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What will our “new normal” look like?
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s asking the same question: “When will things go back to the way they were?”
Raleigh, and the world, is in a state of uncertainty. With increased testing, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is increasing daily but the rate at which cases are increasing is going down. Just last month, we saw the number of recovered patients in the state reach 10,000.
Given these benchmarks, Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina health secretary Mandy Cohen have rolled out plans for reopening businesses to occur in three phases. But things won’t look the same as they did before COVID-19; in fact, they might never be the same.
The virus, and the shutdowns that happened in response, have forced business owners to reevaluate their entire business models or shut their doors for good. Office-based companies are debating whether to switch to teleworking permanently, schools are still unsure if they can resume in-person instruction in the fall and there’s a chance a second wave of the virus could send us all back home again.
Raleigh Magazine spoke with local restauranteurs and retailers, church and university leaders, salon and spa owners, museum administrators and many others about what their plans for reopening are—and how things will look for them once life gets back to “normal.”
Diving In to Dining In
“There’s never going to be a time where people don’t want to go out to eat,” says Andrew Ullom, owner of Union Special Bread in Raleigh’s Gateway Plaza. But whether it’s safe to start going back out to eat right now is still up in the air. In phase two of Cooper’s reopening plan, Raleigh’s 1,300-plus restaurants and bars can reopen at limited capacity—if, that is, they haven’t already shut down for good.
Many local restaurant owners are cautious about reopening their dining rooms, even after the governor gives them the go-ahead. Nunzio Scordo, owner of Driftwood in Lafayette Village, says he’ll likely wait to open a week or two after restaurants get the green light. “I don’t want to be there on the forefront of this because I want to see what’s working and what’s not working first,” Scordo says.
The fear of a second wave of the virus, especially with people coming into contact with each other again, puts even more stress on business owners. Restaurant owners especially have a host of additional concerns around reopening their dining rooms. Reopening at limited capacity may not even make sense for them as most rely on having a full house as often as possible to make their sales margins work.
Union Special could only serve about a dozen patrons at a time at 25 percent capacity so Ullom says he plans to expand outdoor seating and continue takeout and delivery. He says he personally doesn’t anticipate allowing anyone into the restaurant for the rest of the year. Ullom says he feels lucky Union’s takeout program is going well and that he’s doing the amount of business it takes to keep afloat. “Nobody’s ever built for a pandemic but we’re built to weather this sort of thing because we make bread,” he says. “Given the circumstances, we’re going to come out of this stronger than when we went in, but we’re one of a handful of people that can say that.”
For Lady Luck, which opened just three days before the state shut down, not reopening is not an option, even if the Glenwood South bar and restaurant can only operate at a limited capacity. Lady Luck’s owners say they are fortunate to have a large space that would allow about 60 customers in their dining room at 50 percent capacity. And, though Lady Luck has stayed busy with takeout and delivery, their owners, like many other local restaurant and bar owners, say they have lost a lot of money not being able to serve customers in their bar and dining room. “We’re only making about five percent of what we would be making if we were open,” says partner and executive chef Kevin Ruiz.
Whether or not local restaurants and bars decide to reopen as soon as they’re allowed, they’ll have to take basic steps in order to keep their staff and customers safe, adding yet another layer to our new version of “normal.” Staff will have to undertake extensive, regular cleaning and sanitizing measures, tables will have to be spaced six feet apart, kitchen workers will have to wear gloves and masks and reserving seats at the bar may become the new normal.
Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA), says restaurants will most likely adopt single-use menus, disposable silverware and condiments and new technology that allows for contact-free transactions. She also expects to see customers waiting in cars for a table (rather than in a restaurant’s lobby or waiting area) where they’ll get a text when their table is ready. Even as restaurants gradually open their dining rooms, we can expect takeout and delivery to continue for many establishments.
There are other questions regarding safety that are unclear. Will we see requirements for plexiglass dividers between tables? Will servers and other front of house employees have to wear masks? Sara Abernethy, co-owner of Wye Hill, says her servers will most likely be wearing masks once they reopen. “When you think about hospitality, it’s pretty disarming,” she says. “But if it helps guests and servers feel safe, we want to encourage that.”
