A Tale of Three Phases
On reopenings and staying open
By now, we're all painfully aware that COVID-19 has been more than "just a phase." That's because in Pennsylvania, we're on at least our third.
Untold ages ago, on April 27, Governor Tom Wolf announced a three-phase plan for reopening Pennsylvania. During the Red Phase, which began with the statewide shutdown in March, a mandatory stay-at-home order was in place and only "life-sustaining businesses" could continue in-person operations. During the Yellow Phase (May 8 through June 25 in Erie County), labeled "aggressive mitigation," more "non-essential" businesses were allowed to reopen with precautions — although others remained sidelined until the Green Phase initiated on June 26. Gyms and health and wellness centers, personal care services (barbershops, salons, spas, etc.), and indoor entertainment and recreation facilities were among those left waiting the longest, with miles of ground to make up.
Regardless of who you are and when you received the go-ahead, one thing was clear — it would not be "business as usual," at least not for a while. With the novel coronavirus an invasive presence amongst our species, it has become necessary to coevolve. In evolutionary theory, coevolution is the result of a series of adaptations and counteradaptions, the cause-and-effect and push-pull of survival. Although some have bristled at being told how to evolve, few have debated the why — because coming through for their clientele, their communities, their employees, and their livelihoods matters.
The scenarios that follow vary, but the resolve shown by the people involved rarely wavered.
In It For the Long Haul:
Long-Term Care Facilities
As home to some of our most vulnerable populations, long-term care facilities (LTCFs) have withstood the biggest threat from the coronavirus thus far — not only from an operations standpoint, but a health outlook as well. Elderly residents are more likely to harbor comorbidities such as diabetes and carry generally weaker immune systems. Living in close quarters with limited mobility creates conditions for viruses to spread quickly, leading to outbreaks.
Statewide, COVID-19 has found its way into 1,025 LTCFs, infecting 24,663 residents and 5,389 employees and accounting for 5,609 deaths (as of Oct. 19). Those numbers translate to about 17 percent of total Pennsylvanian coronavirus cases (176,054 confirmed as of Oct. 19) and a staggering two-thirds of total Pennsylvanian coronavirus deaths (8,500 as of Oct. 19). In Erie County, COVID-19 has breached 21 LTCFs, with 182 infected residents, 129 infected employees, and 41 deaths. Mirroring the statewide trend, approximately 17 percent of local coronavirus cases (311 out of 1,879) can be traced to LTCFs, albeit with a larger percentage of deaths (41 out of 53, or 77 percent).
Brevillier Village, a nonprofit specializing in senior housing and health care with historical roots in the community dating back to the early 1900s, provides multi-level care to their residents with intentions of helping them age in place. Headquartered at 5416 E. Lake Road, the Brevillier campus encompasses four buildings, each with a different specialization depending on the resident's level of independence and needs. Their person-centered care mission involves many facets — a healthcare team, social workers, dining services, rehabilitative services, recreation, nondenominational spiritual services, and assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs).
Balancing their residents' physical well-being with their mental and spiritual welfare has been tougher than usual, says Maureen Rizzo, Brevillier's director of development: "COVID-19 has certainly challenged our ability to continually provide exceptional care; however the entire team, including residents, their family members, staff, and resident volunteers have taken the preventative measures very seriously. Social engagement has been limited to adhere to social distance restrictions requiring residents to remain in specific areas. Additionally, our Recreation Department has redesigned activities to be smaller, building-related programs to eliminate large group gatherings."
Residents have access to two on-site doctors, a psychologist and neuropsychologist, as well as a village chaplain. Mental wellness is observed daily by staff and when deemed necessary, a resident Care Plan may recommend the intervention of their expertise. The biggest missing piece has been face-to-face contact with family members, volunteers, and community. "We consider all these contributing people an essential part of our core values. Many of the ever-changing state and federal guidelines have made normal seem nearly impossible to achieve, but there is a sense of undeniable resiliency here," explains Rizzo.
"We truly have learned that we are a family and we are essential to the operations at Brevillier Village. I do not see that bond or pride going away soon. We celebrate together, we cry together, and we have grown in many ways during these times. Staff is recognized for their tireless work and compassionate care. This will continue indefinitely."
Staying in Shape:
Gyms and Fitness Centers
Any power lifter could tell you how important grip strength is to maintaining proper form — lose your grip and the whole thing comes crashing down, potentially taking you with it. When COVID-19 first hit, Matthew and Anthony Pribonic, proprietors of Level Red Boxing (LRB) and iRock Fitness, weren't so sure they could hold on.
