Stores that are still open in North Carolina are now under more restrictions due to the coronavirus. Per an order from Gov. Roy Cooper that took effect Monday, they have to limit the number of people inside at one time to only 20% of the fire code capacity. They also must physically mark six-foot distances at checkout lines and routinely clean their facilities.
To get a sense of how Charlotte businesses are responding to the new restrictions, we turn now to Tony Mecia of the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter for our segment BizWorthy.
Marshall Terry: Tony, how our business is handling this latest round of social distancing measures?
Tony Mecia: Well, Marshall, I think really a lot of them have already put some of these measures in place, so it wasn't too big of a shock to the system. I mean, I think businesses, you know, you think about grocery stores and pharmacies, they certainly want an environment where people feel safe. They don't want to have people not go because they're concerned that they're going to get sick or get infected, so a lot of them had already started doing this.
But I guess the government felt that it needed to kind of formalize some of these things as far as when you're in line, where do you stand? And you see the little stickers on the floor. And, you know, in the grocery stores you're starting to see some of the shields kind of by the register or maybe more of the employees wearing masks. I mean, these things were already, in many places, going on, but I think it's probably helpful to have consistency so that people feel like they're going somewhere where there's, you know, a safe environment. I think that's something that a lot of the businesses really want. They're not really opposed to these new orders at the moment because, you know, I think they recognize the public health need.
Terry: A big debate right now nationally is exactly when businesses should reopen as normal. Do you have a sense of where Charlotte's business community falls in that debate? In other words, is everyone ready to go now, or is there any concern that it might be too soon?
Mecia: Well, I think you're seeing a little bit of a mix. I've talked to a number of business owners that are kind of saying, "Listen, if you look at the number of new cases they've been dropping for the last week, do we still need all of these restrictions? Are the restrictions worse than the health effects of the coronavirus in the sense that you have all these people that are out of work that are at home?"
A number of county commissioners this week raised the issue of mental health. What is this doing to people's mental health? I mean, I think the business community also reflects that. I don't think there's sort of a monolithic "this is what the business community thinks." I think opinions differ. I think a lot of businesses are very much in tune to what's going on with the health issues, but some of them, I think, are starting to question how long these restrictions need to go on for. And so, I think they want to be involved in some of those discussions, and you're starting to see that, Marshall, in other states where other states are starting to look at appointing task forces that have not just public health people, but also economic business people, economic development people.
Terry: Charlotte City Council this week approved using $1 million for grants to support some of Charlotte's "micro-businesses" that have been affected by the virus. Now, "micro-businesses" are businesses with five employees or fewer, so pretty small.
Mecia: Yeah, I think this is something that the city is doing, and the city and the county have both in the last week or two unveiled some of these programs to help some of these small businesses. The one that you mentioned — you know, five employees or fewer for Charlotte. The county's got a few. And some of these are funded by federal block grants, federal community development money, money that's coming in. The county came out this week and said that they had received a bunch of applications for some of their programs. Now, not all of those qualify. They said on one of the programs, they had 60 applications, but only 13 of them were really eligible because you had to live in the right place. There are a number of programs from the city and the county and the federal government.
Terry: This time last week, you mentioned several businesses that had tried to apply for a loan as part of the federal coronavirus relief package and said they were having a difficult time doing that. Has that gotten any better?
Mecia: My sense is that in talking to business owners, Marshall, that that has improved. A lot of them have been able to put in these applications, you know, to the Small Business Administration through their banks, that a lot of those are pending. Some of that money has started to become available — not as quickly as a lot of the small businesses would like, but a lot of them are very hopeful that that money will be coming and coming in fairly short order. It's on its way to some, and it sounds like more is becoming available in the next week or two.
Terry: One industry that's taken a huge hit is the airline industry. Last week, Charlotte aviation director Brent Cagle told City Council the number of passengers has plunged nearly 95% at Charlotte Douglas. One of your reporters went down there to see what that looks like, and the headline for that story said it all: "Air travel is now like an apocalypse movie."
Mecia: Yeah, he said it was sort of eerie. There's nobody really there. I mean, there are some of the workers there, you know, the TSA, of course, but I guess it's probably particularly like an apocalypse movie when you go through, what is it, the B or C concourse where the ceiling is removed and you know, you have the insulation and pipes sticking out. I mean, it's just freaky to see that this place is open, it's clean and it's operating, but there really nobody there. The number of passengers is down 90 to 95%. Planes are still taking off — a lot fewer planes, though. American and all the other airlines canceled a bunch of their flights. But it's a big challenge because the airport is a huge engine of economic growth for the Charlotte region, and now ... pretty much nobody's there.