Shopping with Sanitation
Retailers, which were permitted to open in phase one, are grappling with having to take the same kinds of safety measures and precautions.
Apart from sanitizing surfaces thoroughly and regularly, local store owners also have to carefully sanitize their inventory as shoppers often will pull products down from shelves to look them over or, in the case of clothes shopping, take them off the racks to try them on. So as not to have multiple customers handling the same discarded items, store owners are introducing baskets around their stores and in dressing rooms where customers can place merchandise they handled but didn’t buy for staff to then sterilize.
At C.T. Weekends, owner Dennis Mayfield says clothes tried on but not bought will be steamed and stored in the back of the shop for at least 24 hours while fitting rooms will be sanitized after each use.
DECO owner Pam Blondin and Quail Ridge Books general manager Jason Jefferies say they will place baskets throughout their stores for customers to leave handled products which store workers will then thoroughly clean before returning to shelves.
Also gone are the days where we can lazily stroll into stores or boutiques while we’re out and about. Due to the state’s capacity cap on non-essential businesses and retail stores through phases one and two, store owners must get creative about how they let in customers. For many, this means taking appointments. Jefferies is planning on breaking down Quail Ridge’s store hours into one-hour slots that only a few people can reserve at a time, a procedure he had already implemented before the store closed. He also had customers check in with an employee at the front and wash their hands immediately before browsing, which he’ll continue. Although as a bookstore Quail Ridge is considered an essential business, Jefferies chose to close the store for his employees’ and customers’ safety and says he doesn’t have a set reopening date yet. “I don’t think it makes sense for us to open up right now,” he says. “My philosophy is that just because someone tells you you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”
Mayfield, on the other hand, opened C.T. Weekends as soon as he was allowed. He says he feels he took all the necessary steps to make sure his customers felt comfortable coming into the store, including sanitizing the entire space, requiring clients and staff to observe social distancing rules, providing hand sanitizer, masks and gloves for customers to use and keeping the dressing rooms clean. “We’re trying to be as responsive as we can,” Mayfield says. “And we’re learning along the way. We want people to feel secure and enjoy the moment.” Mayfield says he will also continue to accommodate shoppers who don’t feel comfortable going into the store with curbside pickup.
DECO owner Blondin says she realizes shopping isn’t exactly essential during this time, but she, like many other store owners, is eager to get things back to as normal as they can be, now. “The world has shifted,” Blondin says. “We just have to be mindful and willing to do the hard thing, and if things start backsliding, then we’ll close up for a couple weeks. It’s a tough stroll.”
Up Close And Personal
The middle of an international health pandemic may not be the best time to go shopping or get botox, a haircut or a manicure, but retail therapy and personal care are certainly activities people have been looking forward to doing once things start getting back to normal again. After all we’ve had to endure from the pandemic so far, treating ourselves to a nice haircut or massage doesn’t sound too shabby.
“I think everyone in the world can use a massage right now,” says Jenny Abhau, owner of White Dahlia, a massage and wellness spa.
Blue Water Spa co-owner Kile Law says she already had customers scheduling appointments before the spa officially reopened on May 11 (as a medical spa, Blue Water was allowed to reopen before other person-to-person oriented businesses). “People are reevaluating the way they spend their time and money and investing more in themselves,” Law says.
In anticipation of opening their doors, Blue Water, like many other local personal care service providers, has had to undertake intense cleaning procedures to ensure customers felt safe upon returning. Blue Water hired a facility disinfection manager and the spa is cleaned professionally every night, its linens professionally laundered each day. Additionally, Law says Blue Water invested in a powerful disinfectant originally used to treat the SARS virus that helps disinfect tricky spots like behind picture frames and under furniture.
Even before COVID, Law says, Blue Water had a reputation for being well sterilized. The facility doesn’t have carpeting in any of its rooms and all of the furniture is easily wiped down and sanitized. “We’re very mindful of our environment,” Law says. “Being a medical facility, we’re concerned about health and wellness overall.” Law says Blue Water will now require its employees and clients to wear masks. Additionally, clients will have to go through background checks and have their temperatures taken before they can come in. “It’s excessive, but important, and makes people comfortable,” Law says.
