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With virus restrictions lifting, a cautious reopening begins in Virginia and Maryland

Kim Hannon, owner of Ophiuroidea, a boutique in Queen Anne's County, waves to traffic on nearby Route 50 after unfurling her “open” flag as she opens for business at 5 p.m. in Grasonville, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Penny Papa was the first customer of the day Friday at the T. Ann Nails salon outside Richmond. All that stood between her and new nails was a “Covid-19 Pandemic Nail treatment Consent Form.”

“I understand the covid-19 virus has a long incubation period during which carriers of the virus may not show symptoms and still be highly contagious,” it began. “It is impossible to determine who has it and who does not given the current limits in virus testing.”

Papa, wearing a flowered mask, did not hesitate to jot her initials beside the chilling statement, but she took an extra precaution.

“I will sign with my own pen,” she said.

As Virginia and Maryland took tentative steps toward reopening their economies on Friday, one thing became clear: Business as usual is going to be unusual for the foreseeable future. Consent forms, Plexiglass dividers, occupancy limits, cleaning directions and mask rules will be standard as business owners hope to allay customer and employee fears while recouping painful financial losses.

Governors of both states Friday gave the yellow light for some businesses and social organizations to carefully restart operations after the deadly coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown that lasted more than six weeks and wreaked economic havoc across the region. The changes took effect at midnight Thursday in Virginia and 5 p.m. Friday in Maryland.

But with the reopening came much trepidation as coronavirus cases continued to rise across the region. Some jurisdictions postponed reopening until new cases decline and testing protocols are improved.

Coronavirus infection rate in metro D.C. is three times higher than outside region

The District and its suburbs remain in a virtual shutdown. Much of Northern Virginia kept restrictions in place, as did suburban Maryland, where coronavirus outbreaks have been most severe. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has ordered the shutdown through at least June 8. Baltimore and Richmond have also remained closed.

The regional shutdown has been devastating for workers and business owners. About 885,000 jobless claims were filed in the past two months in the District, Maryland and Virginia. As reopening began Friday, it provided some socially distanced hope that commerce could make a comeback, even while accompanied by grave concerns.

Ann Hang, owner of the T. Ann Nails salon, had qualms about reopening, even with precautions that included limiting clients to two at a time and deep-cleaning work stations between uses. She wore a mask and plastic face shield as she worked on Papa’s nails, which she reached through a small cutout in the Plexiglass wall between them.

“I think it will be risky. This is very contagious,” said Hang, who has two employees who have opted not to return to work. “They want to wait. They’re scared.”

Hang, who had to keep making rent payments on her storefront during the shutdown, said she had no choice about reopening.

“We can’t afford to not open, so we have to be more careful,” she said. “We just have to hang on.”

Across the Chesapeake Bay, some Maryland business owners rejoiced at the prospect of reopening and bringing in much-needed income.

Kim Hannon spent Friday morning blasting country music, buying fresh flowers and chilling champagne as she prepared to reopen her Eastern Shore boutique, Ophiuroidea. At 5 p.m. on the dot, she yelped with joy as she unfurled her blue and white “Open” sign.

“Two months baby, it’s been a long two months,” she said to her phone, where she was live-streaming the grand reopening to her Facebook followers.

She then swung open her doors and poured champagne for her first three customers.

“Well, this is just about the weirdest opening I have ever been to,” said Gigi Windley, executive director of the Kent Narrows Development Foundation. “How are we going to drink champagne with our masks on?”

The Queenstown Premium Outlets mall, a major retail hub in Queen Anne’s County, planned to reopen at 11 a.m. Saturday. A Little Lovely Coffee House, located in the outlet complex, won’t reopen until more neighboring shops decide to do the same, owner Samantha Zippilli said.

“It takes a lot of time for stores to regroup, getting their employees back and reorganizing floor displays while staying safe,” she said.

When the outlet does reopen, it will have a different look than when it closed in March. Signs will explain store capacity and dividers will separate entryways to dictate the flow of traffic. Public seating will be six feet apart and escalators will have markers where people can safely stand, according to mall owner Simon Property Group.

Nine miles away, Stacie McGinnes scrambled to get her store, Half Full Gift Boutique, ready to reopen Saturday.

