More Businesses Reopen After Ivey’s New COVID-19 Order, but Slowly

A sign greets walk-in customers outside the Alabama Goods store in downtown Homewood. Retailers and other businesses are starting to reopen their doors for the first time since being ordered to close in late March amid a growing threat from the Coronavirus. (Source: Tom Gordon)

Gov. Kay Ivey gave new orders last week regarding which businesses may reopen after shutting down because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But while some reopened at the stroke of 5 p.m. Thursday, others are slower to get back to businesses, and many had yet to open their doors again as of Monday evening.

The Riverchase Galleria, which is the largest enclosed mall in the state, will remain closed until Tuesday, according to a press statement issued by mall operators. “We anticipate that the Mall’s food-use tenants may continue to operate for carryout and delivery service,” the statement said, adding that the Galleria’s popular Mall Walker Program is suspended for the moment.

The sight of an empty Galleria parking lot has been startling for April Stone, executive director of the Hoover Area Chamber of Commerce.

“I would come in to our office to check mail and so forth, and to look out on the lot in the middle of the day — it was like Christmas Day with no one open,” she said.

In Hoover, a number of smaller stores have reopened in the new Stadium Trace development on Alabama 150, as well as some stores in strip centers near the Galleria.

The Summit shopping center in Birmingham is an outdoor facility, though, and many qualifying businesses there opened as soon as they were permitted. Some, such as Trader Joe’s grocery, were already open because they were categorized as essential businesses, but most stores in the complex deal in apparel or other non-essential goods and services, and owners were anxious to get cash registers beeping again.

Stone’s small staff has been working from home, trying to help member businesses that suddenly lost almost all their income. Because of that, Stone said, they don’t know the full extent of how much the shutdown hurt businesses in general or ­­­how many have or soon will open their doors again.

Many small retailers were quick to put up the “We’re Open” signs, but better-known names such as Kohl’s, Hobby Lobby and Michael’s have also resumed operations, as well.

In general, Ivey’s new “Safer at Home” order allows department stores, clothing stores and boutiques, craft stores, insurance offices and the like to reopen to one degree or another. Elective medical procedures are also allowed again.

Linda Cooper, vice president of communications for the Birmingham Business Alliance, said that her group checked with its members to gauge what their situations were shortly after the shutdown. “When we reached out to them, most said they needed help with the SBA loan process,” she said, referring to the Small Business Administration loan program funded by Congress a few weeks ago.

The BBA has been assisting its member businesses with online training via webinars and other resources through its website.

 Professional Offices, Industries

Professional organizations such as law or accounting firms, as well as many government agencies, mostly continue to operate remotely with their staffs working from home; indeed, many attempts to reach workers at such businesses were met with phones that went unanswered.

Cooper said that nearly all those firms that are BBA members were affected greatly by the initial order but found ways to work around it. “It’s been very impressive to see how Birmingham businesses have been able to adapt quickly,” she said.

Industrial employers varied in the degree to which they have been able to operate, either due to government directives or greatly decreased orders, which made normal operation unprofitable. A notable exception is the Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, as the company has seen a major spike in business because so many people were sheltering in place and placing orders online instead of going to stores.

Ivey’s order does not specifically address kinds of industries and businesses allowed to open except to say they have to be able to maintain social distancing and meet hygiene requirements.

Many public functions at the Jefferson County Courthouse reopened last week, such as license tag renewals, and workers dealt with long lines of customers Friday. But many courthouse staffers who do not deal with customer-facing functions still work from home. County officials request those who can transact their business online to continue to do so.

As for how many businesses that had been closed during the original order are reopening under the new one, neither Stone nor Cooper had specific numbers yet.

Ivey’s new order allows any retail businesses to open, as long as they do not allow more than 50% of the normal capacity of customers to enter stores and efforts are made to keep everyone six feet apart.

Restaurants still can’t serve in their dining rooms; as previously, only take-out and delivery are permitted. Other establishments such as skating rinks, bowling centers, arcades, stadiums, athletic facilities, concert venues, race tracks and casinos are still prohibited from operating until further notice. Barber shops, hair and nail salons and any other similar businesses that require close contact with customers also remain closed.

The state’s Gulf Coast beaches have reopened with several restrictions.

Ivey’s order remains in place until 5 p.m. May 15. The governor is continuing to watch the situation and will decide before then whether to let more of the economy open.

Guidelines issued by the Trump administration for reopening the economy recommended states wait until the number of daily new cases of COVID-19 had fallen over a period of 14 consecutive days; Alabama’s rate of new cases instead has increased in the past three days.