Gov. Doug Ducey last week sent letters to chambers of commerce around the state asking for ideas on how businesses can safely reopen once the threat of COVID-19 has subsided.

The governor said he was seeking recommendations to help speed up a business and economic recovery including incorporating public health guidance into everyday business practices, policy suggestions, regulatory reforms and other executive actions.

In response, Maia Crespin, executive director of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, received a slew of ideas from chamber members that included, “open up — we know the risk,” to “have a hand washing station at each entrance to each store,” or “make appointments to limit the number of customers in a business at one time.”

Arizona’s current “Stay home, Stay healthy, Stay connected” order is in place until April 30.

On April 16, Crespin took part in a conference call with Ducey.

“His message to restaurants and business owners is to get ready ... business will likely be opening soon, but you must maintain social distancing so start brainstorming on how you can make this possible!” wrote Crespin on social media.

One local resident said it is important they remain cautious.

“Being an optimist, I want the best for all of our citizens and our businesses, but being a realist each one of us need to look in the mirror and ask are these essential?” wrote Hector Figueroa, former Payson town attorney. “What if upon re-opening the virus spread communitywide? What if I catch it? What if I spread it to my grandma and she passes away?”

He added, “If Payson has to shut down again ... will small businesses survive and will my family be able to continue to live here?”

One local business that has embraced measures to keep their customers safe is Italio to Go. The lobby is closed, staff wear masks and they offer curbside pickup and delivery. Even the ordering and payment process respect social distancing.

“People place an order over the phone or on the website,” said owner Jade Kaufman. “We take payment over the phone if paying with a card so they don’t have to have anymore contact than they have to.”

Experts suggest these types of measures might be necessary for months to ensure the public’s health.

There are currently 5,064 coronavirus cases and 187 deaths in Arizona as of April 20.

Josh Beck, the lead on the COVID-19 response for Gila County Health and Emergency Management, said keeping the stay-at-home order in effect for vulnerable populations would help in the event the economy at least partially restarted.

In Arizona, roughly 74% of the 187 deaths so far have been in those over 65, many of them with existing health issues such as heart problems and diabetes.

“If a decision is made to reopen businesses before the peak of the pandemic, I believe we need to focus on protecting those that are most vulnerable based on the U.S. and local Arizona data that we have collected,” said Beck. “This would mean to continue recommending isolation of those who are 65 and older, as well as individuals that are known to have health factors that contribute to higher hospitalization rates such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, and other respiratory diseases.”

A recent survey of U.S. counties’ pandemic public health preparedness found rural areas like Gila, Navajo and Apache counties rank as “extremely low” on the preparedness scale. That’s based on the supply of doctors, hospital beds, public health infrastructure and the vulnerability of the population, based on age and risk factors like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other pre-existing conditions.

Research shows that in past epidemics lifting restrictions too soon can have fatal consequences.

During the Spanish flu in 1918, Denver opted to resume normal operations when deaths dropped in the spring.

But by the fall, the flu returned with a vengeance and killed thousands, forcing the city to shut down a second and even longer time from October through January.

Health experts fear a similar problem if U.S. businesses reopen too quickly and without protections in place to prevent a resurgence of infections.

Officials are watching two other countries that have begun slowly to reopen, Germany and South Korea.

Both countries have relied on testing and aggressive contact tracing followed by the strict quarantining of anyone testing positive. Just these tactics have emerged as keys to the relative success of Germany and South Korea in slowing the initial spread of the virus and then carefully reopening the economy.

Both countries throughout the pandemic have responded more aggressively than the U.S., which last week had 600,000 cases and 27,000 deaths — the highest toll in the world.

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