President Donald Trump said he disagrees with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to move quickly to reopen parts of the state’s economy.
ATLANTA – Hair salons were booked up with clients. Barbers had a constant flow of customers in the chair. And at least one gym saw more than 40 people before noon.
That was the scene in Georgia on Friday when many businesses reopened for the first time in nearly one month.
Gov. Brian Kemp announced this week that gyms, tattoo parlors, hair and nail salons, massage therapists and other businesses could reopen, after being forced to close amid the coronavirus pandemic. In-person religious services can also resume this weekend, and restaurants and theaters can reopen Monday.
Salon and barbershop owners said Friday there was no shortage of clients eager to support their businesses.
Tim Timmons, owner of Salon Gloss in Woodstock, said his salon is booked for the next two weeks. By noon Friday, his hairstylists had served nine clients.
Timmons said after announcing that he would reopen “the phones started ringing nonstop” with customers. Many were new clients who needed an appointment because their regular salon didn’t reopen.
“I guess there’s a need out there and people are brave enough to put themselves out there,” Timmons said.
Good Look Barber Shop in Marietta was also busy. By 11 a.m., owner Y’Kheyo Underwood said his barbers had serviced at least 20 clients.
Underwood said he was busier than expected but welcomed the business because he needs the money.
A customer gets her eyebrows waxed at Three-13 Salon, Spa & Boutique on April 24, 2020, in Marietta, Georgia. The salon had been closed for more than a month due to the coronavirus. (Photo: Ron Harris, AP)
“I think people who aren’t in our position, do the most criticizing,” Underwood said Friday. “The people who are at home and still getting paid by their companies. If you are in my position, with a small business, you know the only way of getting income is by opening up your establishment.”
Taneshala Futch Hall, owner of a dance and training studio in Savannah, said that she had about 20 people registered for her three group classes Friday evening. She said that her clients had been texting her since Kemp’s announcement, asking her to reopen the studio.
“It felt like something I needed to do. Exercise betters your health and betters you mentally,” she said. “I’m trying to keep a positive outtake on what’s going on, keeping people motivated and giving them something to look forward to.”
Futch Hall said she’s planning to limit her class sizes so that participants can social distance. She’s also providing gloves and giving clients their own personal mats.
At Bodyflex Fitness, there were about 43 check-ins at the Grayson gym and about 15-20 at the Milledgeville location Friday morning, owner Mike Martino said.
Martino said he considered the turnout to be slow “as we expected.”
“We are trying to be very precautious,” he said.
As businesses reopened to customers, critics — including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — continued to urge Georgians to stay home.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Bottoms said in an Instagram post Friday. “PLEASE STAY HOME.”
Bottoms’ post included a table that showed Georgia with 22,147 COVID-19 cases and 892 deaths as of noon Friday.
Black religious and civil rights leaders are also pleading for black residents to stay home and not reopen their businesses and churches.
Black Americans are dying of coronavirus at higher rates than people of other races in some major cities.
Prominent black leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, NAACP president Derrick Johnson and National Urban League president Marc Morial, said in a joint statement that black families should continue to work remotely if possible and attend virtual church services from home.
“The actions of these governors, which demonstrate reckless disregard for the health and life of Black residents, compel us to speak out and take action to protect ourselves,” the leaders said. “As faith leaders and civil rights leaders, we work every day on behalf of the needs of our families and communities. We regard this pandemic as a grave threat to the health and life of our people, and as a threat to the integrity and vitality of the communities we are privileged to serve.”
‘I’m paying bills, and there’s no income’
Danny Blackmon was already struggling to keep his southwest Georgia office equipment businesses afloat when the coronavirus outbreak hit. Then, at the end of March, a tornado destroyed his home and farm. Last week, he laid off his two employees.
“I honestly can’t tell you that my business will survive right now,” the Georgetown-Quitman County resident said. “I’m paying bills, and there’s no income coming in. How long can I do that?”
Blackmon, who serves as chairman of the Southwest Georgia Regional Development Commission, supports Kemp’s decision to reopen parts of the state’s economy Friday. If offices don’t reopen, Blackmon can’t sell his printers and copiers.
“At some point, you have got to make a move. Is there risk we take? Absolutely there is. But we risk even more when we lose ground with the economy,” he said.
Kemp’s decision to ease restrictions was widely criticized by mayors and business owners who insisted it’s too soon.
President Donald Trump said he disagrees with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to move quickly to reopen parts of the state’s economy. (Photo: Getty)
Other merchants and officials praised the reopening, saying closures would cripple the state’s economy and shut down many small businesses. In the past month, the Georgia Department of Labor has processed more than 1 million unemployment claims, more than the combined total for the previous three years, the department said Thursday.
No ‘sense to risk dying over a spray-tan’
Carlene Nelson, co-owner of Retreat Spa and Salon in Georgia demonstrated what safety measures she put in place as her business prepares to reopen.
