Businesses across the Roanoke and New River valleys are preparing to reopen starting Friday, but it’s far from business as usual.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued detailed guidelines for the first phase of reopening following the shutdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Retailers can open at 50% occupancy, restaurants can offer limited patio seating, beauty salons and barbershops may offer service by appointments only and gyms can hold exercise classes outside with no more than 10 people.
Though businesses will be operating at a reduced capacity, many are eager to welcome back at least some customers and are hopeful people will be itching to get out of the house and visit their establishments.
When considering whether to offer outdoor classes at Brickhouse CrossFit in Roanoke, owner Ryan Robertson decided to poll his clients to gauge their comfort level.
“It wouldn’t make sense to open if nobody wanted to come back,” he said.
About 77% of his respondents said they were ready to be coached in person outdoors. Virtual training, which Brickhouse has offered since closing, will still be available for those who are uncomfortable with coming to the gym, and also to supplement the in-person workouts since space will be limited, Robertson said.
Outdoor classes will be capped at eight athletes. Participants will need to register in advance, Robertson said. He plans to start with three classes on weekdays and two on Saturdays, but will consider adding time slots if there’s demand.
Coaches will be required to wear masks. Athletes will be encouraged to do so, Robertson said, but face coverings can be removed during exercise so long as participants maintain a 10-foot distance from each other. He said each person’s space will be taped off on the concrete patio area beside the gym that will be used for outdoor classes.
Robertson said he’s ready to welcome gym members back and said he thought allowing outdoor exercise classes was a good first step.
“For me, I’m always going to choose fitness,” he said, noting that exercise is a defense against illness.
Robin Lewis, owner of Fleet Feet Roanoke, said more people are walking and running now, and they need the right shoes to do it. The retailer is prepared to help and will invite customers into its store for fittings when it reopens Monday.
Fleet Feet is following guidelines from both the state and from the corporate brand, as the Roanoke store is a franchise. Lewis said stores in other states that have reopened have been successful.
Fleet Feet will allow in eight people per thousand square feet of sales floor at a time, which is less than the 50% capacity set by the governor. Employee temperatures will be checked daily.
Everyone who enters the building will be required to wear a face mask; Fleet Feet is encouraging customers to bring their own but will have some available. Dressing rooms will be closed. Tape marks will show people where they can safely stand while waiting for a register.
Lewis recommended that anyone who wants to get fitted for shoes make an appointment online to ensure there aren’t too many customers at any one time.
“We know that there might be a handful of people that don’t really like all that, but we can’t help that,” she said. “It’s not fair to our staff or customers inside who are willing to be distant and wear a face mask. We’re going to be pretty strict about that.”
Lewis said the Roanoke store is slowly bringing back employees. A few have said they are not comfortable returning, citing a pregnant wife or childcare issues.
Getting masks and cleaning products has been difficult, she said. Luckily, one of Fleet Feet’s customers owns a cleaning supply company that sells to commercial customers, so he helped them secure some supplies.
Chelsa Stassin, owner of Cut It Out Salon in Christiansburg, said she is excited to reopen Friday.
“I can’t wait to see all my clients and fix all the quarantine hair,” Stassin said.
She will be seeing clients one at a time and sanitizing surfaces and equipment between customers.
The salon’s second stylist will also be working, but she and Stassin will alternate morning and evening hours. “It’s been very difficult not having an income. I’m used to working six days a week, around 50 hours a week, and going from 100 to zero was very tough,” she said. “I miss my clients. I love what I do. I miss just coming in and socializing.”
Mountain Lake Lodge is opening about half of its rooms to guests, specifically cabins and cottages with outside entry, said Heidi Stone, general manager of the Pembroke resort.
The 2,600-acre property in Giles County is well-equipped to handle social distancing, Stone said, noting how accommodations are spread out and outdoor amenities abundant.
By partially reopening, Stone said, lodge officials felt they could keep employees and guests safe while still offering a “pretty close to normal experience” for those seeking a getaway.
“I think everybody’s ready to get off their couch in their living room at home,” she said. “Here they can come experience the fresh air and get out and exercise and recreate and still be completely safe.”
Although dining rooms must remain closed, Stone said, outdoor seating will be open. Meals can also be delivered directly to cabins and cottages.
Masks were purchased for all employees and some will be available for guests. Hand sanitizer stations have been placed at entrances to the main building. Plexiglass barriers have been installed at the front desk. There will be a buffer of at least three days between when guests leave and when anyone—including housekeeping and maintenance staff—enters the room, Stone said.
In addition to the governor’s guidelines, Stone said, the resort is also following those set by the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
BT’s Radford, a large restaurant and bar across from Radford University, will reopen for reservation-only outdoor dining on Friday, general manager Hal Clary said.
The patio normally seats 60 customers, but in compliance with the governor’s order, they’ll open it up to 30 at a time, Clary said.
The financial benefits of outdoor-only service won’t be substantial. And rainy or cold weather will pose a problem.
“It’s a losing proposition,” Clary said. “Whatever money we bring in basically covers your labor, not your costs.
“It’s a shame the governor won’t let us open up to 25% capacity inside, when we have plenty of spacing and lots of different areas where we could put people, and they wouldn’t be on top of each other,” he said.
Still, Clary said, BT’s is lucky it has an outdoor patio to serve some customers.
“Think about these diners—small mom-and-pop places that don’t have outside seating,” he said. “You’re actually killing them. I feel sorry for them.”
Blacksburg officials have been thinking about those issues.
Matt Hanratty, assistant to the town manager, is working on a project that would open public parking lots and perhaps even sections of low-traffic streets to restaurants that don’t have their own outdoor dining spaces.
“The reality is with COVID, the better the restaurants do, the better the town does because meals tax, all of those economically sensitive revenues, we’re losing them. It’s a domino effect. It affects everybody,” Hanratty said.
The town is also working on a temporary policy that would relax zoning rules in private parking lots so restaurants could work with their landlords to open parking spaces for outdoor dining.
If Roanoke restaurants wanted to use their parking lots for outdoor seating, it likely wouldn’t be a problem, said Chris Chittum, the city’s planning director.
Most restaurants have more parking than is required. And some, like those in the downtown and neighborhood commercial zones like Grandin Village and Crystal Spring, don’t have any parking requirements, he said.
As of Wednesday, Chittum said, the city’s permit center had not received any inquiries from restaurants looking to use parking for outdoor seating.
County spokesperson Amy Whittaker said Roanoke County would work to accommodate restaurants looking to offer outdoor dining during the first phase of reopening.
“Outdoor dining areas should not be problematic as long as proper regulations are followed. We’re glad to work with our restaurants to be as flexible as possible during these unprecedented times,” she wrote in an email.