County begins economic recovery

Tulare County takes first step toward taking the local business community off life support from medically induced coma

TULARE COUNTY – Many businesses throughout California reopened their doors last Friday, but Staci Welch was ahead of the game. The owner of Exeter Coffee Company decided to reopen her shop last Monday, May 4 and her goal was to restore hope to her local community.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, Welch shut down her business six weeks ago. At the time, there was much uncertainty regarding COVID-19. Although she deems herself as a major germaphobe, the decision to close the shop was still a tough one to make.

“I didn’t want to be the reason for someone to leave their home,” Welch said.

Keeping the shop closed grew more difficult as time went on. She would ride her bike around town and people would constantly ask when she is going to reopen.

“I was missing the community that we built here [at the coffee shop]… the everyday people that came in often and became more than customers,” Welch said.

Thankfully, the coffee shop owner was able to utilize resources from the federal government that were meant to aid small business owners during the pandemic. She received a grant and was able to take advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). That measure was included in the CARES Act which was signed into law on March 27. The PPP helped Welch to keep her employees on payroll instead of having them join the more than 16,000 people in Tulare County who have applied for unemployment in the last eight weeks.

Since she was able to keep her same employees, Welch had discussions with her team about reopening Exeter Coffee Company. She felt the community needed a bit of normalcy and her shop was a big part of the routine for so many people. By reopening her doors, her goal is to restore optimism for the future. While the statewide shelter-in-place orders are still being enforced, the dining area of Exeter Coffee Company is still closed. They are only accepting online orders at ExeterCoffeeCo.com and they have adjusted their hours to Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

“It’s very rewarding for everybody to be so happy,” she said. “I think it gives people a little bit of hope that things are coming back [to normal].”

Next level jobs

This second level of stage 2 will only be allowed if the County medical officer can attest that the entire county has met all of the new five-step criteria outlined by the California Department of Public Health. These include:

  1. Epidemiology stability – No more than 1 case per 10,000 people in the last 14 days; No COVID-19 death in the past 14 days.
  2. Case investigation/contact tracing – Minimum of 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people; Temporary housing for at least 15% of the homeless.
  3. Testing capacity – Minimum daily testing of 1.5 per 1,000 residents.
  4. Hospital capacity – County or regional capacity to accommodate a minimum surge of 35%; Hospital facilities must have a robust plan to protect hospital workforce.
  5. Protecting vulnerable populations – Skilled nursing facilities must have more than 14-day supply of PPE on hand for staff with ongoing procurement from non-state supply chains.

Counties must create and submit a readiness plan which the state will make publicly available. In his weekly pandemic update, Tulare County HHSA director Tim Lutz told the Board of Supervisors that the County had a “theoretical capacity” to test 450 people per day at its own labs but short of 720 daily tests needed to meet the requirement. He did say that commercial labs were included in the testing capacity but the county still needed to verify how many tests they were doing each day and not just the number of positives. Tulare County has also had more than 48 cases in the last two weeks and had 16 deaths in the last two weeks. There was discussion from the board about lobbying for the State to allow counties to “factor out” skilled nursing homes from their equation, something Kern County has already requested.

By this time next week, Lutz said Tulare County will have the capacity to house 14.7% of its homeless, just shy of the 15% benchmark. The county has already met the goal for surge capacity at local hospitals, and has exceeded it. Tulare County needs 38 hospital beds and has 85 available. For ICUs, the county needs just 7 and have 18 beds available.

Another key piece of reopening the economy is the county’s ability to determine who someone infected with virus has come in contact with, a process known as contact tracing, to notify others of possible infection, test them, and then start the process over. Contact tracing enables the state to suppress the spread of the virus to avoid outbreaks and allows us to maintain our health care capacity and confidently modify the stay at home order. To work toward these goals, the Governor announced a partnership with the University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Los Angeles to immediately begin training workers for a landmark contact tracing program that will help contain the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while the state looks to modify the stay at home order. The partnership will include a virtual training academy for contact tracers. The first 20-hour training will begin Wednesday, May 6 with the goal of training 20,000 individuals in two months.

Lutz said the county has 35 staff members trained for contact tracing, or 7.3 staff per 100,000, about half of what is needed. Staff reported that they are working with Visalia Unified School District to employ school nurses to boost their numbers. Supervisor Kuyler Crocker suggested staff should reach out to the Tulare County Office of Education and larger school districts that employ their own nurses.

The biggest hurdle may be ensuring that local nursing homes have a 14-day supply of PPE. Lutz said only 16 nursing homes had responded to the county’s request for information and none of them met the criteria. He also noted that the State, not the County, licenses and regulates these facilities, leaving his staff without the necessary leverage to ensure compliance.

Small town work

Just around the corner from Exeter Coffee Co. sits The Grove, an antique store that will soon take up half a block of the city’s main street. Owner Dan Weiss says he reopened on May 1 out of necessity. In addition to losing income at the business, he was denied unemployment, passed over for the Paycheck Protection Program and left out of the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan.

