GUSTINE - Some local non-essential businesses are slowly beginning to open as the state moves through the progression of its four-stage plan for safely reopening.

City officials hope others will soon be able to follow.

City Manager Doug Dunford told Mattos Newspapers that two retail businesses were notified recently that they could open - with restrictions such as offering curbside pickup only - as the state moved into the early stage of Stage 2.

The city took another step earlier this week, Dunford said, when it allowed restaurants to offer sidewalk dining - with a variety of social distancing and sanitation requirements.

Council members have expressed their desire to have the city do everything it can to aid businesses and expedite their opening, Dunford told Mattos Newspapers.

He emphasized that the city is continuing to follow state orders - but said that in researching the issue staff reached the conclusion that sidewalk dining with precautions such as adequate social distancing fit within the health guidelines.

“We were just looking at other options. They are saying that we can’t have dine-in. They are not saying that we can’t dine out,” Dunford explained. “I am hoping that this will help the restaurants and give them a glimmer of hope, and show other (businesses) that we are getting things done. Let’s make this happen.”

Dunford said the forced shutdown of businesses deemed non-essential has been devastating for Gustine.

“Our downtown resembles a ghost town right now. We want to get businesses back open so that we go back to having a little more vibrancy. This is people’s bread and butter. We need to get them up and running,” the city manager explained. “We hate to see businesses closed, so we are working with public health to see if we can qualify them to open up. It is really tough. The governor is adamant about a slow reopening and making sure that counties are abiding.”

Dunford said Merced County has submitted a letter to the state asking permission to move forward with opening businesses identified in the later stages of Stage II, including dine-in restaurant service.

But businesses such as fitness gyms and hair salons are not slated for reopening until Stage III is reached.

“They aren’t saying what the guidelines are to move to that,” Dunford said last week. “We’re just fighting and scratching to go to Stage 2.5. If we can maintain the social distancing and everything, I hoping that within a month we could possibly get to Stage 3.”

Mayor Pat Nagy said businesses cannot reopen quickly enough.

“The council and I want to get everybody back in business. Having said that, we don’t want to jeopardize any funding or grants that may be available to our businesses (by not following the state guidelines),” Nagy commented Monday.

He said that cities and counties which allow businesses to open early risk losing emergency funding because, in the state’s view, they are essentially saying that they don’t have an emergency.

Nagy said the importance of getting businesses back open cannot be overstated.

“It is time to start opening up,” he commented. “Our businesses can’t survive without customers.”