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Op-Ed: A ‘COVID safe’ business certification could help end the open-closed-open madness

A couple leaves Fleming's Prime Steakhouse after dining outdoors in Woodland Hills on July 17.
Jerin Wilson and Karli Cheval after dining outdoors in what was the valet parking area at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse in Woodland Hills on July 17.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The stop-start-stop mandates regarding doing business in Southern California represent a gut-punch to a coronavirus-weary business community. Businesses are closed. They’re open. No, wait, they’re closed again, but restaurants can reopen if they serve diners outside with mask-wearing staff and socially distanced tables.

Even those of us who must follow the orders are confused. During the coronavirus pandemic, a more measured approach to monitoring the safety of businesses is needed.

Many business owners throughout California are hanging on by a thread financially and frustrated with the haphazard, uncoordinated reopening proclamations being made by local and state governments. This whack-a-mole approach to stemming a coronavirus spike by closing specific industry sectors — including shopping malls, professional services and indoor dining — is no way to do business.

Governments need to provide safe, organized, methodical and long-term reopening criteria. Should we continue with on-again, off-again mandates, it could hasten any destruction of our economy. In addition, the pandemic is exacerbating economic and public health issues that include widespread unemployment and homelessness and depression.

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The business community recognizes it has a serious responsibility to try to ensure it is protecting employees and customers. After all, business owners who choose to be open during the pandemic are risking their own health as well as that of their workers.

They understand the science that says operating indoors is not as safe as outdoors and that they need to take the necessary precautions when inside a business establishment. Mandated protocols Los Angeles County created to protect workers and patrons are being implemented by businesses, schools and houses of worship. Many business owners have gone to great expense to operate their businesses as safely as possible during the pandemic — and they should be allowed to remain open.

While COVID statistics — the rising number of new cases and deaths — are constantly updated, we hear relatively little during the pandemic about the economic health of our city, county or state except in broad strokes that don’t accurately portray the devastation in readily understandable terms.

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Our economy cannot survive following an “open one month, closed the next” model. Businesses require stability and predictability, and the public needs confidence and certainty. Neither have what they need. For these reasons, business groups throughout Southern California recently formed the California Coalition for Safe Reopening, which consists of local chambers of commerce — including the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce I lead — and business trade associations.

We’re advocating for safe, reasonable and predictable reopening plans that can help ensure the health of every resident, worker and customer while keeping businesses open and employees working.

The coalition has proposed several steps for safe economic recovery, including a safe reopening task force that would work directly with state and local officials to look into long-term solutions for how an open economy can operate with coronavirus in our midst.

Solutions might include establishing mandatory rapid testing for employees, recovery centers for any citizen who cannot safely shelter at home, and awarding COVID certifications to businesses that meet specific criteria for safe opening. Long-term solutions and programs might provide the confidence both businesses and the public need to make the retail environment thrive again.

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The checklist for certification completion could include COVID-safe training for all employees, instituting personal protective equipment supplies and protocols, reconfiguring spaces for safe seating, adding protective barriers, and making sure ventilation systems are working properly.

Currently, the Los Angeles County Health Department repeatedly checks on businesses while cities code compliance divisions provide additional support to ensure new regulations are followed. A business that follows all protocols to the letter receives no guarantee that it can remain open when the city, county or state decides to shut-down businesses if COVID-19 spikes once again.

A certification program could prevent that. Once a business is certified, counties, along with city partners, could recognize it as “COVID safe” within established parameters. This would allow businesses that have “safe” environments to remain open, force those certified “safe” to comply with the rules if they want to operate, and give the public confidence they are entering an establishment that is following the rules.

If COVID spikes again, instead of government officials instituting broad, sweeping closures, only businesses that have not been certified would need to close until they too can earn their “COVID safe” certificate.

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The California Coalition for Safe Reopening is advocating for reasonable and predictable reopening plans in California that could help ensure the health of every resident, worker and customer in these uncertain times. We want government leaders to engage with business owners to implement viable policies to help keep the doors open. By working together, we can keep our economy going.

Genevieve Morrill is president and CEO of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, a member of the California Coalition for Safe Reopening.


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