Bay City and Bay County officials are working on plans to help businesses re-open

Government and business leaders are taking the first steps toward preparing for business in Bay County to open up again.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home executive order expires May 28. Recently, she has relaxed some of the orders that closed businesses when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Bay County Executive Jim Barcia says if the statewide number of COVID-19 cases continues its downward trend, it’s likely the stay-at-home order will end and some businesses may open.

“We’re assuming we’re going to have some pretty significant relaxations of the orders,” adds Bay County Public Health Officer Joel Strasz. “We know we can’t continue sheltering in place forever.”

Opening up safely, though, requires strict adherence to best practices for avoiding the spread of the disease. Both Bay City and Bay County are working with local businesses to create plans for opening.

City Manager Dana Muscott says the city is considering a range of measures to allow bars and restaurants to expand their serving areas onto sidewalks and closed streets. Muscott stresses the city cannot finalize its plans until the state issues new orders.

“What we are doing as a city is looking to waive some of the ordinances that are in place that restrict the businesses from going into the roads,” Muscott says. “We’re looking to expand the sidewalk cafes.”

For example, a restaurant that sits next to a clothing store could get permission to spread tables across the sidewalk in front of both businesses. That would allow the restaurant to separate tables from each other and still serve more customers.

Bay City is considering closing streets in some business districts. That would allow bars and restaurants to serve customers outdoors, reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19.The city also is considering closing roads near some business districts, allowing restaurants to share space in the streets, giving them even more room to seat customers. Plans for road closures are not final as the city is still considering how to safely re-route traffic. In some business districts, the city may not be able to close roads, Muscott adds.

The city is working closely with business owners to determine what will work best for the businesses while maximizing safety.

“We’re just trying to be very business friendly in the COVID world and trying to help our city out. We have to be very flexible with the ordinances,” Muscott says.

“We’re doing that because we know when the restaurants and bars open, they’re not going to be able to have 100% occupancy. That’s going to hurt their bottom line. We need to think outside the box.”

This week, the city emailed bars and restaurants to tell them about the changes. City workers also hand delivered packets to local businesses. The packets included applications for the sidewalk cafes so the businesses can get everything in place and be ready to open as soon as the governor loosens restrictions.

The initial focus is on bars and restaurants. Muscott says she expects the state to issue different rules for retail businesses. When that happens, she is open to helping retail businesses maximize their opportunities.

“I think there’s some room for them to be involved in having sales outside. We do those sidewalk sales in Downtown Bay City,” Muscott says, adding that in many southern cities restaurants and retail share outdoor space to attract customers.

Muscott meets regularly with Bay County officials, but each entity is developing its own plan.

Bay County officials expect to unveil a new website on May 18 to help businesses and individuals understand new guidelines for operating a business in the coming months. County officials are working closely with Bay Area Chamber of Commerce President Ryan Tarrant and Bay Future President Trevor Keyes to create the website.

Bay Area Chamber of Commerce President Ryan Tarrant says the website is one way to spread reliable information through the community.

“We know re-opening is going to happen at some point in the future and when it does, how can you be prepared for that?” Tarrant says business owners are asking themselves. “This partnership and the website will provide guidelines and best practices.”

The Chamber also is holding webinars to share information as it becomes available. Much of the information is available on the Chamber’s Facebook page and website.

“There’s going to be a lot of different information on the county website,” Tarrant says.

He expects it to include information for employers, employees, and customers.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty for employers and employees. People are going to all of these different places to gather information. It seemed it would be better to house all of that information in one place for Bay County,” he says.

Best practices now include staying home if you feel sick or have COVID-19 symptoms such as cough, fever, difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. Frequent handwashing, staying at least 6 feet away from other people, wearing a mask in enclosed spaces also are key, Strasz says.

While working on a re-opening plan, the county continues to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in the community. The Bay County Health Department updates its website at daily as new information becomes available.

The county is paying particular attention to healthcare workers since the majority of current cases in Bay County are among patients, healthcare workers, and their families. In addition, the county is engaged in contact tracing to determine who has been exposed. To do that, the county is trying to identify anyone who was in close contact with an infected person. Close contact is defined as less than 6 feet away for more than 10 minutes.

“The important thing is to stop community spread,” Strasz says.

If you experience COVID-19 symptoms, it is critical that you immediately remove yourself from all public places, Strasz says. As much as possible, a person with symptoms should isolate from others in their household. Try to keep the ill person in a bedroom with an attached bathroom, Strasz suggests. Only one family member should care for the ill person to minimize exposure.

Strasz also cautions people to not dismiss symptoms as allergies, especially if you’ve never experienced spring allergies in the past.

The county also is talking to schools about best practices for re-opening. “There’s a lot of un-answered questions on that,” Strasz adds. “We’re still looking to get some guidance from state and federal sources.”