Many questions, few answers at first Delaware coronavirus business forum

The Rehoboth Beach boardwalk closed to the public after Del. Gov. John Carney ordered all state beaches closed in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

The Rehoboth Beach boardwalk closed to the public after Del. Gov. John Carney ordered all state beaches closed in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

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Should workers at the Grotto Pizza shops on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk be installing plexiglass dividers between booths to keep diners separate?

Will bookstores have to limit access to just ten customers at a time?

Will beach rentals serving single families be allowed to open before hotels?

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And most importantly, when will Delaware start relaxing coronavirus restrictions that have crippled businesses throughout the state?

More than 300 people took part in the first virtual town hall for small businesses on Monday afternoon. Lots of business owners had questions, but the forum’s hosts, state Division of Small Business Director Damian DeStefano nor Kurt Foreman, president and CEO of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, didn’t have many answers. They promised to use the feedback provided by businesses to improve the state’s reopening process.

“Our office has been hearing from small business owners. I know what many of you have been going through and I sympathize with the challenges that you are all facing,” DeStefano said. “I’ve heard the concerns, at times frustration, I’ve also heard the resolve of many of our business owners.”

DeStefano outlined the steps Delaware would take to rollback restrictions in phases after a two-week decline in the number of new coronavirus cases and other milestones. Under the first phase, large venues and restaurants would have “strict guidelines” on how they could serve customers, gyms would be able to reopen with physical distancing, but bars would remain closed. It’s not clear exactly what those strict guidelines for restaurants and other businesses would be.

Lots of people on the call questioned that lack of clarity.

“Are the limitations going to be applied with differing standards to different types of properties?,” asked  Lyn Shoop of Dewey Beach Rentals. “We’re not only losing revenue now, but we’re also having to refund, and so we’re going in reverse.” Shoop also asked a key question for many beach businesses: when will the beaches reopen?

“You raise some key questions that have to be addressed,” Foreman said. “I wish we could tell you when beaches are going to be opened, but I think that’s something that’s being considered as part of the broader plan.”

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Some offered suggestions on ways to maintain social distancing among customers while still allowing businesses to operate.

Thierry Langer owns three dessert shops called Kaisy’s Delights. Two of the locations are in the resort towns of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach. He said Delaware should copy what’s being considered in France, where restaurants are expanding tables into the streets to take advantage of the fresh air and roads that are not being used as much by cars. “That would avoid crowds, it would give the possibility for restaurants to practice social distancing in a safe way,” Langer said. “I think that’s the way to have our local industry survive.”

Foreman said that’s something the state would put under consideration. “I think it’s a very creative idea, and I like that you’re looking for answers not just from our neighbors, but from people further away who may have come across something that we can steal.”

More town hall meetings are planned with small business leaders in other parts of the state through May 6. Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long is hosting similar meetings to get feedback from the general public on the plans to reopen the state. Those meetings start Wednesday and will run through May 7.

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