Reopening the US: What to Expect

Businesses reopening
Apr 29, 2020

The Story

Across the country, Americans are wondering when and how things might return to normal. The short version: don’t hold your breath. The long version: keep reading. 

National Guidelines

In mid-March, President Trump announced national guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19. They included staying home, avoiding nonessential travel and large gatherings, and advising states to close bars and restaurants. After hoping to lift them by Easter, Trump extended them to April 30. It doesn’t look like he’ll extend them again. Meanwhile, most states enacted their own stay-at-home orders, which have varying expiration dates. There's been some tension between Trump and state governors over who holds the power in this situation. But legal scholars say it’s up to the states to decide when to flip the ‘open’ signs. 

So where do things stand?

The US has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world at more than 1 million. But some states have reported a decline in infection rates and hospitalizations. In mid-April, Trump released guidelines for reopening parts of the economy, but left governors to make the final call.

And those guidelines are?

Three phases of gradually lifting restrictions. Phase One can start after states have seen a decline in confirmed COVID-19 cases over 14 days. And cases should continue to fall for an additional two weeks before moving to the next phase. The plan looks like this: 

  • Phase One...businesses like movie theaters, restaurants, and gyms can open as long as they have protections in place (think: social distancing, disinfecting). Companies should encourage employees to work from home if possible. And individuals should avoid hanging out in groups of more than 10. 

  • Phase Two...schools and daycares can open. As well as bars as long as they limit the number of people they let in. Nonessential travel can start back up again, but companies should still encourage employees to work from home. And people should avoid groups of more than 50 unless they take “precautionary measures.” 

  • Phase can start visiting loved ones in nursing homes and hospitals. People can go back to work at the office. Vulnerable individuals (like the elderly and those with underlying health conditions) no longer need to shelter in place but should still practice social distancing. And low-risk individuals should keep their exposure to crowds to a minimum. 

I’m creating my Phase Three vision board now.

Love it. But even Phase Three isn’t going to look exactly like the pre-pandemic days. Businesses are being asked to develop plans for temperature checks, social distancing, contact tracing, and disinfecting common areas. And remember those higher-risk groups? They’re encouraged to minimize their socializing if distancing isn’t possible. Health experts also say face masks could continue to be a must-have accessory until there is a vaccine, which could be 12-18 months away.

State Guidelines

The federal social distancing guidelines and the phases for reopening are just that: guidelines. A handful of governors never officially told people to stay home. That includes Arkansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. They still had certain restrictions in place, like closing non-essential businesses and limits on social gatherings. Many stay-at-home orders or restrictions have recently expired or are set to expire in the coming weeks. You can find out when your state’s restrictions are set to lift here.

And then what happens?

It depends on your state. Based on the phases Trump outlined, and what we’ve seen so far, it’ll probably be a gradual approach. Here’s how some states are already doing things:

  • Alaska: has let nonessential businesses reopen, but restaurants are only allowed to take reservations, not walk-ins.

  • Georgia: has reopened businesses including gyms, nail salons, and tattoo shops. And is letting people go out to eat at restaurants. But there are restrictions to keep people safe (eg: restaurant workers have to wear masks and limit the number of diners).

  • Oklahoma: has let businesses like salons, barbershops, and pet groomers reopen. Restaurants, places of worship, and gyms are set to reopen May 1. Businesses still have to follow social distancing and sanitation protocols.

  • South Carolina: has reopened retail stores but they have to operate at 20% capacity.

How’s it been going?

It’s too early to tell. But reportedly no state meets the federal guideline for a 14-day decline in cases. Including Georgia, which has gotten a lot of heat for reopening plans that've been described as "aggressive" compared to other states. Residents and mayors across Georgia have been pushing back, citing high COVID-19 case numbers in both urban and rural areas. Some restaurants in Georgia are keeping their ‘closed’ signs up, citing health concerns for workers and customers. Overall, public health experts and modeling warn that reopening prematurely, or easing restrictions too quickly, increases the chance that infections will spike again and economies could have to shut back down.

Skimm More: We talked to a hair stylist in Georgia about her plans to reopen her salon.

State Alliances

Some states are teaming up on their reopening strategies. Welcome to the stage:

What’s the goal here?

These groups of states are tied geographically and economically. For example, in normal times hundreds of thousands of people commute between NY, NJ, and CT. Governors have said that the goal of these alliances is to share information and ideas, and coordinate a strategy for easing the restrictions on residents and businesses without leading to a spike in new cases. They’ve also said this doesn’t necessarily mean each state will open at the same time or follow the exact same plan. For the most part, the groups are made up of governors, chiefs of staff, and public health officials. 

