On Tuesday, governors Greg Abbott (R-Texas) and Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) announced major reopening policies, including the removal of statewide mask mandates and business occupancy limits. Their two states join a growing list including Iowa and Montana, which lifted mask mandates in February. Massachusetts removed capacity limits on eateries on Monday, and South Carolina now allows gatherings with more than 250 people.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed its pandemic-era recommendations--which include limited indoor occupancy, consistent use of facemasks or other personal protective equipment (PPE), and distancing of six-plus feet.
It tracks, then, that the announcements have been met with mixed feelings among small-business owners, many of whom are balancing the need for safety with a desire to get back to business as usual. And some small-business owners say the matter of reopening--after many months of Covid restrictions--has left them scrambling to both process the implications and devise next steps.
"It's a mixed bag," says Adele Lyons, CEO of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, noting that some small businesses aren't changing their mask policies or occupancy limits at all, while others have expressed excitement for newfound "maskless freedom."
Todd Coerver is firmly in the former camp. The CEO of P. Terry's Burger Stand, which operates 20 restaurant locations throughout Central Texas, told his team he'd wait 24 hours before making a decision--giving him a chance to gauge both public opinion and the decisions of other businesses. After sleeping on it, he decided to change absolutely nothing. "The facts haven't changed. The situation hasn't materially changed," Coerver says. "Just because a political leader comes out and decides to announce something doesn't mean the environment is any different today than it was yesterday."
All P. Terry's employees and customers will still be required to wear masks, with reminders prominently plastered on every door. The restaurants will maintain 50 percent indoor capacity, to ensure that tables are spread at least six feet apart. Coerver says a full reopening would be hugely beneficial to P. Terry's, which ended 2020 at a net financial loss--but business is stable enough to tread water until more Texans are vaccinated and the CDC's guidance changes.
He's eyeing this summer for a full reopening, particularly following President Biden's Tuesday announcement that vaccines could be available for all American adults by the end of May. "That just refortifies us to stay the course and do the responsible thing," Coerver says. "I don't want to be the guy who played a role in pushing the finish line back, if we're this close."
In Mississippi, Kevin Fish says he's also adhering to the CDC's guidelines--while simultaneously taking advantage of his state's new policies. Fish owns the Gulf Coast Restaurant Group, which runs seven restaurants throughout Mississippi (alongside five in Alabama and three in Louisiana). Bussers and hosts at his restaurants have limited-to-no interaction with guests or other staffers, he says, meaning they can now go maskless if they choose. Servers will remain masked, as they interact frequently with customers. Fish isn't stressing about whether his customers wear masks on the way into his restaurants, since they'll remove those coverings to eat anyway.
"We want to get to mask-free," Fish says. "Masks can't be a permanent part of our lives. They're just not going to be."
Fish says he does expect Covid-19 cases to rise in his state in the coming weeks--so he's limiting party sizes to 10 people, in the hopes of keeping any potential infections from turning into superspreader events. "The last thing we want to see is, everybody goes hog-wild," he says. "If we don't act responsibly, the next thing you know, we've got state-mandated regulations on us [again]."
Low numbers of new cases could influence other governors to announce similar policies in the coming weeks, particularly in neighboring states like Louisiana, Arkansas, or Alabama. That could help someone like Fish, who's now juggling different sets of guidelines for each restaurant he owns. The inverse is also true: A huge jump in new cases could prevent other states from reopening soon. Coerver advises business owners, in the eventual next wave of reopening states, to ask themselves: Has the Covid situation materially improved in your community? If the answer is no, he says, there's no justifiable reason to change your approach--even if you're strapped for cash.
"It'll be the science [that we follow]," Coerver says. "It will not be a talking head."