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“As soon as I lay my eyes on my customers I will be overjoyed,” McGinnes said, her voice breaking. “They will have two really, really happy store owners ready to greet them, though not with the hugs they are used to.”

The gradual lifting of restrictions meant the first haircut in weeks for many residents, as barbershops were allowed to reopen in Maryland and Virginia. After a hard month with no customers, many were suddenly in search of a trim.

Jim Daugherty pulled up to Lee Christner’s Barbershop in leafy downtown Warrenton, Va., to find its double doors wide open and the owner standing in the middle of an empty room wearing a clear plastic face shield and clutching a can of sanitizing spray.

“Do you have a waiting line,” Daugherty, 60, called from behind a white mask, “or how does this work?”

The owner, Kim, who spoke on the condition of using only her last name to protect her privacy, nodded and pointed at an empty black chair: “Just let me disinfect it first,” she said.

Daugherty waited outside as Kim wiped and sprayed the chair, the scissors, the comb, the shaver — everything she had touched while helping the customer before Daugherty, one of at least half a dozen men whose hair she had cut that morning. Although she tried to give her full attention to Daugherty’s curly mop, she was interrupted a few snips in when the phone rang.

“Yes, you can come at 7,” she said over the phone. “Yes, tonight. Seven o’clock tonight.”

In Colonial Williamsburg, the Cheese Shop has seen 47 years’ worth of tricorn hats and ravenous college students, but never anything like the past two months.

“It’s been scary,” said Mary Ellen Power, who with her brother and sister are the second generation to run the shop their parents founded in the early 1970s.

Having had the store mostly closed since late March, the siblings decided to try reopening on Friday. A notoriously crowded shop became crowded once again as locals lined up outside to get their turkey and cheese baguettes and Virginia ham sandwiches.

“We’re tired of being cooped up in the house and spending a ton of money on DoorDash,” said Jamie Cale, a Williamsburg financial adviser celebrating his 41st birthday by taking his wife and two kids to lunch.

In the Maryland and Virginia counties that have begun the reopening process, the emphasis is on caution. Conditions for reopening prioritize safety, social distancing and cleanliness. No one wants another outbreak that will require the tighter restrictions to return.

“The last thing that we need as a health issue, the last thing we need as an economic issue is to have to go back to where we’ve been,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Friday. “So let’s work together and not let that happen.”

In Virginia, restaurants already licensed for outdoor seating can reopen at half capacity with social distancing requirements. Barber shops and hair and nail salons can open for appointments and with strict guidelines. Nonessential retail stores can open with limits on the number of customers. Employees are required to wear face masks.

When and how will Virginia reopen?

While religious organizations can hold services, gatherings must be at 50 percent capacity and are subject to other safety requirements. Movie theaters, concert venues, amusement parks, bowling alleys and indoor gyms remain closed.

In Maryland, many similar precautions are in place, although restaurants remain closed for in-person dining. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) replaced a statewide stay-at-home order with a “safer at home” policy that relaxes some restrictions.

When and how will Maryland reopen?

Despite the region’s heralded reopening, it remained unclear how many residents would feel safe enough to venture out to venues and establishments that have been shut down. But for some, the draw to be among other humans proved powerful.

For the nine men and women pedaling furiously on stationary bikes in a suburban Richmond YMCA parking lot Friday morning, the return to a group class was a welcome break from weeks of sad, solitary exercise.

“I could hardly sleep last night I was so excited about coming to the Y,” said Susan Freeman, 66, who arrived early for her spin class at the Tuckahoe YMCA in Henrico County. “This is like a second home here.”

Sign-up for the class opened at 8:30 a.m. the previous morning. Five minutes later, it was booked, said Brandon Rice, the YMCA’s wellness director.

The facility had 30-minute classes from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Friday. Each class could have nine participants and a teacher, in keeping with the state’s 10-person limit on gatherings. Staff members wore their required masks but most members — spaced more than 10 feet apart — opted against the coverings as they huffed and puffed.

“It’s awesome,” Rice said. “We’re so happy to have people back.”

Hannah Natanson, Gregory S. Schneider, Rachel Chason, Erin Cox, Antonio Olivo and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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