F.C. Public Health Tactics Seek to Turn Consumer Reluctance Into Enthusiasm

AS VIRGINIA ENTERS PHASE 3, some businesses have come up with new ways to maintain social distancing by moving tables into parking lots, such as Northside Social Falls Church. (Photo: News-Press)

Wednesday’s Phase 3 reopening in Virginia would ideally signal to City of Falls Church businesses that the worst is over after three long months. But with fears of contracting Covid-19 keeping people out of stores and businesses hurting for revenue, those working with the City are trying to instill some consumer confidence by taking a varied approach to public health.

Gyms, swimming pools, and yes, retail and restaurants can now be open to at least 75 percent capacity. Entertainment venues can also open to 50 percent capacity and groups of 250 people can get together.

Yet the lax rules aren’t giving City officials any hope that consumers are as eager as business owners want them to be.

“My gut feeling is people locally are reluctant yet to go out and shop and particularly go to restaurants inside,” Bob Young, the City’s Economic Development Chair, said.

That’s the castle wall the EDA has been scaling since mid-March.

Young remarked that he was surprised no businesses were lost due to the conditions brought on by the pandemic, but he added that the good news hasn’t toned down owners’ concerns about their long-term prospects.

Two-thousand-dollar micro grants sent out to 84 City businesses in late May — with a second round on the way in the very near future — only helped at the margins, according to Young, though he did feel it was important for owners to know they weren’t facing their economic hardship alone.

Plenty of proprietors indicated they were grateful for the financial support when they spoke with the News-Press in early June.

Better Body Pilates Studio owner Krisi Frazee said the grant took her mind off rent and operating expenses and allowed her to dedicate more attention to her clients.

And Cue Recording owner Jeff Jeffrey said his studio was able to maintain its current coverage on its audio equipment thanks to the grant.

The micro grants were the only form of assistance some Eden Center store owners received, such as Jay Thi of Thien My hair salon and Lilly Benjali of Cajun Boil and Pho.

And it’s helped other owners, including Thuan Tran of Pho VA and Thiem Ngo of the Washington Music Center, withstand the center’s high rent.

However it hasn’t been a cure-all.

While a share of businesses had a mix of funds from either the Paycheck Protection Program or the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (or both) to go with the EDA grant, it’s been, at best, a bandage on a wounded economy.

Art and Frame Falls Church owner Tom Gittins said the grant helped him retain an employee, but the circumstances also forced him to let go of three others.

Olivia Jeffers, owner of Karma Yoga, believed her studio may have to close if it can’t grow online and people remain fearful of breath and contact.

And Le Billard owner Huy Le, a pool hall in Eden Center, said he has spent every spare dollar he has to keep his business open.

“I’ve exhausted my funds [and] savings,” Le wrote to the News-Press. “Monthly, I find myself either generating enough for rent or having to borrow from friends [and] family members to pay rent.”

ADAPTING TO CUSTOMERS’ COMFORT with eating and drinking outdoors, Audacious Aleworks and Taproom located on E. Fairfax Street has moved some of its high-top benches from inside the brewery to underneath pop-up tents in its parking lot. (Photo: News-press)

It’s why attention has turned to addressing the root of the problem by making each establishment have as sanitary an environment as possible.

A jolt to that effort has been a new partnership between Falls Church’s Chamber of Commerce and BioPrep Solutions, a consulting firm that helps businesses navigate pandemics to stay in operation.

Elizabeth Feinstone, the public health director for BioPrep, said that some of the suggestions they’re passing along to businesses are how they can rearrange their stores to improve social distancing.

So for a restaurant or another business where people are most likely staying in one place, that’s been the recommended six feet of distance. But for gyms or other fitness establishments, BioPrep is recommending 10 feet of distance.

Other tips have been teaching owners and employees that not all disinfectants work the same way, with some needing to sit on a surface for a period of time before it can be wiped away.

Properly putting on gloves and masks to avoid unnecessary transmission are other pointers the consulting firm is giving out.

Securing a wholesale purchase of personal protective equipment has been a top priority for the EDA, according to Young.

Grant recipient Darlene LaFramboise, the owner of Lice Clinics of America – Falls Church, said she and other small business owners have trouble competing on the open market for the equipment that usually goes quicker to larger businesses, often at lower prices.

But Young said the City’s strict procurement regulations has made the EDA unsure if it’s even legal for the semi-autonomous organization to purchase a bunch of protective equipment and give it away to City businesses.

In the meantime, the EDA is looking to set up hand sanitizer stations throughout Falls Church for people to use and is also making posters for businesses to put in their windows that are advising shoppers to “Keep the Little City safe.”

That notice will join the blue and yellow check marks BioPrep is giving to the businesses that complete its course and take the “Healthy Business Pledge” it’s offering.

Feinstone said that 60 businesses have taken the course and the pledge, which requires businesses to stay up to date on the constantly evolving state and local health guidelines.

And patron reception toward the pledge has been positive, with the chamber saying that its made customers more comfortable going into a store, according to Feinstone.

Still, all the precautions being taken can’t guarantee the coronavirus won’t make an unwelcome cameo.

“We’re not promising that Covid[-19] won’t spread within these establishments,” Feinstone said, who has also given businesses tips on what to do if there is a virus outbreak at their shop. “What these businesses are doing is everything they can that we know so that they can mitigate the spread.”

Young believes the City will fare better than most in terms of its restaurant and retail activity. But if the federal government can’t come through with a second round of stimulus funding toward the end of the month, in his view, “there’s going to be a lot of bad news around.”