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Even If They’re Allowed To Open, Some Businesses Hesitate 

Nisha Blackwell
Knotzland Bowtie
When the coronavirus shutdown began, Nisha Blackwell's business, Knotzland Bowtie, transitioned to online and remote operations. She says she and her team will maintain that strategy for a little while longer.

After nearly two months of lockdown, some area businesses can resume operations on Friday. Dozens of new state rules are meant to guide the reopening across much of southwestern Pennsylvania, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty, said Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

“Do we know enough about the virus?” she said. “Do we have the protocols in place so that people can really feel comfortable?”

In the “yellow” phase, businesses are encouraged to continue remote work if possible. Gyms, salons, and entertainment venues such as theaters will remain closed; retail stores and childcare centers can open. Other operations not specifically listed by the state can also open, as long as they follow sanitation and distancing guidelines.

Russo said for many of the Tech Council's members, there’s no need to physically go back to work, and some are rethinking the need for offices entirely. However, companies that test and make products need to return to shared spaces. Those leaders face a new level of responsibility, she said, to consider shift work, to enforce physical distancing guidelines and even to modify ventilation systems to increase movement of air.

The lack of clarity is tough, said Adlai Yeomans, who with his wife, Jill Yeomans, owns White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood.

“We are being asked to make this decision on our own,” he said. “It’s basically being punted to us.”

When Pennsylvania began to shut businesses down, Yeomans said they quickly pivoted to selling books through their website. They also tried to maintain community connection by converting their many in-store events to online ones.

“Our motto has been making the right choice for right now and evaluating on an ongoing basis,” he said.

They plan to stick to their online model for a little while longer.

Nisha Blackwell, who owns and operates Knotzland Bowtie Co. in Wilkinsburg, plans to pursue a similar course. When the pandemic hit, she and her team quickly transitioned to fulfilling orders remotely. Blackwell said while businesses can open, it’s not clear customers will be ready to patronize them.

“While we want to open, we need to do so thoughtfully and strategically and not kind of assume that because we open that everyone will come,” she said.

They have gotten used to reaching their customers in other ways, and will maintain that strategy for a little while longer. With so much uncertainty about coronavirus still remaining, Blackwell said they want to do their part as long as they can to slow and stop the spread.

“If it means tip-toeing into reopening ... then that’s what we’re going to participate in,” she said.

A survey conducted by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development found about half of businesses feel unprepared to open, said CEO Stefani Pashman. Her organization launched an online toolkit to help people navigate the uncertainty.

“How do we make them feel equipped that they can stay open and consistently operate?” she said. “The worst thing we can do for our businesses and for our economy is let them start operating and make them shut down again.”

Pashman said many business owners have questions about liability, how they may be held responsible if a customer or employee contracts the virus in their store or office.

Even if they choose not to open on May 15, Pashman said the yellow phase gives businesses the imperative to start concrete planning so they can be prepared when the county eventually moves to the green phase.