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America Is Reopening for Summer, and Tensions Are High

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/23/2020 Rebecca Davis O’Brien, Arian Campo-Flores, Elizabeth Findell
a woman sitting at a table with food © Rebecca O'Brien/The Wall Street Journal

Tricia McIntyre, a 48-year-old emergency-room nurse from southern Wisconsin, donned a mask last Sunday, sat down behind a plexiglass shield at a nail salon, and got her first manicure in two months.

“Finally!” Ms. McIntyre said, a few days after Wisconsin’s top court overturned the state’s coronavirus shutdown order. “I think people are tired of staying home and they’ll do whatever they can to get back out.”

Across the plexiglass from Ms. McIntyre at Hollywood Nails in Delavan, Wis., Henry Nguyen, also 48, was conflicted. Mr. Nguyen was relieved to be back at work, but fearful of the virus and felt he had no choice. “If I stay home, there’s no money to pay the bills.”

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Americans are tiptoeing—or in some cases sprinting—their way back into a public sphere reshaped by the coronavirus. Scenes playing out across the country show that reopening will be fitful, divisive, and in some ways far more difficult than closing it down.

Tensions are intensifying between those celebrating the end of shutdowns and those fearful of the virus’s re-emergence, between those driven by economic desperation and those eager to resume a semblance of normalcy. As restrictions eventually fall in large cities including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, those dichotomies are likely to become more acute.

Nearly 95,000 people have died in the U.S. from Covid-19, and government officials and public-health experts warn new outbreaks could flare up as the country reopens. All 50 states have begun to lift the restrictions imposed to slow the pandemic.

“Shutting it down is easy,” said Dan Stec, a Republican state assemblyman representing a swath of northeast New York, which began lifting some restrictions on businesses this week. “Reopening it in the right order, so that you don’t make it worse, is a real challenge.”

America’s ambivalence about re-entering public life doesn’t fall neatly along the country’s political divides. In downtown Houston, reopened office buildings sat empty last week. In New York City, which has the highest death toll in the U.S., some have ventured out to see friends while others refuse to leave their homes.

At the Horny Toad restaurant in Cave Creek, Ariz., a suburb just north of Phoenix, servers wore masks and gloves, tables were set 6 feet apart, and groups were limited to no more than 10. Arizona restaurants and bars that serve food are now allowed to have dine-in service, though state officials have encouraged businesses to limit the number of customers inside a restaurant.

John Vrooman, a 59-year-old subcontractor, said the extra effort for safety was fine, but in his view unnecessary.

“I don’t believe in masks,” he said after lunch at the Horny Toad. “I just don’t think that little piece of fabric over your mouth is going to do anything. And I’ve only got one lung.”

Gallery by photo services

Many people are carefully calculating once-routine decisions, considering not just local laws and protocols but also personal comfort and economic circumstances. Going to the office, arranging a child’s play date or ordering a cup of coffee is suddenly fraught with anxiety and conflict.

Some can afford to stay home, but millions, like health-care workers and meatpackers, need to go out to work. Some bristle against what they see as government overreach, while others welcome the enforcement of stay-at-home orders. Business owners are desperate to reopen their doors, but their employees are anxious about returning to work to face the growing throngs. Debates about mask etiquette, looming state budget cuts and local business practices rage in Facebook groups, on the evening news, on street corners and within families.

Adding to the uncertainty: There is no government-run, centralized source of data or federal regulations for reporting coronavirus test results, hampering the ability to understand the spread of the virus and trends in daily death tolls and hospital capacity.

A patchwork is emerging, with states such as Colorado and Arizona, which have increased testing capacity, reopening as confirmed Covid cases continue growing. Hawaii has maintained tighter restrictions with caseloads that appear to be plateauing.

Test results are being watched closely in places like Plattsburgh, N.Y., a manufacturing town near the Canadian border that is among the first regions in the state to reopen. A recent surge in Covid-19 cases, traced back to spring parties around closed-down college campuses, sent a scare through the community. If more people there are hospitalized with Covid, the state may reverse the reopening and close businesses a second time—which could spell doom for many, said Garry Douglas, president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

The town, on the shore of Lake Champlain, has just begun buzzing with activity again. Nova Bus and Prevost, North American divisions of Sweden’s Volvo Cars AB, are preparing to welcome workers back after closing their Plattsburgh production lines in March, said Lola Miller, the plant’s health, safety and environment manager.

Returning workers will get protective equipment, and the furniture in the cafeteria was replaced with small cafe tables, individual seatings spaced 6 feet apart.

“You can’t build a bus and stay 6 feet apart,” Ms. Miller said, so masks will have to be worn. “Nobody knows the playbook—we have never played this game before.”