“I had no income at all,” he said.

It was especially difficult after he invested much of his savings into renovating a vacant building next door in a joint venture with his fiancé Susan Goode. The couple took over the prime real estate at the northeast corner of Pine and E streets with plans to open the new antique shop last month.

“It’s put quite a damper on our plans,” Weiss said. “I have not been happy with the way the government has handled everything. There’s too much government taking over too many things.”

Luckily, Weiss said, his shop is located in Exeter, where the city administration and police department have been extremely supportive of small businesses. He said there has some been some increased interest since the Governor announced the reopening of some industries but most of his businesses will probably remain online until more downtown businesses reopen.

“We’ve always sold our items online but it’s been a lot more recently,” Weiss said. “We won’t see things back to normal until there is more foot traffic in downtown, but I’m not sure how many other businesses will be left.”

Sandy Blankenship, executive director of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce, said her office has been getting weekly updates from city administration about changes during the stay-at-home order and more recently from the police chief. She said those open dialogues allowed her office to offer guidance to businesses that they can reopen but should consult with human resource professionals, attorneys or county and state officials.

“Some of these shops are really struggling and we all want them to back to business,” Blankenship said. “Local authorities aren’t going to have a problem with it but they may be putting a state license at risk.”

Blankenship estimates that about two-thirds of her membership are still closed or only doing business online, including the chamber office, but there is a newfound optimism that more businesses will be able to open soon. The chamber has even decided to press forward with its plans for its annual Fall Festival community celebration in October.

“We will hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” she said.

Small biz in a big town

Steve Nelsen, executive director of Downtown Visalians, said many of his members held soft openings last week on Thursday and Friday, after the County released its guidance on the Governor’s amended order. He said many businesses are glad to be open but still sore from rules that were applied inequitably between corporate retail chains, which were allowed to stay open because they also sold groceries, and small businesses forced to close in a sweeping order void of nuance.

“Am I safer in a big box store with 100 people and 25 employees or a smaller store with just two people, an employee and a customer?,” Nelsen has repeatedly said. “I think we all know the answer but that’s not what happened.”

The City of Visalia took a more vocal stance on businesses reopening before last week. A month earlier, the city announced on its web site that it “may take action against” businesses if they did not comply with the Governor’s order. Nelsen, who is also the vice mayor of Visalia, reminded residents at May 7 city council meeting that the city has not issued any fines or citations.

“Since day one we have said we will follow Governor’s requirements and the Health Department’s requirements,” Nelsen said at the meeting. “What we have asked businesses to do is follow the Governor’s executive orders.”

Lori Heeszeel had just taken ownership of Sol Bol restaurant in downtown when the pandemic hit. She was one of three restaurants downtown to reopen after hearing of the Governor’s new rules on May 4 hoping there would be more people interested in ordering out.

“I feel like there has been more people,” she said. “We had our first repeat customers over the weekend.”

Sarah Ashoori, vice president of Ashoori & Co. Jewelers, opened her store on Mooney Boulevard a week before the new orders. She said both she and her husband have health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus but they were willing to open to put their employees back to work by following social distancing recommendations for a few people working in a 3,200-square foot store.

“You can make our community shine or die,” she told the council at its May 4 meeting. “Small business in our community are your backbone and they are the ones who support you.”

On Thursday, May 7, the Visalia Chamber of Commerce sent its members a “Re-Opening Business Resource Kit.” In its kit, the chamber recommends establishing a plan that includes clear objectives, policies and safety protocols, including a plan to advertise and promote your reopening, as well as a contingency plan if a second wave of the outbreak occurs and businesses are forced to rethink their business model again. Businesses should consider amending hours of operation and staff hours, train employees on new protocols and screening employees and customers by taking their temperature or to check for symptoms of the virus.

“We wanted to provide something to help our members think through the Governor’s announcement,” Visalia Chamber CEO Gail Zurek said. “This is not intended to take the place of county or state guidelines.”

The resource also includes local companies where business owners can purchase PPE, have signs or new documents printed, plumbers, HVAC and electricians to ensure things are working properly after being vacant for three months, IT support, custodial services, etc.

For industry specific recommendations, California’s Resilience Roadmap (covid19.ca.gov/roadmap) includes guidelines for 17 different sectors of the economy including agriculture and livestock, auto dealerships, communications, construction, delivery services, food packing, hotels and lodging, logistics and warehousing, office workspaces, real estate and retail. The State is recommending that once plans are completed they should be “posted in the workplace to show your customers and your employees that you’ve reduced the risk and are open for business.”

“Our intent is to keep everyone as safe as possible,” Zurek said. “We encourage businesses to seek advice from the list of resources as the rules can be a moving target when the county is making decisions on daily numbers.”

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