Business owners are getting ready for a winter in which they will weather not only the cold, but what is on track to be the most intense phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government-mandated restrictions and shutdowns set up to fight it.
Citing a spiking number of COVID-19 cases across the commonwealth, Gov. Ralph Northam last week enacted new rules to limit in-person gatherings, both indoors and outdoors, to a maximum of 25. Before that, gatherings of up to ten times that, 250, had been allowed. While that does not appear to affect the rules already in place on breweries, wineries, restaurants and other businesses, it does cut down on large gatherings at those and other businesses.
He also expanded the requirement to wear face coverings in all indoor public spaced to individuals age 5 and up. Previously, the requirement applied to those 10 and older. According to the Virginia Department of Health’s reporting of rolling seven-day averages, the state is averaging more than 1,800 new cases a day, already well above previous peak in May of around 1,200 and climbing steadily.
While Loudoun has not yet reached that fever pitch, it is seeing its own numbers begin to climb, now to an average of 61 new cases a day. Case counts now are the highest since June, but still not as high as the county’s record high of 108 cases a day at the end of May.
The order also authorizes the Virginia Department of Health to enforce, as a Class 1 misdemeanor, requirements for essential retail businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, require face coverings, and practice enhanced cleaning.Previously, such measures were recommended best practices.
Also, alcohol sales at bars and restaurants will be prohibited after 10 p.m.
All of that, plus safety fears around the COVID-19 pandemic, could mean a difficult winter for small businesses and their employees. Loudoun Hunger Relief Executive Director Jennifer Montgomery said she has already seen another increase in need at the food pantry.
“People need to get the help and access the help that they need, and there is help in our community,” Montgomery said. “I want people to not be ashamed. There are people who have probably never needed assistance before who are finding themselves in a situation where they need help. I want them to utilize the resources that are in our community.”
After all, she said, “we’ve never been through anything like this before in our lives.”
Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce President Tony Howard said businesses were expecting more restrictions and a surge in COVID cases over the winter, but surviving it is another matter.
“Even well-capitalized businesses are really starting to feel the strain, and the not-well-capitalized businesses are more than feeling the strain—they may not be able to make it through the duration,” Howard said. “So they’re prepared, they were expecting it—you’d be foolish not to have been, because we have the previous nine months’ experience to learn what it would look like—but there’s only so much you can do. But it really speaks to the desperate need for Congress to get its act together.”
He said another round of federal stimulus is needed.
“The stimulus packages have really helped sustain a lot of businesses,” Howard said. “They really need to get another round, because there’s only so much the local community and local government can do to support their businesses through the next however long it’s going to take.”
Howard also said he was troubled by the threat of a Class 1 misdemeanor for businesses that do not enforce those restrictions, pointing out that places people like retail workers in confrontations for which they are not trained with customers who refuse to comply.
“I don’t know that that’s really the best way to fight this disease,” Howard said. “I certainly know it’s not the best way to try to restore the economy.”
Coming in From the Cold
But at businesses like Wheatland Spring Farm + Brewery, business owners have been adapting since day one of the pandemic.
“When the initial lockdown happened in March, we, I think, let ourselves be sad about that for about six hours,” said Bonnie Branding, who founded the farm brewery with her husband John. “And then we said, OK, we need to double down.”
Like many other businesses, Wheatland—then one of the newest breweries in Loudoun—quickly adapted, taking advantage of changing Alcoholic Beverages Commission rules to begin selling their beverages for curbside pickup or delivery straight to customers’ homes. But the acres of space at the farm brewery have also allowed them to host visitors outside. And with winter weather coming, that will continue, around braziers or inside new, transparent, igloo-shaped tents, where visitors can stay warm. Inside the property’s historic barns, even with the doors thrown open, heaters hang above the picnic tables to keep visitors warm.
Branding said people have already been gathering around those, even bringing their own sleeping bags to keep warm sitting outside, or stripping down to short sleeves inside the igloos.
“We always felt throughout the summer that we needed to be preparing for another closure during the winter,” Branding said. “’If our business were closed for December, January, February, will we be able to make it through that without scrambling again?’ So we have been preparing for that all summer long, and I think that we’re well positioned.”
Some Help On the Way
Locally, the county government has been offering help, including with several rounds of grants for businesses affected by the pandemic. That work continues. Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer said next week his department will open a program to help businesses pay for tents and heaters so they can serve customers outdoors even in the winter.
With some businesses having already bought them, and others strapped for cash to get those now hard-to-find items, the program is flexible, both reimbursing businesses that have already bought them and paying on invoices for businesses that order them. That program is expected to have at least a quarter million dollars available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“Our tech businesses continue to do really well. We can’t even keep up with the growth, almost,” Rizer said. “But any of those companies that are dependent on human interaction for their business are going to struggle.”
And he echoed the need to get more stimulus into the economy “sooner rather than later.”
“That’s just critical, because you can’t just be sitting here telling people they have to stop serving alcohol at 10 o’clock, and cut down [gatherings] … without really committing to finding ways to keep them in business,” Rizer said. And he said he hopes Virginia doesn’t go the route of other states that have shut down indoor dining completely.
“I’m hoping that if we all just kind of buck up and wear our masks, do the right things right now, it can go a long way towards helping our businesses survive,” Rizer said. “That’s not always an easy thing to do.” But, he said, “what we can’t afford to do is continue to have this thing extended until mid-2021, hoping that we get enough vaccines to beat it that way—we have to take action now.”
As far as helping out those businesses, he said keep shopping.
“I think it’s just continuing to support and do the curbside takeaways, buy the gift cards, and understand what these businesses are going through right now,” Rizer said. “You think, well, what difference can my cheeseburger make? Every little bit makes a difference. Hopefully, people will continue to do that.”
Editor Norman K. Styer contributed to this report.