Patty Waldron reimagined the colorful layout of her cafe, Koffee Kat, for social distancing: no more self-serve coffee, no indoor seating. The biggest challenge is when customers come in without masks and stride up to her counter. She doesn’t want to make other customers uncomfortable, so she tells them she can serve them outside. Some have told her that’s a violation of their constitutional rights.

“I’m not making a political statement here,” said Ms. Waldron, 56 years old, who wears a mask at work. “I’m just trying to follow the guidelines set for me. For those who want to be rebellious—I’m not trying to take your rights away.”

Customers are boosting sales again at Inman Perk Coffee, a shop off Atlanta’s BeltLine path, which has been packed since the state eased its coronavirus lockdown last month.

Barista Zach Stolz recounted how one customer asked when the cafe would reopen fully. Right now, it’s takeout only and the staff wear masks. “I felt that wave of anxiety from March just come flooding over me,” he said.

Audrey and Chuck Chambers drove from their home in Miami, which has been slower to reopen, up to Fort Lauderdale this week, where restaurants and retail stores are back open but limited to 50% capacity.

They said business mostly dried up for their party-rental company, leading them to fight more than usual. “It’s causing anxiety, the aggravation at the lack of work and lack of money,” said Mrs. Chambers, 48 years old. “The pipe was about to burst. We needed to get out.”

They requested an outdoor table at American Social, a gastropub. It was the couple’s first outing in nearly three months, and they were tentative.

“You don’t want to do it too fast,” Mrs. Chambers said. “But enough is enough.”

Florida began easing restrictions on businesses and travel weeks ago, and so far, its number of new cases has remained relatively stable. A total of 2,190 have died. Fort Lauderdale real-estate company Native Realty opened its office on Monday with new protocols: Its eight employees must wear masks, visitors get temperature checks, and desks are spaced at least 6 feet apart and equipped with bottles of hand sanitizer.

When they gathered in a conference room for a morning meeting, staffers discovered a problem. Many had brought coffee but they couldn’t take a sip without removing their masks, which would violate social-distancing guidelines. So they drank their coffees cold at their desks later.

“Everyone wants to get back to business, but you have to do it in an appropriate manner,” said Native Realty Chief Executive Jaime Sturgis, 31.

Companies in Texas can now bring up to 25% of their workforce back in, raising the prospect of hundreds of thousands of workers returning to their desks in close quarters.

Texas has had relatively low rates of Covid-19 for its population, with 52,268 cases and 1,440 fatalities. Confirmed cases of the virus have increased in recent weeks as the state expands testing, but Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has noted that hospitalizations have remained steady and said the state has plenty of hospital capacity.

Despite the looser restrictions, Houston offices remained nearly vacant. A few downtown lunch spots have begun to reopen, but Deets Hoffman, an owner of Leaf & Grain, a popular salad eatery, said business there was down around 80%.

“My biggest fear is a resurgence of all this, a rolling lockdown type situation,” he said. “That’s the big question with everything opening back up: Is it the right time? I don’t know that and I don’t think anyone knows.”

Eagle County, Colo., was an early hot spot for the virus but is now starting to reopen. After wearing masks for weeks, people walking on the creekside trail system in the town of Eagle now rarely put them on.

A local yoga studio, Yoga Off Broadway, is holding some classes, and owner Yvonne Schwartz expects to open more fully next week. The studio is across the street from a nursing home that reported a new outbreak of Covid-19 on May 8.

Ms. Schwartz, 38 years old, contracted the virus early on and found herself trying to come up with ways to run the studio remotely, such as offering online classes, while lying in bed ill. She was able to get a government loan and a break from her landlord to prop up the business. She said her bigger fear is that she reopens and a person with the virus comes to class, exposing everyone else. “Just navigating that will be something new,” she said.

Beaches are reopening across the country, with different rules set by local officials. In eastern Maryland, the boardwalks are open but the bars are closed. In Florida, many beaches are open, though Naples set daily time limits and other rules after crowds formed without social distancing.

New York City beaches will open for Memorial Day, only no one is allowed to swim. The prospect of packed city shorelines has riled some residents in rural New York, where some businesses remain shut down. It’s one of the many sources of ire in the calls pouring into the office of Mr. Stec, the New York assemblyman.

He said he welcomes the open beaches as part of an effort to get the local economy moving. The beaches, to him, represent the challenge officials face as they balance economic interests against the lurking menace of a pandemic.

“I can’t help but think about ‘Jaws,’ ” said Mr. Stec. Amid public outrage, Amity Island officials opened the town’s beaches after a reported shark attack, with lethal cinematic repercussions. “I always felt for that mayor,” he said.

Write to Rebecca Davis O’Brien at Rebecca.OBrien@wsj.com, Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com and Elizabeth Findell at Elizabeth.Findell@wsj.com

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