(The Center Square) – While most of Virginia began reopening its economy Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam approved prolonged COVID-19 restrictions for the state’s more densely populated areas, including localities in northern Virginia – suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Northam and local officials delayed reopening for at least two weeks, saying the region must coordinate with Washington and Maryland’s District of Columbia suburbs, but some regional business owners have cautioned that a prolonged delay will hurt small businesses and the economy.
“I cannot suffer anymore financial loss,” Jennifer Breaux, the vice president of Breaux Vineyards in Loudoun County, told The Center Square.
Breaux has managed to keep the business debt free, but the vineyard is down 200 percent compared to this time last year. If the business has to take on debt to sustain itself, she said she may not make that investment, especially since the length of the shutdown and the restrictions that will be in place after the shutdown is lifted are uncertain.
The vineyard is popular among people closer to Washington who like to travel toward the outskirts of the suburbs. She said shutting it down would be a loss to the county and the region.
Some smaller and newer businesses are on even shakier ground. Steve Bozzo, the owner of Bozzo Family Vineyards in Loudoun County, told The Center Square he opened his vineyard in 2018 and it started to break even after two years. The shutdown, however, has caused him to suffer losses between 30 percent and 50 percent. He said that some of his neighbors have more mature businesses, but that he cannot sustain these losses indefinitely.
Although the federal government has offered forgivable loans to help keep small businesses afloat, Bozzo said most of the expenses for his type of business don’t fit the criteria for loan forgiveness. He said he can borrow money, but he’d have to pay it back.
“It’s good to have the money available, but it’s not a fix,” Bozzo said.
Being on the outskirts of the metro area in Loudoun County, Bozzo said his business can operate while maintaining social distancing. He said his closest neighbor is 2 miles from him.
Bozzo said local officials claimed to make their decisions based on science and data, but they didn’t take into account the rural parts of Loudoun County, which isn’t as interconnected with the metro area as other parts of northern Virginia. Some local officials in Loudoun asked the governor to exempt those parts of Loudoun County from the prolonged closure, which Bozzo supports.
These problems also extend to restaurants, which can offer only takeout and delivery services. Tony Stafford, who owns three Ford's Fish Shack restaurants in Loudoun County, told The Center Square he was disappointed to find out the phase-in reopening of the economy would be regional and his businesses would be excluded.
“We were excited about reopening,” said Stafford, who also said the restaurant business is one of the most-regulated industries in the country and he would be able to uphold sanitization standards to ensure customers and employees are safe.
Stafford said he’s losing about $10,000 a week. Although he received some funding through federal forgivable loans, he said not all of his expenses are eligible for loan forgiveness.
Hospitality and tourism also continue to be negatively affected by the prolonged shutdown, said Robert Melvin, the director of government affairs at the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association. He said federal relief programs have been difficult for some of these businesses to utilize and northern Virginia businesses will be at an even greater disadvantage.
“It will likely put [northern Virginia businesses] at a disadvantage compared to other areas of the state that [were] able to enter phase one on May 15,” Melvin told The Center Square. “We have already seen that in places like Bristol. Restaurants on the Virginia side ... had to operate in a takeout only model while those on the Tennessee side were able to offer dine in services.
"Ultimately, the restaurants in regions and localities that are unable to enter phase one stand the most to lose, and those in other regions stand to benefit the most," Melvin said. "We are seeing this issue also play out with Virginia beaches which may not reopen, whereas Maryland and North Carolina beaches are reopening.”
Nicole Riley, the Virginia director of the National Federation for Independent Business, said most of NFIB’s members had about one to two months worth of reserves for their businesses, and they are about to start running out.
Riley said the most important concern of its members is public safety, but that they’ve been following the statewide safety guidelines and are ready to reopen.
Neither the governor’s office nor the Northern Virginia Regional Commission responded to requests for comment.