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Spokane leaders ponder ways to boost business post-shutdown

UPDATED: Mon., April 27, 2020

Customers wait in line to enter the Costco on Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley on April 9, 2020. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Customers wait in line to enter the Costco on Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley on April 9, 2020. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Dine-in service, but no interaction between server and customer. A nail salon, but every other chair sits empty.

No one is certain when and how restrictions on businesses will lift, or what will replace them. But Spokane-area leaders are working to ensure there’s help navigating what likely will be a whole new world of public health regulations when edicts loosen.

Local public officials and business leaders are exchanging ideas about how to assist businesses as the region prepares to gradually reopen its economy, shifting their response from immediate crisis support to a long-term plan for damaged businesses.

One idea, shared by Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, is to use federal assistance to hire public health experts who would be tasked with aiding businesses adjusting to new public health guidelines and social distancing standards.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order is set to expire on May 4, but it remains unclear what industries and businesses will be allowed to reopen and when. Inslee has said the state’s path forward depends on factors such as the availability of COVID-19 testing and the capacity to trace the contacts of people infected with it, as well as isolate those who can’t do so at home.

While those variables remain uncertain, local leaders are planning ahead.

“If we want to put our community back to work, we have to look at what are the obstacles, aside from President Trump and Gov. Inslee’s plans,” Beggs said.

For example, restaurants will at some point be allowed to reopen for dine-in service, but Beggs notes that it may be at a reduced capacity to allow for social distancing inside.

A public health expert could help restaurants adapt to these new standards, spacing out tables to ensure adequate safety but also maximize efficiency for the business. Perhaps food will no longer be delivered right to a table, but picked up by the customer at a designated station.

The same approach could be applied to businesses like salons and nail salons, he suggested.

Grocery stores already have adapted to social distancing requirements. Stores such as Walmart and Fred Meyer are limiting the number of customers inside the store at any given time, and have placed stickers on the floor to keep customers six feet apart in the checkout line.

Last week, the construction industry – including companies and labor unions – developed safety standards that persuaded Inslee to begin to lift restrictions and allow work to resume on some existing projects, as long as there is space for proper social distancing.

“Every industry is going to have to do that, but we could have our health district – assuming we give them the money – to do it,” Beggs said.

Cindy Wendle, who co-owns the Northtown Square shopping center, is leading Greater Spokane Inc.’s business recovery work group. She said ideas, like that of a public health expert assigned to help businesses reopen, are circulating between community leaders.

As businesses are allowed to gradually come back online, lessons should be learned from sectors that already have been open, Wendle said.

In addition to the importance of consumers feeling confident in public health, Wendle stressed the importance that employees feel safe coming back to work and said there is “one shot to do this right.”

Wendle said the businesses recovery work group will partner with the Spokane Regional Health District in the coming weeks to help answer questions that businesses have, ensuring that customers who “engage with our businesses feel confident” in their safety and that Spokane will be the “safest community.”

Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz addressed the relationship between private businesses and public health officials in a news conference on Monday, noting that many businesses had not in the past “seen public health as a partner.”

“Going forward, for us to be safely opening up for both the vendors as well as the customers, there has to be confidence that where they are going is safe,” Lutz said. “As we open up, you’re going to be seeing a greater partnership.”

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