As Pa. reopens, anxious residents wonder about the new normal

Samantha Melamed
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — For Cambria Hooven, the past two months have been marked by near-total isolation — tele-work, tele-medicine, tele-socializing. She’s left her home in Philadelphia only three times, to buy groceries and attend a medical appointment. Because of her highly compromised immune system, she knows she has no room for error.

Difficult as it is, this lifestyle has become routine. But, as Pennsylvania inches toward reopening, and as some people even lobby heavily for it, she’s staring down far more uncertainty.

“It’s just weird to start thinking about what the future is going to look like,” said Hooven, a foster-care social worker who normally would be required to attend adoption hearings. “The idea of going to a courthouse any time in the near future — I don’t think that’s going to be an option for me.”

Neither is going to a gym, dining out, attending a party. “It threw me into a little tailspin of despair, wondering if it’s going to be safe to travel again, or be around people.”

Those who are responsible for themselves, their families, employees, religious congregations and customers are beginning to recognize that, in lieu of widespread testing and clear government guidelines, what happens when Philadelphia is cleared to reopen will come down to their own judgment calls, a grave responsibility with potential life-or-death consequences.

The multi-faith coalition POWER has advocated against reopening without widespread testing and contact tracing in place.

“The anxiety is, don’t do it too soon. Don’t do it to appease people who are acting selfish and want to go out and play,” said Rev. Mark Tyler, an organizer and the leader of Mother Bethel AME church, who has already witnessed plenty of loss in the pandemic and worries about a second wave. His friends in Atlanta, observing the opening of barber shops and nail salons, “are saying don’t fall for the trap. People are saying the governor there is trying to use black people as guinea pigs.”

Meanwhile, for businesses whose customers are pushing to return as soon as it’s legal — or even sooner — there is a sense of planning and preparing while guessing at what best practices might be.

“We’re not getting leadership from the state health board,” said Joey Andris, whose preparations for reopening his L.K. Trendsetters Salon in Northeast Philadelphia have included ordering gloves, masks, face shields, a humidifier with an ultraviolet sanitizing light, fans to improve airflow, and enough capes to ensure each customer gets a fresh one. He’s planning to take temperatures as customers arrive, and drafting forms clients will have to sign, vouching for their good health.

But even with all those safety precautions, barbers will ultimately have to allow clients to unmask for shaves and beard trims.

“We want to stay safe, but we need to make that money,” said Jamel Workman, who runs a West Philadelphia barbershop, Contenders. “I don’t really have a choice. I gotta put myself at risk. I gotta risk dying in order to survive.”

Geoffe Veale, who runs a Tough Mudder Bootcamp gym in Blue Bell, agreed that the lack of guidance has made planning difficult.

Right now, his business plan involves continuing virtual training sessions, adding in socially distanced outdoor workouts that he believes will be permissible when Montgomery County begins to lift restrictions, and, eventually, allowing small groups to return to the gym, where they’ll exercise at designated 10-foot-square stations.

Masks will be “recommended, but not required” — though, he conceded, it’s hard to imagine anyone wearing one while doing high-intensity training.

“We’re still researching that, trying to get some direction. It would be great if there were some guidelines from our state and local governments.”

Every business decision is more complicated now, said Christopher Plant, whose company Kismet Cowork, runs shared work spaces in Manayunk, Chestnut Hill and North Philadelphia.

He believes his members are craving a return to the office. But they’re going to find that parts of what made co-working spaces so appealing, the plentiful coffee station and communal facilities designed to invite spontaneous gatherings, will be gone. There will also be far fewer work stations overall (though there will, of course, be a Zoom studio).

Success will look like 35% to 50% of his past business — if he can convince members it’s safe and worthwhile to return.

“We’re really looking to create a much higher level of community and peer-to-peer mentorship, and to build business services into what was otherwise a simple real estate transaction.”

For restaurants that have finally started to find a rhythm during the shutdown, pivoting to takeout and delivery orders to keep a few staff working and the lights on, the next phase feels fraught.

At SouthGate, a Korean-accented gastropub in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, Peter Hwang said loyal takeout and delivery customers are sustaining him, though business is 30% to 50% of normal.

But bringing back more staff to reopen his dining room with just 12 seats instead of 50 will be a leap.

“No one wants to be the first. The places that are reopening right now, everyone is paying attention to see what happens,” he said. “There are a lot of resources from the (National Restaurant Association) and restaurant consultants about what new safety protocols will be. But some of them don’t apply to small, urban-style restaurants.”

Hwang is even less certain what will happen to the salad bar and deli his parents, now in their 70s, have run for 15 years in a Center City high-rise. The office building is closed for now, and even as workers start trickling back, reopening just may not make sense.

“To reopen with lower foot traffic combined with the same rents, it’s not a recipe for success,” he said.

Then there are the thousands of people bracing for situations where they have no discretion about whether to attend: probation appointments, or court dates in custody cases.

Community Legal Services lawyers are now advocating not only for their clients’ rights, but also their ability to stay home even once proceedings resume.

For instance, in landlord-tenant court, the shutdown hit pause on 1,700 scheduled eviction proceedings and about 500 more where evictions were ordered but no lockout date set. Once it reopens, those 500 could be ejected with no notice, unless protections are put in place. The rest will have to risk exposure if they have any hope of fighting eviction.

“We need to focus on the public health issue of keeping people home keeping them off of public transportation and out of crowded courtrooms, so we don’t have another wave of this and have to shut the economy down all over again,” CLS housing lawyer Rachel Garland said.