Open for business

An organization of area Chambers of Commerce, including Mesa, has proposed a three-phase plan for reopening Arizona’s economy that would start May 15 and be completed a month later.

 Gov. Doug Ducey last week extended his stay-at-home order to May 15 with some modifications, letting retail stores to sell goods via curbside pick-up and delivery starting tomorrow, May 4, with customers allowed inside starting May 8 with safety protocols in place. 

The reopening plan proposed by the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance – a consortium of area Chambers of Commerce that represents 5,000 area businesses – follows the Trump Administration’s “Opening up America” plan, using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We felt it was very important to use the CDC recommendations as the basis for reopening as the governor has been very clear since the beginning that he will be using those metrics to make key decisions impacting the entire state,” said Kathy Tilque, Alliance legislative chairwoman. “Businesses are looking for clarity and definitions to help them as they begin planning to reopen.

“The majority of businesses cannot weather this crisis through the end of June, which is why developing a clear, concise, and safe plan now is critical,” Tilque continued. “The sooner we can open businesses, the better it is.”

The Alliance’s reopening dates are based on health metrics and safety concerns. Tilque noted it took just three days for Scottsdale and the other eight chambers to agree on the plan.

Under Phase 1, half of the state’s workforce would be allowed back to their jobs the first two weeks of May 15. 

The Alliance suggested allowing retail stores, personal services like hair and nail salons, gyms and large venues like churches, movie theaters and sporting places to reopen with safety protocols in place – such as social distancing, masks and sanitizing measures. 

However, schools, organized youth activities and bars would remain closed.

Phase 2 would kick off June 1, allowing daycare and organized youth activities to reopen with strict distancing and sanitizing protocols. Bars would be allowed to open with diminished standing-room occupancy where applicable and appropriate.  

Under the first two phases, employers would encourage telecommuting whenever possible, make special accommodations for workers vulnerable to the coronavirus and impose physical distancing in common areas where employees congregate.

The Alliance suggested Phase 3 to commence on June 15 with unrestricted staffing at worksites, allowing bars to open with increased standing-room occupancy and loosening up some of the restrictions on gyms and large venues.

Under all three phases, visits to senior-living facilities and hospitals would be prohibited.

The White House’s Phase 1 launch assumes a downward trajectory of both flu-like illnesses and documented COVID-19 cases over 14 days, that hospitals can treat all patients without crisis care and that a robust testing program is in place for at-risk healthcare workers.

Ducey, who also wants to reopen the state in stages, last Thursday held a 90-minute telephone conference for businesses to call in with questions. 

He acknowledged frustration from the business community and noted he consulted with the CDC and the White House in making his decisions.  

Dr. Cara Christ, state Department of Health Services director, said her agency is looking at a lot of different data, including how hospitals are responding, their capacity and their caseload projection as the state moves away from restrictions.

“The pandemic has dimmed our economy, I realize that,” said Ducey, who likened the pandemic to a natural disaster.

He said Arizona was leading the nation in economic development and growth before nationwide closures and that he is confident the state will be back on track once businesses got the green light to open. 

He mentioned he used the “lightest touch” in closing businesses, allowing many considered to be essential to stay open.

Ducey said restaurants were the next to likely open May 12 for sit-down dining. He said that date comes from the restaurant industry after he asked how soon eateries can open when given the go-ahead. 

He said he was confident that the next two weeks will produce additional metrics in guiding his decisions and noted that he issued orders preventing evictions of small businesses that have been unable to pay their rent or mortgage.

Hotelier Bill Nassikas said although hotels and other lodgings were and allowed to stay opened, business was not good.  

“Our occupancy is in the single-digit range,” he said. “Typically, it’s in the 80 to 90 percent range.”

He asked when swimming pools, closed on April 4, will be allowed to reopen as the Valley’s temperatures enter triple digits.

Christ explained studies show the coronavirus has been transmitted in pools used by multiple groups and that guidelines are now being developed for their reopening.

Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, added that pools was the No. 1 concern with its members, stressing most resorts will not reopen if they remain closed.

Jeffrey Pruitt, founder and CEO of Tallwave, a business design and innovation company, asked about the potential impact if an anticipated second wave of COVID-19 hits the state in the fall.

Ducey said the state will be better prepared by then, adding, “We can protect people who are most vulnerable and not take the same drastic steps.” 

Christ said that while the virus is expected to stay around, more people will have been exposed and hopefully build a “herd immunity.”

And because hospitals have shown the capacity to handle the virus, the state won’t have to take far-reaching steps, she said.

Meanwhile, an Alliance survey and comments during the governor’s conversations with business owners indicate that federal help leaves much to be desired.

“The federal government’s programs are much appreciated, but the reality is that if the money received has to be used now while the business is closed, there will be no money to pay employees when their doors open if we wait until after June,” Tilque said.

She added that a recent Alliance survey of 350 businesses applying for aid showed 15 to 32 haven’t even received an acknowledgement of their applications and that 56 to 61 percent were rejected, depending on the program. 

The survey was taken before the Washington Post reported that its analysis showed publicly traded companies received more than $1 billion in funds meant for small businesses from the federal government’s economic stimulus package.

Using securities filings, The Washington Post said nearly 300 public companies have reported receiving money from the fund, called the Paycheck Protection Program. Recipients include 43 companies with more than 500 workers, the maximum typically allowed by the program. Several other recipients were prosperous enough to pay executives $2 million or more.

After the first pool of $349 billion ran dry, leaving more than 80 percent of applicants without funding, outrage over the millions of dollars that went to larger firms prompted some companies to return the money. As of Thursday, the Post reported,  public companies returned more than $125 million.

During other Chamber-sponsored webinars, representatives from the banking industry talked about the financial relief programs and the problems business owners have encountered.

Ashey Mapes of Business Development Finance Corp., explained that the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program bases help on applicants’ credit scores and cash flow, which could explain for some of the rejections.

Tim Colquhoun, vice president of National Bank of Arizona, said most of the declines are due to incomplete applications and applicants failing to calculate the loan amount they need. Banks need a complete loan amount to process an application, he added.

Mike Park of Mountain America Credit Union said incomplete documentation or applications will push a business to the bottom of the queue.

Tilque said she didn’t have any official number of businesses that have closed permanently.

“But according to our last EVCCA survey, only three businesses indicated they had closed permanently,” Tilque said. “I believe many are awaiting news about their federal loans in hopes that we will reopen our economy quickly. It’s like pressing the pause button on your remote: after a certain amount of time, the program will begin again or you get shut down. 

“It is our hope that we can hit that play button as soon as possible to ensure businesses can open quickly and consumers’ confidence translates into customers in stores.”

The Alliance also has asked that the state provide $4 million in grants to Arizona’s Chambers of Commerce, with each receiving $20,000 to $60,000. The chambers, which charge a membership fee, aren’t getting revenue if their members are not making money, the organization said.

And, if the chambers go under, it would seriously delay the economy’s ability to recover, the Alliance said.

 Additionally, the Alliance wants the state to provide $10 million total in loans for businesses with 20 and fewer employees that did not qualify for federal relief and were impacted by COVID-19.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Arizona Small Business Administration are conducting classes on how to apply for federal help at caresactaz.com or caresactaz.com/espanol.  γ

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