White Dahlia’s Abhau is taking similar precautions in anticipation of reopening in phase two. She bought an ozone generator, which she says is proven to kill SARS and coronavirus, to run every night in the store. Because White Dahlia is inspected by massage boards and must follow certain protocols regularly, Abhau says the spa was held to a high cleanliness standard before, but will now disinfect even more frequently and instruct employees to wear masks and/or gloves if the state requires. “We want our clients and employees to feel 100 percent comfortable,” Abhau says. Once customers return, Abhau says they will need to sign a release form to confirm that they’re healthy and haven’t been traveling.
Chantale Persinger, owner of Closets by Design in Raleigh, has also asked her customers to answer a survey about their health and travel while the home office and closet design-installation service has remained open and doing business throughout the shutdown. To ensure employees are safe to work, they have their temperature taken daily. Once inside the customer’s home, Persinger’s team dons face masks and gloves, covers the floors and puts blue tape down to mark six foot parameters. “The longer this [virus] goes on, the longer this is becoming the new normal,” Persigner says of the strict new precautions.
The Six-Foot Office
Those of us working from home over the past few weeks have gotten used to taking meetings over Zoom and calling co-workers rather than popping our heads into one another’s offices. The change has been comfortable for some and disorienting for others but we’ve all had to adapt.
Under the state’s phase two plan, employees started returning to their offices—and they’ve found a lot to be different.
Workplace collaboration, a big trend in office life with co-working spaces and open floor plans, has become a concern for employers. “A lot of institutions need to be together and have that connection with each other,” says Jessica Bossiere, a senior interior designer at HH Architecture. “Collaboration in one space is important to them. It will be interesting to see how places like that change.” Bossiere maintains that virtual collaboration should and will continue for a while, whether that’s with coworkers in the same building but in different offices or allowing some coworkers in the office and some to work from home.
Kimarie Ankenbrand, the Raleigh/Durham lead and managing director at commercial real estate agency JLL, has come up with three ways to get employees re-acquainted with going into work: reactivate space, respect health and wellness and revitalize workspace and property into a space that safely accommodates employees while maintaining social distancing.
For social distancing purposes, Ankenbrand proposes using one-way hallways—similar to what we’ve been seeing in grocery stores—and seating that’s spread six feet apart. She says she expects many of these behaviors will have to be reinforced. For instance, if a company conference room has eight chairs but managers only want two people sitting in the room at a time, they should take the remaining six chairs out of the room. At least for now, we can no longer anticipate large conference meetings, water cooler chats or company-wide events or gatherings.
Elevators and bathrooms will also be hard to navigate, as they’re both spaces that accommodate multiple people throughout the day, but there are cheap, easy ways to address shared spaces and surfaces. In China, elevator users can press buttons with disposable toothpicks, a smart method the U.S. could easily replicate in the short term. As for bathrooms, Ankenbrand proposes foot pulls on doors and automatic faucets.
Even getting through to your office from the lobby will change, according to Bossiere. She says while the lobby used to be a nice space to welcome guests, it will transform into an intake area where employees have their temperatures taken, clean their hands with sanitizer or wash their hands before accessing the rest of the building.
Slowly introducing employees back into the workplace will help them comply with all of these measures, as will having employees come in at staggered hours.
Obviously, every office space will approach the transition back to work differently depending on their income, culture, size and what’s important to the employees and employers. Some companies might be able to afford a complete office redesign while others cannot and may therefore ask some employees stay home for longer. “There’s a sense of commitment and employers don’t want to take a risk, making sure they’re not the reason for an outbreak,” Bossiere says.
Nevertheless, the transition will be a gradual one, especially with so much unknown during this time and things continuing to change every day. “We have to wait until we get to a point where people feel comfortable,” says Bossiere. “To design thoughtful spaces for the future takes time. Unfortunately, we can’t design something overnight.”
Going To School In A Pandemic
The past few weeks have proven that attending school during a pandemic is no easy feat. Graduations were canceled, online final exams were proctored, grading systems were changed and the experience of going to class and seeing friends vanished. But, as of press time, Wake County Public Schools, Campbell University and all UNC system campuses were operating under the expectation of reopening in the fall.
