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COVID impact greater on small business

On March 25, one of the first COVID-19-positive cases was identified in Beaufort County — an employee at Walgreen’s in Washington. In early May, an employee at Lowe’s Home Improvement, also in Washington, tested positive.

In both cases, the stores were closed, employees who had worked closely with those testing positive were sent home to self-isolate. Both stores were quickly reopened after disinfecting the premises; other employees filled those shifts.

But what happens when an employee tests positive for COVID-19 at a small business, where most employees work closely and there is no second shift of workers?

For one downtown business owner, the only option was to close the store.

Rachel K. Jordan, owner of Rachel K’s Bakery in downtown Washington, had to make that choice this week, after an employee test for the virus came back positive on Thursday.

“Last Monday afternoon, one of my employees contacted me and said ‘I have been in contact with someone who has been contact with someone who was positive,’ He thought he was showing symptoms, so I said ‘Don’t come in. Get a test,’” Jordan said.

Rachel K’s is a small shop on Market Street. There is room to socially distance between employees and customers coming in for brief periods to pick up baked goods and other fare — well beneath the 15 minutes of “casual contact” versus “close contact” believed to be a factor in the spread of COVID-19. Behind the counter, however, space is tighter.

“Our shop is so small — I wasn’t worried about the customers because of the way it’s set up, and they’re not in there for 15 minutes,” Jordan said. “But all of my employees had been exposed to this, and my thought was to not potentially spread it to anyone else.”

Jordan said she reached out to local environmental health specialists, and was referred to the Beaufort County Health Department for guidance. She said she was surprised to learn there were no regulations for small businesses when an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

Few businesses do have them, according to Jim Madson, Beaufort County Health Department director.

Barring day care centers,  long-term care facilities and schools, there is no requirement for business owners to report employees testing positive to the health department — or to the public

“There’s no legal obligation. There’s no protocol to notify the public. They do not have to notify the health department,” Madson said.

Madson said if a business does reach out to health officials, they send a list of recommendations to follow, from minimizing exposure and cleaning/hygiene to monitoring for symptoms and sending employees home to quarantine.

Jordan was left on her own to decide what was best for not only her business, but her employees, as well. She decided to clean the bakery, close up shop and reopen July 28.

“It really came down to a moral decision for me, because there’s no legal framework, from what I’m gathering. I haven’t had a single state agency give me rules to follow — they’ve given me suggestions, but no specific rules,” Jordan said. “I’m comfortable that what I’m doing is the best way to protect my employees, but I think it’s terrifying that any (business) can not report and keep serving.”

The impact of COVID-19 is much greater on a small business, Jordan said.

“I guess if you’re a larger company, you can just say, ‘These six or eight people — just stay home,’ but we don’t have that luxury as a small business,” she said. “We don’t have another crew to cycle through. My people are working because they need the paycheck.”

Jordan said she and her staff are self-isolating; she was tested for COVID-19 Thursday and is awaiting the results. The experience has been both scary and frustrating, she said.

“It’s a real impact on us when we close, and, I daresay, some of our customers too, in their lives. There’s this fear, too, that there’s this stigma attached to it,” Jordan said. “Hopefully, this makes people a little more vigilant about their mask wearing.”