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Sunday Focus: Area ‘easing’ back into business

NATCHEZ — Businesses throughout Mississippi and the Miss-Lou are eying plans for sensibly reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as state and local regulations are being relaxed.

Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc. said the key to reopening successfully is not rushing immediately back to the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year.

“The caution is that we are easing back into business using the protocols of both the governor, the City of Natchez and other guidelines and recommendations that are out there,” Russ said. “It is not going back to where we were prior to the pandemic.”

To help businesses prepare to reopen properly, Russ said Natchez Inc. has formed a Task Force of local leaders to create a Shop SMART Miss Lou initiative outlining guidelines and procedures for reopening properly.

Through the initiative, businesses can become Shop SMART certified to ensure customers and employees that the business is taking steps to operate safely in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(It outlines) the steps they have to take to prepare for the customers,” Russ said. “And there are things customers need to do to go back into those businesses.”

Last week, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a “Safer at Home” statewide order allowing some businesses to reopen that had previously not been able to open.

Under the new orders, restaurants and bars are still not allowed to have dine-in customers, but along with some retailers are able to reopen with curbside service.

Employees and customers who are shopping in those businesses also are required to maintain a minimum of 6 feet space between themselves and others and are required to wear some sort of facial covering.

After Reeves’ issued his order relaxing some of the stiffer regulations, the city of Natchez last week also adopted more lenient measures issuing a “Back to Business” order effective through May 31 offering guidelines on reopening for businesses.

Russ said the Shop SMART program is a road map for local businesses to follow for reopening.

Heather Malone, director of Concordia Economic & Industrial Development, said businesses are ready to reopen but need to do so smartly.

“I think that business in general is ready to get back into business but there are a lot of unknowns about how they can properly do so,” Malone said, adding that businesses have been supportive in following recommendations from the local government and the Louisiana governor’s office.

“That says a lot about the business owners and their concerns,” Malone said, adding many business owners are awaiting guidelines to reopen and that is what the Shop SMART initiative is designed to do.

“We introduce the ‘Shop SMART Miss Lou’ initiative to provide basic standards to incorporate into your reopening strategy, and to help area consumers understand that our business community is creating a smart plan to welcome their customers back into their businesses,” Russ writes in a letter to businesses introducing the Shop SMART initiative.

Through the program, businesses will be certified and awarded certificates to display to customers and employees that the business is “Shop SMART” certified.

“The designation of your business as a Shop Smart location entitles your business to be included in the Miss-Lou Economic Recovery marketing campaign which will promote your business as a Shop Smart location across local media and social media outlets,” Russ writes. “You will receive a certificate to display showing that your business has implemented a smart strategy to reopening. It’s easy to become a Shop Smart location, and you will not be charged a fee to be included.”

Business perspective

While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every business, the hospitality, tourism and restaurant businesses have been hit particularly hard.

Walter Tipton, general manager at the Natchez Convention Center and the Natchez Grand Hotel, said he and the staff members are working to clean and reopen the facilities and the Natchez Community Center.

“We got the Convention Center, the Natchez Community Center and the Grand cleaned by Serv Pro,” Tipton said. “We did all three facilities, rails, doors, light switches, floors and counter tops. For us that was a first step.”

Tipton said safety of staff and guests to the facilities are paramount and the Natchez Grand Hotel and Natchez Convention Center websites have been updated to include guidelines the facilities and staff are following to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We are closely following national, state and local procedures, and we are going a little step beyond those, like a lot of other establishments, we are providing plexiglass shields for our workers, and all the things we can do to control the potential spread of any kind of communicable diseases.”

Tipton said that while the facilities have skeleton crews in place now, no reopening dates have yet been set.

“The Convention Center is following guidelines the mayor and city put forth,” Tipton said, adding he is hoping they can reopen in the last weeks of May or early weeks of June and no events have yet been scheduled.

“We won’t be having any kind of group gathering until the end of May or first of June,” Tipton said. “We have a handful of employees at both facilities, and we are hard at work trying to plan our recovery. Our first priority is to make sure everybody is safe and that we are in compliance with everybody’s guidelines and would not in anyway do anything to put anybody in harm.”

Timeline uncertain

No one is sure when further restrictions may be lifted or how quickly business will get back in operation.

Russ, however, said he is hopeful the picture will look better by May 11 when Reeves’ “Safer at Home” order expires.

