’t know what the government is looking at. Businesses have complied and done what they need to do to keep people safe at a great cost. There’s going to people who will not go out in public in 2020, or even later. But there will be people who will gather in homes or in yards, and these establishments are just taking the brunt of it. I don’t envy anyone making decisions. It seems like a lose-lose-lose situation.”

How’s the mood among business owners?

Optimism about how 2020 was looking has given way to more pessimism and uncertainty and in some cases companies that were doing well before the pandemic are now looking at having to close, said many of those interviewed for this story.

 “We haven’t seen this level of restaurant unemployment since 1983,” said Leishman. We’ve gone from a high of doing well and investing in our businesses and opening a second location to literally closing overnight and that’s scaring people. Up north, there’s a real concern about business coming back, about when people will return to work and come for lunch and catering.”

“My constituents in western Kent County are very concerned that their livelihoods are being taken away from them,” “said state Sen. Lawson. “They don’t believe the numbers that are being displayed now. In my opinion, we’re adults. Give us the guidelines and say ‘OK, here we go.’ The problem is that sometimes we’re given guidance and sometimes we’re given rules…and that’s confusing.”

“These are people I’ve known for 20 years, become friends with and had a working relationship with and they are shells of the people I’ve known,” said Weaver of the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber. “Before, there was energy going like ‘OK, we can do this, we can meet these guidelines and survive.’ That has changed to defeated.”

So what’s next?

Many people are wondering how the governor and DHSS will respond should the numbers continue to spike and whether they’ll use the same broad brush that was used in March. Both Magarik and Carney say no.

Magarik agrees that her department needs to help them have difficult conversations with customers about masks and social distancing, saying “if the public knows that the state is serious, it’s easier to get them to comply. “Face coverings really matter. We know this is a difficult time, but 6 feet of physical distancing at a minimum is a key tool to keep people safe from spread, especially with a face covering. We need to make sure that the tremendous sacrifices Delawareans have made were not for naught.”

Carney said the state is “going to work on enforcement with respect to the establishments, and signage and communication and trying to figure out how to put ourselves in the mind of an 18- to 25-year-old. I think our new secretary has a good sense of balance.”

State Sen. Lawson said, “I just disagree with shutting down businesses. We’re taking too much time away from treatment, finding a vaccine and making sure our nursing homes are safe. The state has 11,000 cases. How are you going to quarantine 11,000 people for 14 days and mean it? Should they stay home if they’re sick? Yes. Should they wear a mask if they’re sick? Yes. If you’re afraid, stay at home. But don’t expect me to stay at home because you’re afraid. We’re spending all this time and money and manpower for something that has a [very high] recovery rate.”

Willoughby agrees that many of the concerns could be solved if people would just wear their masks.

“As I said to someone the other night, I don’t like wearing a mask and I don’t like wearing my glasses, but I do it,” she said. “I want to get back to some normal. I want to see my mother who will turn 90 in October. I want to see family and friends, even if 6 feet apart. I want to get my staff back that I had to furlough. And I want to do good for our community and our state.”  

By Peter Osborne


Jacob Owens and Katie Tabeling contributed to this story.

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