Business open sign

Emerson Allen, 65, can’t picture himself sitting in a restaurant any time in the near future. As a prostate cancer survivor with high blood pressure, Allen is in the “high risk” category for COVID-19. 

“There’s not enough known about the virus, but we know enough to know it’s deadly,” said Allen, who also owns a small business and understands the dilemma state leaders face balancing public health with preserving the economy. “ … Knowing there’s no vaccine, you have to take all the precautions you can. In the business realm, you have to be able to keep customers safe, and I don’t feel we’re there yet.”

To reduce his risk of contracting the virus, Allen, along with his wife and two adult daughters, wear masks everywhere they go and sanitize door knobs and handles when they return home. As someone who lost a friend due to COVID-19, Allen understands firsthand the fears people have about the pandemic.

Many local business owners, especially restaurants, are exploring options to keep customers safe and their businesses afloat during the pandemic.

Michael’s Soul Kitchen in downtown Indianapolis will begin delivery and pickup May 15, but will not allow diners to eat in their building until June 10. Co-owner Romeo Gerson said it’s a matter of listening to the experts. 

“We will be watching and monitoring the progress with the city reopening and will decide accordingly,” Gerson said. “We care about our community and don’t want a future outbreak coming from people dining in our establishment.”

As of May 12, Indiana has 25,473 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 7,703 of those cases occurring in Marion County. Marion County leads the state in positive cases and COVID-19 related deaths with 440 deaths reported. 

Despite claims from the state house that Indiana is flattening the curve, local officials in Marion County, along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warn reopening states too soon will result in a devastating second wave of COVID-19.

In a press conference May 13, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced he would begin reopening Marion County on May 15, following recommendations from the Marion County Public Health Department. Gatherings of up to 25 people will be permissible, and restaurants will be able to offer dine-in services for outside seating only starting May 22. 

Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, however, warned if residents deviate from social distancing guidelines, Marion County could see another increase in COVID-19 cases. 

Research backs up this claim.

Studying trends from the 1918 flu pandemic, a study from the University of Minnesota estimated COVID-19 could come back in waves, and the resurgence of the virus could potentially be more devastating than the first. 

“Risk communication messaging from government officials should incorporate the concept that this pandemic will not be over soon and that people need to be prepared for possible periodic resurgences of disease,” the authors wrote.

Outside Marion County, businesses throughout the state are opening back up, and many are taking precautions to keep their customers and staff as safe as possible. 

Hannah Hudson works as a waitress in what she calls a “semi-fine dining establishment” in Johnson County. After being closed for inside dining since March 17, her restaurant resumed normal operations — at half capacity — May 11. Although work looked quite different from what she was used to, Hudson said she felt safe being back to work. 

“I will be honest, I have been a little nervous about the virus considering I live with my parents who are both in their sixties and immunocompromised,” she said. “ … But our company is doing the absolute most to protect us and our guests. Every employee, back and front of house, is required to wear a mask and gloves at all times. … We have a person on staff walking around and sanitizing everything. I feel secure at work.”

Beyond making sure workers are wearing masks, Hudson’s restaurant records every employee’s temperatures when they arrive at work each day. To promote social distancing, tables in the dining area are spaced out and menus are single use. 

“I think it’s time to slowly reopen the economy,” Hudson said. “And serving with the governor’s restrictions I think is a step in the right direction. Supposedly by July 4 everything is supposed to go back to normal. I think at that time people will see that we will be OK to continue on with normal life. I don’t anticipate things staying crazy forever.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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