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Without CDC Guidance, Reopenings Follow a Patchwork of Rules (1)

May 8, 2020, 5:27 PM

Jim Reed reopened his Birmingham bookstore May 1, after Alabama Governor Kay Ivey lifted the order shutting down retailers. He’s trying to follow some city guidelines he found on a local news site, wiping down surfaces, cleaning restrooms after every use and wearing a face mask.

Foot traffic has been slow, he said, in part because the public doesn’t trust the advice it hears on what is and isn’t safe.

“People tell me they don’t quite trust the official guidelines and they’re nervous to see what others are doing,” said Reed, who’s owned his Reed Books shop for 40 years. The problem, he said, is “just that there are so many varying messages.”

As businesses across the U.S. begin reopening in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, they’re following a patchwork of state, local and industry guidance on how to do it most safely. What they are not following are official and detailed recommendations from the nation’s top public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- because the Trump administration hasn’t released them.

The White House coronavirus task force said Thursday it is seeking revisions to CDC guidance on reopening the country, after the Associated Press reported that the Trump administration shelved the release of an 17-page document that was originally due last week.

The draft included step-by-step instructions for restaurants, schools or mass transit, covering everything from staffing levels and sick leave to how to handle ventilation and reactivate closed water fountains and pipes. The White House blocked the document out of concern the recommendations were too prescriptive, two administration officials said Thursday. CDC guidelines are in the process of being edited, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday.

State and local health departments in places such as Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Ohio, where some nonessential businesses have reopened or are about to, have put out their own guidelines. Many are using earlier CDC guidance or following parameters laid out by the White House task force last month.

Those broad parameters were helpful, but the new CDC guidelines were supposed to offer more detailed advice, said Howard Koh, a professor of public health leadership at Harvard University.

The draft appeared to address very specific questions that “everybody is asking,” he said.

“The CDC is the go-to agency for any public health crisis,” Koh said. “The public looks to them for any guidance, particularly as we consider the very difficult decisions about reopening.”

Read More: Many States Fall Short of White House Reopening Criteria

Local public health officials had also been “anxiously awaiting” the new CDC document, said Lori Freeman, chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Association of County and City Health Officials, which provides guidance to 2,800 health departments.

“We cannot be more chagrined,” she said.

The group will distribute the guideline excerpts that have appeared on the Internet. “Even though it’s not official, it still has important information that can be used as a template for decisions,” Freeman said.

Big businesses, meanwhile, have been calling for uniform reopening standards in their industries and coming up with guidance of their own.

The top two trade groups representing major retailers such as Walmart Inc., Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. last week sent a six-page memo to governors outlining a three-phased plan for how stores can maintain public safety once they are allowed to reopen their doors to customers. The guidelines call for stores to have “robust” health and safety protocols in place, including sanitation and social-distancing procedures.

In Nevada, newly passed rules for opening casinos are less stringent than some individual operators have said they would implement. Wynn Resorts Ltd., for example, already released its own 23-page plan, which includes checking temperatures at entrances, dealers sanitizing the dice between each shooter and distributing amenity bags with hand sanitizer and face masks to guests.

In Florida, where restaurants were allowed to open in part on Monday, Tampa restaurateur Nick Vojnovic has been listening to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and National Restaurant Association, as well as trying to comply with various local government mandates.

He runs a franchise company, Little Greek Franchise Development, with locations from Texas to Illinois, and for now his franchisees are plotting their own path forward. Everyone’s wearing masks and gloves and installing plexiglass partitions at the front counter. Some are opening for dine-in service, others are sticking to curbside takeout, Vojnovic said.

“It’s kind of like each store is doing its own thing,” Vojnovic said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Florida has mandated that dine-in restaurants operate at no more than 25% capacity and separate tables by six feet. However, many things are left to the restaurateur’s discretion, including whether employees should wear masks, whether they should put hand sanitizer at each table and whether to use disposable menus, the state’s restaurant trade association says.

In Alabama, Tuscaloosa’s Lavish boutique lets in 10 customers at a time, uses only half its dressing rooms to keep people apart and disinfects madly: “Any time someone tries something on, we disinfect the clothing, the fitting room and the curtain,” said store manager Ashton Martin. “Anything they may have touched, we disinfect.”

Providing guidance to the public and local authorities during health crises is one of the CDC’s main missions, and the shelving of the step-by-step guidelines is another blow to an agency that has receded from the Trump administration’s public messaging during the pandemic.

In the end, whether or not an official document ever gets published, the draft still serves as a blueprint.

Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said CDC guidance isn’t binding on states, which can take it or leave it.

Many state plans are very specific and “several of them are really good,” he said. “A lot of the guidance the CDC has put together is getting out into the field now.”

(Updates with White House press secretary comments in sixth paragraph)

--With assistance from Elise Young, Ben Brody, Christopher Palmeri and Michael Sasso.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at mnewkirk@bloomberg.net;
Emma Kinery in Washington at ekinery@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Crayton Harrison at tharrison5@bloomberg.net

Stephen Merelman, Cécile Daurat

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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