Do we know what they’re planning yet?

Not specifically. Governors have emphasized the need to make decisions based on data and science. And that reopening plans should be made at the local level, with federal help on things like getting access to enough supplies to ramp up COVID-19 testing.

Going Back to Work

Essential workers (like health care workers and mail carriers), which make up as much as 43% of the workforce, have been reporting for duty through the COVID-19 pandemic. But tens of millions of others are working from home, furloughed, or laid off. The current federal social distancing guidelines expire this week, but some companies have already allowed nonessential employees to go back to work.

But not all companies? 

Not quite. State and health officials have said that we need more testing to safely reopen the economy. But the US is facing a number of roadblocks to make that happen (which we get into here). Meanwhile, business leaders are looking into testing options so that they can get workers safely back to the office. 

Would everyone go back at once?

Not likely. Some states say construction and manufacturing will open before other industries. Working remotely in those fields isn’t possible...but social distancing is. Car factories in particular are trying to re-rev their engines in early May. And some factories have already started implementing safety measures by testing workers’ temperatures before they work and providing face masks.

What does the gov recommend?

It’s leaving most details to states and businesses, but the White House and CDC have laid out a number of guidelines for employers, like… 

  • Encourage employees to work remotely as much as possible

  • Close or enforce strict social distancing protocols for office common areas (like cafeterias or lounges)

  • Keep nonessential travel to a minimum

  • Consider increasing space between employees and implementing different shifts to keep coworkers further apart from each other

  • Provide hygienic supplies like tissues, hand sanitizer, and soap

  • Implement flexible policies for employees when it comes to sick days or taking care of kids because of school closures

What about commuting? Is it safe?

Do you have a car? If so, you’ll probably have a safer time getting to work. Things get trickier for workers in urban areas. New York City has been the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the United States, and millions of people use (read: pack themselves into) the city’s subway system to get around. Without widespread screening for the virus, people who don’t know they have COVID-19 could use the subway and expose others. Some companies are reportedly considering options like chipping in for private car or bus services to get people to work, or leasing smaller satellite offices closer to where employees live.

So how soon will my office get back to normal?

It could take some time. Even if the virus dies down and companies start to reopen, many have been hurting financially and might make some changes to keep things afloat. That could include downsizing staff, making operations completely remote, or moving offices out of large urban areas (where rent prices are typically higher). 

Summer Travel

You might be anxiously waiting to decide if you should make or cancel summer vacation plans. The country’s top infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that those trips could be “in the cards.” But we still don’t know whether people can travel safely anytime soon.

Where do things stand?

Since March, the State Department has been advising Americans to avoid all international travel, and the CDC says Americans should avoid both domestic and international travel if possible. Multiple airlines have cut back on flights as demand for air travel has gone down, leaving the industry sending out an SOS for a $25 billion bailout. Countries around the world have closed their borders, some indefinitely. And major global events set to take place this summer, from the Tokyo Olympics to Wimbledon, have either been canceled or rescheduled.

I just want to know when I can plan my next trip.

What we do know: the White House says nonessential travel can start up again in Phase Two of its reopening plan. What we don’t know: when that phase will start. And different countries are on different timelines. In the short-term, travel industry experts predict people will opt for good old fashioned road trips over flights. Since you’re typically not seated with hundreds of strangers in your car. Plus international travel may not be possible if countries continue to keep their borders closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Also many people have been feeling the financial impacts of COVID-19 – and international flights can be expensive.

Will we ever fly again?

Technically, people still can. But air travel is down by more than 90% compared to this time last year. And as more people start flying again, it’ll probably look different than in the past. Remember giving strange looks to people who wiped down their tray tables and chairs with disinfectant wipes before the pandemic? Experts say we’ll likely see many more people doing that going forward. Also, you might want to check whether your airline requires any safety precautions. JetBlue is the first major American airline to require passengers to wear face masks during flights.

Good to know. And what about international travel?

Once borders reopen, countries may require tourists to take a COVID-19 test once they arrive – and those that test positive may have to comply with a gov-mandated quarantine. 


In the span of just a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially halted the economy and forced more than 20 million Americans to file for unemployment. With cases starting to decline in some areas, states have to balance getting people working and spending again without risking the health of their citizens. But without a treatment or vaccine for the virus, putting the pieces back together is expected to be a slow and complicated process. 

Live Smarter

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.