The world around us — as we knew it in Michigan before March 10 — is going to look much different for the next 12 to 18 months.
As state officials negotiate plans to reopen portions of the economy in phases, business owners are planning short- and long-term changes in their operations to prevent further spreading of the coronavirus. As of April 22, COVID-19 had killed more than 2,800 Michigan residents and placed more than a million on unemployment.
MiBiz spoke with more than a dozen business owners, public health experts and development agencies over the past two weeks about what the region will look like during what’s expected to be at least a year of disruption — or until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.
“Post-COVID-19, employers should look at the way they do business. They should start planning on having their employees come in and work at a social distance,” said Muskegon County Public Health Officer Kathy Moore. “That may be contradictory to everything they’ve done before. I do think we should start planning for post-COVID-19, but I think we have to embrace that it’s not going to be business as usual.”
Moore spoke to MiBiz on April 15 when Michigan was “still right in the middle of the crisis.” In Muskegon County, the number of positive COVID-19 cases was still rising.
Experts and employers agree that some steps will become common, including strict sanitizing of workspaces, social distancing, employee temperature checks and remote working. Physical dividers in places like banks, grocery stores and restaurants will likely be the new aesthetic.
“Employers who have not prepared for pandemic events should prepare themselves and their workers as far in advance as possible of potentially worsening outbreak conditions,” according to guidance issued by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Lack of continuity planning can result in a cascade of failures as employers attempt to address challenges of COVID-19 with insufficient resources and workers who might not be adequately trained for jobs they may have to perform under pandemic conditions.”
Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives for The Right Place Inc., said the OSHA guidance is helping employers, but the flood of information is coming amid widespread uncertainty about what’s next. Another consideration: The process won’t be the same across sectors. Pandemic preparedness looks different for offices, manufacturers, restaurants, bars and venues. The list goes on.
“Everyone is trying to take the best of what they’re hearing and adapting it to their individual spaces,” Brown said.
Reopening plans began to surface from state officials in mid-April, and followed politically driven protests at the Capitol. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, released separate plans focused on the economic rebound. The House Republicans’ plan calls for placing counties in tiers based on risk for COVID-19 spreading, while the Senate Republicans’ plan involves five phases.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had organized her own panel of experts known as the Michigan Economic Recovery Council with advice coming from public health, business and labor groups. Whitmer has joined six other Midwestern states to coordinate reopening plans. Whitmer has said the main criteria for reopening include a sustained reduction in infection rate, better ability to test and trace positive cases, sufficient health care capacity and best practices in the workplace.
All of the reopening plans seek to avoid a second COVID-19 outbreak that would strain the state’s health care system.
“We all recognize that a second wave would be devastating to our state, our people and our economy,” Whitmer said during an April 22 press conference.
Business groups also have been organizing. The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce released a plan this month calling for a varied approach based on region and sectors. The Grand Rapids Chamber is also part of a Midwestern coalition of business groups calling for a coordinated reopening.
“Our call to action is to be focused and nuanced based on individual communities, sectors and needs so we can rebuild our economy everywhere as quickly as we can,” according to the Grand Rapids Chamber’s plan.
The phased-in rebound will look different across business sectors, but at this point the most uncertainty surrounds high-traffic areas — bars, restaurants and venues, to name a few. Some large events are already postponed until next year.
Tory Richardson, president and CEO of Gerald R. Ford International Airport, oversees an operation that lost 95 percent of its business since mid March. The airport qualified for $16.2 million in federal grants to help maintain operations, but revenue, which is highly dependent on passenger airline and parking fees, has dwindled. In April 2019, the airport brought in just less than $5 million in revenue. This April, it’s expected to be around $500,000.
When questioned about how the airport will operate in the future, Richardson said it will depend on the “public’s acceptance or experience coming out of this.” The “unknowns,” he added, are how ticketing, restaurants, TSA checkpoints and rental car counters may be redesigned.
“How do we keep (facilities) cleaner and safer going forward or design facilities to accommodate more spaces in gates so people aren’t sitting on top of each other in a cramped area?” he said. “All of those things are being brought into question now and are causing us to look at how we do business and what the future might hold.”
Hilarie Carpenter, spokesperson for ASM Global, which manages the Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids, said in a statement: “The safety of our guests, employees and clients is our top priority. We are working with the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority, ASM Global Corporate and public health organizations such as the Center for Disease Control on an ongoing basis. Actions taken will be consistent with guidelines from these agencies as well as local health department officials.”
A spokesperson for The Gilmore Collection — which operates 14 restaurants in the greater Grand Rapids area and in Grand Haven — declined to comment for this story. Another area restaurant group declined to speak on the record about changes under consideration ahead of more guidance from the state. However, the person raised concerns about how restaurants would be able to limit occupancy and how customers might react to restaurant staff wearing personal protective equipment. Restaurants face the dilemma of ensuring customer safety while also not alarming them. Also, some restaurant owners — as in other sectors — have raised concerns about being able to retain employees in the future who may receive more income through unemployment benefits.
The Michigan restaurant industry is expected to lose $1.2 billion in sales in April, according to survey data from the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Randy Bryant, owner of Fortune Chef in Caledonia, says he has been able to maintain steady takeout orders since Whitmer’s stay-at-home order in March. But he’s concerned about potentially having to distance customers in his dining area, which currently holds 72 people.
“For me, I’m in trouble,” Bryant said. “This is a tight-knit little restaurant. If the governor opens it up but people have to be 6 feet apart or more, I’m only going to be able to fit about 20 people for dining.”
The new workplace
On an April 22 virtual discussion hosted by the West Michigan Policy Forum, CEOs from around the region discussed steps they’re already taking to maintain safety, including sanitizing workspaces and employee temperature checks. They also referred to the OSHA guidelines, as well as reopening plans made public by Lear Corp. and best practices issued by Business Leaders for Michigan.
John Walsh, president of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, recommends companies keep in touch with customers and be prepared for ongoing shifts in operations.
“It’s all about being prepared,” Walsh said. “It’s not going to be a light switch, it’ll be a gradual reopening — be prepared for that.”
Kevin Clay, CEO of Grand Rapids-based Tier 2 automotive supplier Pridgeon & Clay Inc., said his company has installed partitions in the workplace and uses social distancing measures around time clocks, breakrooms and lunchrooms.
“We’ve redesigned all of those things and I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to the old way,” Clay said. “The new way just becomes the way after a while. I think this is going to be a real kick in the pants for the cobot and automation industry. Not that there hasn’t already been a huge drive toward additional automation and robotics, but this was just another reason to utilize those things that don’t get sick and that don’t have the safety concerns.”
Ivy Rehab Network, which includes physical therapy clinics around West Michigan, has redesigned waiting rooms, anticipating that more distancing will be common. The company has a “no germs in, no germs out” policy requiring patients to wash their hands before coming and leaving, said regional director of operations Gina Otterbein.
Jupiter Family Medicine P.C. in Belmont will not have patients waiting in a reception area and will limit paperwork involved with visits. Dr. Rose Ramirez says she is concerned about the practice’s ability to cover its fixed costs while these limitations are in place and absent a COVID-19 vaccine.
“This virus is going to be around for a while,” Ramirez said. “I think some staff will not want to return to work and we may not have enough work to do if patients refuse to come into the office. (There are) lots of questions about enough revenue to support the operations.”