“I think they will be able to relax that order then,” Russ said. “I am hopeful nonessential businesses open with a set of guidelines, nail salons, hair salons with masks and gloves to handle customers, and there will be less and less restrictions on business operation and essentials.”

Russ said it all hinges on the number of COVID-19 cases between now and then. Otherwise he is hopeful the economic picture will improve.

“I think it will continue over the course of a month to gradually loosen parameters in place and come at it from a statewide perspective,” Russ said. “Less restrictions and more non-essential businesses opening back up.”

Meanwhile, Russ said some area industries are maintaining as best they can through the downturn.

“At the beginning of this the industrial side was doing fairly well during the downturn,” Russ said. “Vondrhel is making toilet paper and paper products. They’ve been in production wide open ever since.”

Other industries, including Great River Industries and Vidalia Mills, however, have experienced a slowdown, Russ said.

“Vidalia Mills was right in the middle of their ramp up and had gotten up to 135 employees then everything in that market slowed down,” Russ said. “It is a tough sale for major retailers to have orders for denim, and they have scaled back and are doing other operations.”

Key to Reopening

Russ said the main key to reopening is letting customers know businesses care about the health and the safety of their customers and employees.

“This is not dusting off a tired slogan of shop at home,” Russ said. “This is asking customers and citizens to get in and fight with us. If they love Natchez and the area like we love Natchez and the area it is vital they spend their money at home from the stimulus through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and stimulus. If those dollars are targeted to restart our local economy, that money has to be spent back in our economy in order to restart it. It is vital they do that. They are the key. Citizens are key to our economic recovery.”

Shop Smart Certification

Benchmarks business owners must reach and sign off on to become certified Shop Smart locations include:

  • Requires employees and customers to wear protective masks inside the building and while interacting.
  • Provides proper PPE for its employees and enforces coughing and sneezing etiquette.
  • Requires employees to wash hands/use hand sanitizer between each customer interaction and multiple times throughout shifts.
  • Provides hand-sanitizing stations at the entry/exit of the building and at high traffic areas of the business.
  • Requires employees to clean surfaces between customers and does not allow employees to use another employee’s phone or workstation without conducting proper sanitizing methods.
  • Requires employees to stay home if they are sick, if they have an immediate member of their family sick, or if they have been exposed to COVID-19.
  • Accommodates employees as needed under these circumstances.
  • Business will limit the number of people inside to 50% of the approved occupancy, allowing at least 6 feet between each person inside.
  • Business has limited in-person interaction by providing alternatives to employees and customers allowing a work from home option to employees and online or curbside services for customers. (If this option is feasible for a particular business)
  • Business has educated and trained all employees on our new business practices and on the health and safety standards provided by the CDC on preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Business will comply with all local, state and industry specific guidelines to re-open in a manner to maintain the health and safety of our employees and customers.
  • Business has informed customers of our new business practices.

To download a copy of the checklist, which is the first step in Shop Smart designation, visit www.natchezinc.com.

City of Natchez’s “Back to Business” order

Below are key components to the City of Natchez’s “Back to Business” order:

If you are a business that intends to reopen pursuant to the City’s “Back to Business” Program, you must follow the guidelines contained in the Order.

  • We have provided two posters for you to prominently display at your entrance, your check-out counter and key places throughout your business.
  • You may open in a limited capacity pursuant to all the guidelines
  • You must follow the specific minimum safety protocols outlined below
  • Keeping People Safe
  • Make sick employees stay at home.
  • Require employees and customers to wear masks or coverings over mouth and nose.
  • Provide in-store hand-sanitizing stations at the store entry and check-out counter.
  • Require employees to sanitize hands between each customer interaction and to wash hands with soap and water multiple times a day.
  • Train employees on the CDC’s health and safety standards for preventing the spread of coronavirus. See CDC Flyer “COVID-10 Stop the Spread of Germs.”
  • Securing a Healthy Environment
  • Frequently deep clean and disinfect your business.
  • Surface clean the check-out counter and high-touch surfaces between each customer and frequently throughout the day.
  • Limit the number of people inside our business to 50% of approved occupancy with 6-feet or more between each person.
  • Maximize ventilation by leaving doors and/or windows open when possible.
  • Encourage employees and customers to report safety concerns.
  • Accommodate employees who are sick or have sick family members
  • Encourage employees to work from home when possible.
  • Provide curbside service when requested
  • Encourage people to shop by phone or use our online services.