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Franklin County leader says virus cases remain low so it's time for commerce to relaunch

Franklin County leader says virus cases remain low so it's time for commerce to relaunch

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UNION — Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker on Wednesday defended his decision to allow some businesses to reopen this weekend but noted that it is likely impractical for some to do so.

“The numbers simply cannot justify what is impacting everybody’s lives right now,” Brinker said.

The county has a population of about 104,000 residents and as of Wednesday has reported 105 cases of the coronavirus, including 10 deaths. Thirty-four of those who tested positive have recovered and 49 others are in skilled care facilities, leaving about a dozen people who are quarantined at home and cooperating with health officials, Brinker said. 

“That’s 12 out there in the public, technically, on their own recognizance and very responsible,” he said. “That’s what we’re dealing with.”

He continued, “Based on the facts that we have at hand, we are going to indeed proceed with controlled, safe reopening of commerce here in Franklin.”

Starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, the county will allow its golf courses, movie theaters, concert halls, gymnasiums, exercise and fitness studios, bowling alleys and skating rinks to reopen. All have been closed since March 24. Brinker made the announcement Tuesday in a video posted to YouTube.

The decision comes amid protests this week at the Missouri Capitol building and in other U.S. states to lift restrictions on businesses and gatherings. Brinker said Franklin County's stay-at-home order has been more stringent than other St. Louis-area counties.

Dick Burke, executive director with the Missouri Association of Counties, said he hasn't heard of any other Missouri counties under stay-at-home orders lifting restrictions before Friday. He said he is aware of many across the state balancing economic and public health interests in considering when to reopen. He expects others will begin to make similar declarations in the weeks ahead once guidance comes from state officials.

"Everybody's feeling the pressure," Burke said. "But they want to do the right thing and be responsible as well."

Brinker told the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday that for some businesses that rely on larger groups of staff and customers, opening amid statewide restrictions on gatherings of 10 or fewer people is “probably not going to make a whole lot of economic sense” but would allow them to start planning their comebacks.

“Is it practical?” Brinker said. “Probably not, but they technically could be open if they wish to do so.”

He said Franklin County Health Director Angie Hittson agrees with the decision. Hittson referred questions to Brinker on Wednesday.

He said he's also been sharply criticized since Tuesday's announcement, including messages that he "should be shot."

Brinker said the commentary is "hardly fair but I understand the frustrations of the people."

Allowing businesses to reopen will enable them to begin planning for “re-entry and re-establishment.”

“Let’s start thinking about these things instead of dwelling on the horror of the past,” he said.

Social distancing guidelines outlined in Gov. Mike Parson's stay-at-home order are set to expire May 3.

Brinker said he spoke to Parson who assured him that by Friday the state will offer more detailed guidelines for reopening businesses.

An employee of Oasis Lanes in Union said they are waiting to hear more information and clarification from the county detailing how they can operate, including whether the 10-person limit applies to the whole building or each room.

“We’ve been open,” said Doug Warden, general manager of the Wolf Hollow Golf Course on Route 100 east of Washington. He said the county’s order already allowed golf courses to be open. They had closed the clubhouse to protect employees, he said.

Warden said they will begin serving food for golfers to carry out, and will allow golfers into the clubhouse to pay. They had been requiring golfers to pay by phone. The limit of one person per golf cart will stay in place, he said, and carts are thoroughly disinfected.

The Franklin County Country Club has also been open, with one golfer per cart and other restrictions to limit violating local and state rules. The clubhouse and restrooms have been closed and it is members only.

Dana Schwartz, who owns CrossFit Washington with her husband, said they are waiting to re-open on May 4, the date Parson has suggested he will use.

Although the gym loaned out 90% to 95% of its equipment and has been holding online training sessions, Schwartz said, “Everybody’s looking forward, for sure, to getting back into the gym.”

“It’s an odd position I kind of feel like we were put in,” she said about the differing restrictions set by the county and the state.

The Great Eight Cinema in Union closed March 19, days before the county issued its stay-at-home order, said owner Paul Arand. He said he has no plans to open immediately even though he supports the decision to allow some to do so.

"We're contingent upon Hollywood," Arand said, adding that the movie industry has no new releases coming until mid-July.

The only movies he could show now are films already in circulation via streaming services, Arand said. But with the 10-person limit, it's not feasible to open any of his eight theaters even if people wanted to come out to see a movie. 

"There's no way I'd open my doors to 10 people," he said. 

He said his business did qualify for the federal paycheck protection program but he's worried about the survival of his and other entertainment businesses.

"It's a battle of existence," he said. "I hope things are changing and people start feeling comfortable because with social distancing, if that's the new norm, it's going to be tough for any entertainment venues to make it. There are so many things that are unknown right now."

Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Check back STLtoday.com for updates.

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