"In the beginning, it was very scary because we were like 'Well, we're gonna close.' We're out of business if somebody tells us to close our doors for months," Matt admits. "It was kind of amazing that the government was able to put together a program that gave so many people subsidy and support — I really didn't see that coming."
Nonetheless, the sibling duo weren't depending solely on the state to spot them during their three-plus month shutdown — instead, they seriously flexed their ingenuity muscles. In March, they debuted Level Red Virtual to everyone in all four LRB market areas — Erie, Pittsburgh, Buffalo (N.Y.), and Cary (N.C.) — not just members. On the iRock side, they introduced a timer app with an assortment of minimal equipment exercises that could also be performed entirely at home — thereby circumventing the ongoing shortage of workout equipment worldwide.
Even with those interim measures in place, increased advertising and community outreach, and the implementation of enhanced cleaning protocols (which Pribonic says should have been the norm all along), membership atrophied by nearly 50 percent during the shutdown. Pribonic isn't blaming anyone for canceling, especially those with vulnerable relatives. "You have to think about everyone you know and say to yourself, 'Well I could go to the gym, but then I can't see my parents.' You know what you are going to choose — you're going to choose your parents."
Now that we've officially hit bulking season, LRB and iRock are gradually building membership back up, with hopes of reaching pre-COVID registrations by the new year. But should anything like this happen again (and Pribonic highly suspects it might) and the company be forced to power down, the duo is ready with their proverbial "backup generator."
"We never want to be in the situation again where we're subject to the environment around us. We want to be in control," Pribonic asserts. "We want to be able to serve people no matter where they want to work out, whether it's at home, at a park, or at their office or business. We want to be able to be there."
To that end, they've been sculpting an all-outdoor workout system called Outfit. Using a combination of supersized Ford Transit vans and modified cargo containers (running on solar power), Outfit will operate a number of pop-up gym locations in outdoor parking areas, "fully decked out" with workout equipment, timers, technology, and lights capable of serving 20 to 30 workout warriors at a time. Membership will be on a per-month basis (up to 12 workouts per month), with the ability to opt in or out at any time without penalty via an app. "We're really excited about it because it's going to change the way people exercise and the way they pay for it."
Historic challenges facing your industry? No sweat.
Grooming a Comeback:
Personal Care Services
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and things are appearing much prettier to Panache Salon and Spa CFO Jim Farrell now than they did a few months ago. He says his business has lost much of its visual appeal since its resurrection on June 26, but it has lost none of its essence.
"It's not been difficult to stay within the culture that we've built here at Panache," says Farrell. "The only thing is the facility we spent a ton of money on making beautiful is now no longer beautiful. We have plastic shower curtains everywhere, removed probably half of our furniture and had to buy a storage room to store it all. But as far as our values towards our clients and our staff, those have not been affected."
As a resounding testament to that, every one of Panache's 34 staff members returned as soon as they were allowed to reopen — much later than the three to five weeks than Farrell had initially projected. State legislators were lobbying for a waiver to the governor's mandatory closure of personal care services back in May (House Bill 2388), but it was vetoed — and barbershop, salon, and spa owners were left spinning in their chairs until the Green Phase commenced. In spite of that, salons have repeatedly proven to be a safe environment since reopening. Not a single employee has come to Farrell expressing discomfort, "which is saying something."
Some of that is attributable to their strict no mask, no service policy. "I've had to ask people to leave if they wouldn't put a mask on. We're very stringent in our setup here. We're big believers in the actual virus." The other part of that is the sheer breadth of the facility, an expansive environment of about 7,000 square feet — very amenable to social distancing. Enhanced antiviral cleaning procedures between clients are likely to stay in place whenever the pandemic mercifully passes, especially during flu season.
So while Farrell is eager to resume skincare services (disallowed currently because they can only be administered to unmasked clients), take down the shower curtains, and restore Panache's atmosphere as a homey little oasis, he is grateful that his customers are still getting the "attention to detail, personalization, and experience" that they're accustomed to. "We try to instill that connection between people that's more than just receiving a service."
Little by little, we'll gradually phase out of this pandemic — and color-coded phases. But the people and local businesses that make our community tick, they're not going anywhere if they can help it.
Matt Swanseger can be reached at email@example.com