Over the last several weeks, the Alexandria Health Department has worked closely with hundreds of businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19.
Rachel Stradling leads the department’s interaction with approximately 860 permitted food establishments in the city, and that’s meant advising them on new rules from Richmond. Her small staff of 10 is also advising Alexandria City Public Schools on their emergency food distribution and helping grocery stores during hours allotted for senior citizen shopping.
Governor Northam’s Monday order prohibiting gatherings of 10 people or more and closing all restaurants except for carryout and takeout until April 24 has put Stradling and her staff into overdrive. The pandemic has shuttered hundreds of businesses around the city, from restaurants to retail shops, and has dramatically impacted the city budget. Thousands of locals are now out of work.
The Health Department was forced to shut down one restaurant — the Union Street Public House — on March 17 for failing to follow the 10-person maximum for establishments, Stradling said.
There are currently 14 cases of COVID-19 in Alexandria, and to help businesses, earlier this week the city council passed an emergency ordinance putting a moratorium on penalties for restaurant meals taxes, transient occupancy tax and the BPOL (Business, Professional and Occupational License) tax.
This week, ALXnow asked Stradling about the work she and her 10-person staff have been up to and how they are holding up.
ALXnow: How big is your staff and how many establishments are you working with?
Stradling: There have been 10 of us all together that have been working on this, and we have about 860 permitted food establishments in the city, and we have a lot of grocery stores and a lot of other food establishments, but there are about 400 restaurants at any time. We’ve all been working diligently as a team to try and reach out to as many as we possibly can and help them through what are unprecedented times. We’ve never had anything like this before, so we’re all learning and we’re all trying to work together to keep people safe while helping businesses.
ALXnow: Did you have to shut any restaurants down?
Stradling: We’ve only had to shut one person down, or one restaurant down. It was the Union Street Public House on the 17th, the first day that the 10-person order was issued. I think there have been about six or seven other establishments that haven’t been in compliance. I would say the vast majority of our restaurants have really embraced the spirit of the executive order and really understand the public health rationale behind it and really want to be there and have been working with us.
ALXnow: You issued them a warning that there were too many people, and then they couldn’t follow it?
Stradling: Yeah, and then unfortunately we did have to suspend that operating permit overnight, but they came into compliance and they really did embrace the spirit of the order once we gave them that kind of information, and they were able to open the following morning.
ALXnow: You have also been working at grocery stores, right?
Stradling: We have reached out to all of the ones that are offering the morning times with the elderly population so we’ve worked with them to help them make sure that the measures that they’re taking will keep the elderly community as safe as possible while they’re in the grocery store during restricted shopping times.
The most important thing is obviously hand washing. All of my team has been allocated hand sanitizer, which we’re making sure that we use in the field. We’re washing hands but we’re not wearing gloves and we’re not wearing masks. Right now we are trying to restrict how much we’re actually going out into the field and relying on phone and email.
ALXnow: Are you and your staff leaving the office?
Stradling: So far all communication has been by phone and email. We will definitely go out and give assistance, but we’re also really conscious of reinforcing social distancing. We’re trying to minimize how much kind of presence we have outside, but making sure that we still continue to give excellent customer service.
We’ve made the decision that we really want to follow the instructions and the guidance that we’re issuing about social distancing and telework. We’ve actually spent today gearing up to actually get as many people as we possibly can from my team from coming into our building. Everyone has a laptop, they have cell phones.
ALXnow: How are you doing with working hours? Is everybody on your team working overtime?
Stradling: We have people who are on call 24/7 to respond to complaints at our restaurants. Our team works together brilliantly and we try and rotate who’s working extra time and overtime so that nobody gets burned out. I think I worked 80 hours last week. We’re in this for as long as it takes.
I want to be there when my restaurants email me in the evening, and they’re concerned about how they’re complying or they need some advice. They’re going to an incredibly difficult time right now so if I can do anything to alleviate some of that stress, I’m going to respond to that email and take that call.
ALXnow: What are some of the lessons you have learned through this experience?
Stradling: One of the things that really shocked me is that I need to be much faster having the servers that are up to date and being able to communicate with businesses really quickly. Up until the governor’s second order was issued, things were changing very rapidly on how many people could be in a restaurant and what that actually meant. And I’ll be honest with you, sometimes about by the time that I had crafted an email ready to send out, that information was already out of date. It’s an evolving situation. We just have to adapt, and sometimes time flies by.
ALXnow: Why do you refer to them as “my” restaurants?
Stradling: I say they’re my restaurants because it’s my city of Alexandria. I tell my staff that we’re there to help our businesses succeed. And, yes, there is that whole regulation and compliance piece and getting them into compliance, but at the end of the day it’s a team effort. Right now, I just want them to get through this as best as we all can.
I come from a retail background. My parents had a grocery store when I was growing up. My first childhood memory is sitting with them and putting prices on cans of food. For me it’s really personal when a restaurant tells me their story. You know, I look back and I can see my mom’s face on their face and the sheer panic in their eyes and that they really don’t know how are they going to pay that next paycheck. That’s really personal to me. I care deeply about our restaurants and their success. We’re going through really difficult and challenging times and I can’t help but feel that empathy for my restaurants that have been massively impacted.