Businesses slowly reopen according to Metro Nashville guidelines

After 53 days of being closed down, city officials allowed restaurants and retail businesses in Nashville to reopen May 11 at half capacity, initiating the phased reopening of the state’s largest economic area.

The reopening of select businesses at partial capacities is part of the city’s four-part reopening plan, each part of which officials said relies on the downward trend or flattening of new reported cases for 14 days before advancing to the next phase. Nashville’s gradual reopening comes two weeks after the majority of Tennessee’s 95 counties began a state-guided plan April 27.

“It’s important to bear in mind that several unique features of Nashville make our reopening process different from other areas across the state, and it’s important to get it right the first time,” Cooper said May 7. “The number of businesses that operate here and our global tourism industry all make Nashville’s safe reopening critical to the region.”

When Cooper announced the plan April 23 without an official start date, he said Nashville’s strategy to reopen would be contingent on several factors, including a rate of transmission of less than one, meaning each COVID-19 patient does not infect more than one person; a downward trend of documented cases within a 14-day period; and the amount of testing supplies and personal protective equipment the city has on hand.

“Since we first started considering how Nashville will restart our local economy, we’ve been committed to a data-driven approach that prioritizes public health and ensures a successful reopening,” Cooper said.

At the April 30 press briefing, Coronavirus Task Force Chair Dr. Alex Jahangir said most of the metrics, such as hospital capacity and expanded testing, indicated the city was ready for the first reopening phase, but the transmission rate and 14-day trend of new cases were still considered to be “less than satisfactory.”

In order to maintain or improve the trend of new cases, Dr. Jahangir said the city would need to average 80 or fewer new cases per day. As of press time, there is no start date for when the city would move to the next phases of the plan.

During the two-week period leading up to the plan’s first phase, the number of new cases reported daily by health officials varied widely, dropping as low as 24 cases and as high as 165. Despite some daily upticks, Nashville averaged about 86 new cases per day during this two-week period, according to data provided by the Nashville Public Health Department.

“We’re not just looking at one metric,” Jahangir said. “The 14-day [metric] is a rolling average, and [one or two spikes] in days doesn’t necessarily reset the whole clock.”

However, Cooper said the city will revert to an earlier phase or establish stricter social distancing guidelines if there is a rise in new cases during any of the four reopening phases.

“Each of the four phases in this public health framework contains clear metrics to determine when certain parts of our economy will reopen, including triggers that could require us all to revert to an earlier phase of the plan to protect our community and ensures that our area health providers do not become overwhelmed by a spike in COVID-19 cases,” Cooper said during the press conference.

“Every Nashvillian feels an urge to return to business as normal. Many livelihoods depend on it. But business owners, employees and customers alike should trust that places of business ... throughout Nashville are safe.”

Retail, restaurants reopen

Cooper’s plan to begin reopening Nashville’s economy follows the expiration of the city’s safer-at-home order May 8 and allows residents to leave their homes for essential and nonessential business.

The first phase permits restaurants and retail businesses to open at half capacity, while bars, hair salons, gyms and entertainment venues will remain closed. During this phase, businesses must screen employees for symptoms, implement social distancing measures and post signage about the recommended use of masks for customers.

Strategic Hospitality President Benjamin Goldberg, who operates Bastion, Patterson House and other restaurants and bars in Southwest Nashville, said his teams plan to implement such measures to ensure the safety of employees and dine-in guests.

“We started working several weeks ago on what [reopening safely] looks like for us,” Goldberg said. “We took a lot of what city officials were saying in press conferences and consolidated it down into a list, but we also tried to figure out ways that the employees would be more comfortable and guests would be comfortable coming to the restaurant. The bigger picture here is that everyone is safe and does the right thing.”

Goldberg said all employees will have their temperatures taken before each shift and that management will provide staff members with face masks and gloves. There will also be newly-installed hand-washing stations available for employees, he said.

“We’re just trying to keep the conversations going at all times with managers, cooks, bartenders [and] servers. ... If there’s something that’s missing and we need to be doing, they can communicate that to us because oftentimes, they are going to see things in different ways,” Goldberg said.

Brittany Hartwell, owner of clothing company Molly Green, said she had to furlough 90% of her staff across five stores during the closures while waiting to see if the company would receive Paycheck Protection Program funds, which she applied for in early April. One month later, upon receiving the loan, Hartwell immediately rehired the company’s employees and began putting safety measures in place.

The company is requiring all employees and customers to wear masks while inside stores and has closed its fitting rooms. Until further notice, the shop is accepting in-store shopping appointments and walk-in customers based on availability to ensure shoppers maintain a distance of at least 6 feet.

“The whole customer experience is a lot different, but we’re trying to navigate it in a way that’s hospitable, welcoming and friendly just like we’ve always been, but it is a challenge,” Hartwell said.

Unexpected trends

While many stores have struggled to keep revenue going during the closures, one unforeseen result of the virus has been an increase in certain industries. With gyms closed until the city’s third reopening phase, outdoor recreation businesses, like bike shops, are seeing an increase in sales and repairs.

Although deemed an essential business, Trail & Fitness Bicycles owner George Khoury said he felt it was necessary to transition to curbside service only for the safety of his staff and customers. However, he said the Belle Meade shop has been busier than ever.

“I made the decision to do as much as we possibly can from the curb,” Khoury said. “With the nature of our business, I can make pretty much everything happen outside.”

Bike shops across the country are seeing a surge in sales, according to Khoury. In fact, he said business owners are anticipating a potential inventory shortage leading up to the summer due to the demand, with bikes under $1,000 already proving difficult to keep in stock.

Though business has increased, Khoury said he knows other retail shops are not as lucky. Throughout the extended closures, he has managed to keep the shop’s three full-time and two part-time staff members employed.

“At the end of the day, I feel very, very fortunate with everything going on around us that I don’t have to worry about business and whether I can keep my staff employed,” Khoury said.

Protecting customers

About a week after reopening her shops in Franklin, Chattanooga and Birmingham in early May, Molly Green’s Nashville locations in Hillsboro Village and The Mall at Green Hills reopened to the public. Hartwell said the shop ran out of 500 disposable masks for customers during its first weekend in business.

“We’re trying to protect our staff and customers, and it’s going to be expensive to provide face masks,” Hartwell said. “I guess it’s just the cost of doing business right now, but we were really surprised to run out of them so quickly.”

As the largest shopping destination in Southwest Nashville, The Mall at Green Hills reopened May 13 with modified hours after nearly a two-month closure. As part of its reopening plan, the mall is implementing frequent cleanings and posting signage to help visitors practice social distancing.

“I appreciate the way The Mall at Green Hills is handling the reopening,” Hartwell said. “They have a lot of signage, they have hand sanitizer, and I really commend them for their efforts to help make this work.”

Mayor Cooper said businesses have a responsibility to follow reopening guidelines determined by health officials to ensure the safety of employees and customers.

“It is the responsibility of the business to help keep you safe. If they are not doing that, don’t patronize that business, “ Cooper said May 7. “That’s pretty blunt, but that’s what we’re going to have to depend on going forward. If people are aggressively demonstrating they don’t care about public safety, then the public has every right to withdraw their business.”