At Campbell, law students are still unsure if they’ll be able to take the bar exam this July. “Thousands of people take this important test,” says J. Rich Leonard, the dean of Campbell Law. “[The exam has] never been online and I don’t know if it could be.” If the test does happen, Leonard says he hopes to hold graduation a few days after.
Although school officials say they’re hopeful things will be up and running again by fall, the school-going experience will be different for students of all ages. Wake County Public Schools superintendent Cathy Moore says the school system may have to blend remote learning with traditional schooling, depending on what the coronavirus situation looks like come August—traditional calendar schools are expected to begin August 17.
At Campbell, Leonard says he plans to create smaller class sizes with more sections to socially distance students in class if needed. Campbell’s campus, Leonard says, has plenty of classrooms to accommodate safe social distancing. With the first year of law school being the most critical, the school would emphasize having new students in the classroom while allocating upper level classes online.
Leonard says his staff and students have handled the bleakness of the virus situation well. “We train these students here as lawyers to be resilient, to change their positions as facts change,” Leonard says. “I’ve been impressed with the skill my faculty and staff have adapted to this new normal, and with good humor.”
Along with canceled graduations and final exams, concerts, festivals, museum exhibits and other time-honored gatherings and events, too, have been axed. Signature Raleigh events, including Dreamville, Thrive NC, Brewgaloo and SPARKcon, all have been either postponed until fall or moved to next year.
These events bring thousands of tourists to Raleigh and are major contributors to the local economy. Without them, the City of Oaks is already feeling repercussions. It’s unclear whether Brewgaloo will happen in August and Dreamville, which had been rescheduled, was recently canceled. While performing artists still have shows scheduled through the summer, many will mostly likely have to postpone or cancel them as well.
Cooper’s stay at home order also ruled out going to church, meaning places of worship have had to hold their services virtually. Jeff Roberts, the senior pastor at Raleigh’s Trinity Baptist Church, has been holding a virtual worship every Sunday morning, along with Zoom classes throughout the week. He says he has been working for months on a plan to get members safely back into the building in phase two and he is surveying his congregation to see how many members will be willing to come back right away in order to determine how many services the church will need to hold. Roberts says he expects to hold two services every Sunday in two different buildings on the church’s campus, with congregants spread out six feet apart on pews.
Obviously these precautions will be easier for larger churches to accommodate, while smaller churches may have to wait until phase three to start welcoming members of their congregations again.
Roberts and his team developed a self screening questionnaire for members asking if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus or had symptoms and Roberts says he will require congregants to wear masks. “We, more than anybody else, should be a place where we put others first,” he says.
Along with churches and entertainment venues, Raleigh’s state of the art museums have all been closed since March, too, but have found ways to engage visitors online. The North Carolina Museum of Art was allowed to keep its outdoor park open and Raleighites flocked there to enjoy walks, picnics and other outdoor activities. Once it is allowed to reopen, Kat Harding, NCMA’s public relations and social media manager, says the museum will have heightened health and safety procedures. New visitor experience guidelines will greatly alter the visitation experience. Frequent deep cleanings of high-touch areas such as doors and restrooms will be scheduled; free, timed tickets to the museum collection and a one-way flow of gallery viewing with social distancing cues on the floor will have to be installed and staff members will be required to wear gloves and cloth face masks, Harding says.
All the NCMA’s summer concerts, performances, movie nights and other festivities have been cancelled through June but the museum will continue to offer virtual content including documentary screenings, live drawing workshops and artist interviews.
It’s clear now that life in Raleigh won’t be returning to anything resembling our perception of what’s normal anytime soon. Along with all the closings and cancellations, the pandemic has changed the way we behave. We have to stay six feet apart from each other with no touching, no hugging. Masks have become standard outside of our homes and hand sanitizer rules the day. Experts say we can expect these behaviors and precautions to be with us for at least a year or even until we’ve developed a vaccine.
You, like us, likely can’t wait to get out and enjoy the city again, meet up with friends for a drink, go on a date at a restaurant or peruse a museum on a Saturday afternoon. But it will take time, patience and support from the entire population for Raleigh to get there.
“It’s scary, but there’s certainly light at the end of the tunnel,” says Ullom of Union Special Bread. “It’s just a really big-ass tunnel.” A big-ass tunnel we’re all navigating together.
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