Here Are the Federal Guidelines for Reopening America

5 min read • Apr 24, 2020 • Grant Olsen

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on small businesses across America. According to a survey from Lendio’s financing experts, nearly half of all business owners have faced financial challenges. For businesses located in urban areas, that percentage doubles.

Social distancing is one of the main culprits for revenue declines at small businesses, as people are less likely to come to a brick-and-mortar location. On top of that, the economic toll of the crisis has obliterated many families’ disposable incomes. As salary cuts and job losses pile up across the country, the inevitable result is fewer customers making fewer purchases.

Slivers of Hope on the Horizon

For many entrepreneurs, the past couple of months have been a seemingly nonstop onslaught of bad news. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the positive developments. Some states have seen new cases begin to level off. Social distancing appears to be working, and there are hopes that the resource shortages that have plagued hospitals will begin to lessen.

“So it’s really about the encouraging signs that we see, but as encouraging as they are, we have not reached the peak, and so every day we need to continue to do what we did yesterday, and the week before, and the week before that,” said White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx.

With the current situation improving in a few key ways, it’s becoming possible to envision a time when business can resume in a fairly normal fashion. But it’s clear that we have more distancing and struggles to endure before that time arrives.

Mapping the Road Ahead

The White House has released guidelines intended to begin the process of easing coronavirus-related restrictions in low-transmission areas. If this sounds like a harbinger of good things to come, it definitely could be. But the guidelines only give the green light to specific areas, while the rest of the nation will need to continue the more aggressive protocols.

Curious if your state or region will be among the first to open up? Here are the criteria that must be met to qualify:

  • There must be a downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses reported within the past 14 days and a downward trajectory of COVID-like syndromic cases within that same period of time.
  • There must be a downward trajectory of documented cases within the past 14 days or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within that same period of time.
  • Hospitals must be treating all patients without crisis care and have a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers.

It’s less clear when we’ll start seeing states reopen, as the guidelines don’t provide any specific dates. Many experts predict elements of social distancing could be in place at least until the end of 2020.

“The White House views Trump’s announcement as guidance under which ‘governors will have to make decisions about what’s right for their individual states,’ NBC News reports, based on comments from a White House official. “Some states may be able to move to the next phase before May 1, according to the official. In some states, governors would be able to open up some counties before others.”

Regions that meet the criteria are advised to begin allowing businesses and schools to open. This process is intended to be gradual, so don’t expect to see rapid results if your area is included in the first wave.

Know Your Phases

To give structure to the idea of a systematic rollout, the federal guidelines include 3 phases of reopening. If your state or region has no evidence of a rebound of coronavirus cases for 14 days, it would be able to progress to the next phase.

Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect in each of the phases:

Phase 1: Social distancing still plays a major role in this initial phase of reopening. All individuals are advised to “maximize physical distance from others” while in public. Gatherings of more than 10 people and nonessential travel are vetoed.

But a state or county in phase 1 could allow sporting venues, churches, restaurants, gyms, and theaters to open as long as they follow “strict physical distancing protocols.” Bars, on the other hand, are instructed to remain closed regardless of their adherence to the aforementioned protocols.

In the healthcare realm, elective surgeries could again be permitted. The catch is that they must be “clinically appropriate, on an outpatient basis at facilities that adhere to CMS guidelines.”

Phase 2: No, social distancing doesn’t go away here. You are still supposed to maximize your distance in public. The key differences from the prior phase are a resumption of nonessential travel and that “social settings of more than 50 people, where appropriate distancing may not be practical, should be avoided unless precautionary measures are observed.”

On a broader scale, large venues can operate with moderate physical distancing protocols, as opposed to the “strict” approach outlined in phase 1. Schools and daycares are given the green light to open. Even bars can open their doors, so long as they “operate with diminished standing-room occupancy.”

Phase 3: This phase is the closest to “normal” as the guidelines get. Social distancing is only advised here for vulnerable individuals, who should have been sheltering in place during the prior 2 phases. Those who are low-risk are simply told to “consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.”

While teleworking was encouraged in the prior phases, this final stage allows employers to “resume unrestricted staffing of worksites.” Large venues are permitted to operate with only limited distancing, and bars can increase their occupancy.

The governors of each state have been instructed to handle the opening of her or his state as they deem fit. This means that some states will move through these 3 phases as quickly as possible, while others will take a measured approach.

At this point, it’s impossible to predict exactly how the reopening of America will unfold. What is certain is that there will be fits and starts. All that matters is that we navigate this crisis and get back to a place where our nation’s small businesses can thrive.

Grant Olsen

Grant Olsen is a writer specializing in small business loans, leadership skills, and growth strategies. He is a contributing writer for KSL 5 TV, where his articles have generated more than 6 million page views, and has been featured on FitSmallBusiness.com and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of the book "Rhino Trouble." He has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University.