Uncertainty lingers for businesses in Phase 1 of reopening

  • At left, a sign outside Mema’s Family Restaurant in Satsuma shows where customers can place and pick up to-go orders Monday morning.
    At left, a sign outside Mema’s Family Restaurant in Satsuma shows where customers can place and pick up to-go orders Monday morning.

As area businesses slowly started to reopen Monday, Putnam County Board of Commissioners Chairman Terry Turner said residents must remain vigilant in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The Putnam County Economic Recovery Task Force held an online meeting Monday morning as Phase 1 of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reopening plan went into effect.

Phase 1 includes the partial opening of restaurants and retail stores, each at 25% capacity. Turner, however, said precautions against the coronavirus must continue across the county.

“We’re not real sure, even now, where this is going to go,” Turner said. “Everybody thinks today we’re open and up and the world is all better. But all he did was open us up into Phase 1 with 25% capacity in restaurants, and at-risk individuals are still supposed to isolate at home.

“We’re still supposed to do the same we were doing last week.”

Turner said he was returning from the Emergency Operations Center on Friday and the roads “were almost blocked” with traffic. Turner also said he was told supply stores Home Depot and Lowe’s were so busy over the weekend it looked like they were “giving stuff away.”

Before moving into Phase 2, DeSantis said areas will need two weeks of reduced numbers of positive COVID-19 cases. Putnam County added 12 new cases during the weekend.

“If people don’t start taking this seriously from this point out – this is just Phase 1 – I don’t look for us to go into Phase 2 in two weeks, especially if people stop social distancing and doing the things necessary to make that happen,” Turner said.

“As a commissioner, there’s nothing I want more than to open things up. But I think it’s my job while I’m wearing that hat to keep as many people safe as we possibly can. And that’s just not what’s going to happen if people don’t take Phase 1 seriously and think we’re just open again.”

Turner said if the number of positive cases continues to increase, the county could go back to Phase 0.

“If things get worse, where we don’t meet the gateway criteria any longer, we could go back a step and come back out of Phase 1,” Turner said. “My hope is we can stay in Phase 1 and maybe even step up into a portion of Phase 2 if the numbers show it and at the proper time let the beauty shops and the barbershops open up, letting one person in at a time.

“But that’s not the county’s call. That’s the governor’s call.”

The task force met via Zoom to discuss ways to jumpstart the county’s economy after DeSantis issued a month-long stay-at-home order in April.

Non-essential businesses were closed, while restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery orders. Businesses closed included bars, gyms and hair salons.

While Phase 1 includes restaurants opening indoor seating to 25% capacity, Putnam County Chamber of Commerce President Dana Jones said it doesn’t give them rules and guidelines to follow.

“You will notice this week many of our restaurants are not opening up (for dine-in customers),” Jones said. “They can’t afford to at 25%. Our largest restaurant, Corky Bell’s, is not going to open indoor dining at 25%.”

Turner again echoed a cautious approach to reopening all businesses.

“Especially if people aren’t going to take this seriously,” Turner said. “And obviously they are not taking it seriously with the amount of people that are showing up in public at the present time.

“I think we need to have a toolbox and come up with ways to make this happen when the time is right,” Turner said. “I don’t think this morning the time is right.”

Task force members discussed possible ways to help small businesses, restaurants and farmers in Phase 1. 

Ideas included awarding gift certificates for use at small businesses, expanding outdoor seating for restaurants and possibly a drive-thru farmers market to help agriculture producers.

Chamber officials said they had success with a Takeout Tuesday campaign last month, which encouraged residents to order takeout from restaurants.

Task force member Wayne McClain of the Beck Automotive Group said more ideas are needed to help small businesses.

“We’ve got to make sure we do it cautiously, but for a small business owner in town, they would see the chamber and local government is doing something to help them get customers in their shops,” McClain said. 

“I don’t think it’s the big box stores that need our help. It’s the little folks.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones said there have been close to 500 jobs lost in Putnam County and 208 initial unemployment claims. March’s unemployment rate for the county was up just less than 2 percentage points to 6%.

The U.S. Department of Labor said more than 432,000 Floridians filed for jobless benefits last week. Nationwide, more than 30 million people have filed for jobless aid in the past six weeks.

The state will release unemployment number for April later this month.