Carlene Nelson, who owns a salon in Evans said she decided to “play it safe.” Nelson will not open until Monday, when the co-owner of the Retreat Spa & Salon is more confident her employees and customers will be safe from spreading COVID-19.
“We want to make sure all our cleaning supplies and face shields are in place,” said Nelson, who is splitting her staff of 10 stylists into alternating shifts of five to reduce the number of people in the building. “We’ll be taking everyone’s temperatures and asking questions about if they have had any symptoms or have been around anyone who has.”
The spa side of the business, which does massages and facials, will not open until a later date, she said. On the salon side, technicians will do pedicures but not manicures.
Carlene Nelson, co-owner of Retreat Spa & Salon, says everyone will get a temperature check and the staff will wear face shields, among other safeguards at her business in Evans, Ga. (Photo: Michael Holahan)
For Tiffany Terranova, owner of RAW Bronzing Studio, an organic spray-tanning salon with four locations in Atlanta, this week would have been the busiest of the year. The business has brought in $577 this month through online retail, but Terranova owes $25,000 in expenses for April. She doesn’t plan to reopen anytime soon.
“It just doesn’t make sense to risk dying over a spray-tan. We’re the most nonessential of businesses. And the fact that Kemp is rolling out this opening so soon, it just doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “We’ve kind of taken it for granted that our hospitals aren’t overrun at this point.”
Terranova started her business 10 years ago out of her house. She, her husband and sister have 13 employees, whom they laid off so the employees could apply for unemployment. Now that salons are allowed to reopen, Terranova said she’s concerned about remaining eligible for unemployment.
“Small businesses don’t have enough money in reserve to experiment – to try to reopen and then go back to a shelter-in-place,” she said. “It feels like we’re the guinea pigs for a long and unsafe experiment that is going to fail.”
Terranova said she would be concerned about accidentally infecting her customers or contracting the disease herself. Terranova’s mother-in-law lives with her, and her sister’s fiancee has diabetes. “We cannot risk getting sick,” she said.
Naomi Bartolacci stands at her station at Like Butterflies Salon on Tuesday in Avondale Estates, Ga. Bartolacci and her co-workers voluntarily closed the salon as the new coronavirus spread, but they are discussing how soon to open the doors to customers again in light of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to allow businesses like salons to reopen this weekend. (Photo: Ron Harris/AP)
Mike Martino, co-owner of five Bodyplex Fitness locations in Georgia, said reopening will be a gradual process and expects only a handful of clients to show up Friday. Martino said he supported Kemp’s decision to reopen the state in phases because small-business owners have struggled since the shutdown.
“If they don’t open back gradually, you are going to see more and more of those businesses close,” Martino said. “It’s definitely an opportunity for small businesses to try to cautiously reenter the business world and allow them to generate revenue that could keep them afloat.”
Wlaa Weeks, owner of a private training studio in Atlanta, was more skeptical. “It’s very high risk and low reward,” Weeks said. “I cannot guarantee the wellness of our clientele.”
‘Not quite where we need to be’
Public health experts said Georgia is not conducting enough testing and contact tracing to reopen businesses.
“Look, I understand that businesses are hurting,” said Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and a former 11-year Georgia resident. “But the key is to safely open. These are people actually losing their lives. Have we all of a sudden decided that people losing lives is not a significant event?”
Georgia has not seen a 14-day downward trajectory in the rate of new cases, according to data from the state’s Department of Health. More than 22,000 people have tested positive for the virus in Georgia, and more than 80 have died, according to the department. About 101,000 tests have been conducted in the state of more than 10 million.
Omer was particularly critical of the governor’s decision to open salons and gyms. “It’s as if someone took the list of the things that you should be careful about opening and then flipped it around,” he said. “It’s ironic that Georgia has perhaps the highest rate of public health experts per capita because of the CDC and, despite that, they’re implementing polices that are not supported by evidence.”
Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine, encouraged residents in a video briefing Thursday to exercise caution. “This is not like we’re open for business. People will make their own decisions,” he said. “What we need to emphasize to people is to continue practicing social distancing.”
‘It’s incredibly soul-crushing’
Emily Chan hand-painted the walls of her downtown Atlanta restaurant. A friend reupholstered used furniture. Family members cleaned out the kitchen fryers. In September, a lifelong dream came to fruition: Chan and her wife, Jen, opened for businesses.
“We built it ourselves, and when it was finally filling, this happened. Now, every time I walk in my restaurant, there are takeout boxes sitting on the tables, and the chairs are flipped up. It’s incredibly soul-crushing,” she said. “There are days when you just go into the walk-in cooler and cry.”
Jen and Emily Chan are raising a child and trying to keep a business afloat in Atlanta. (Photo: Emily Chan)
The Chans have a 2-year-old boy. Jen was furloughed from her other job at a restaurant group. Emily unsuccessfully submitted an application for Paycheck Protection Program support – seven times. But Chan said she’s not ready to reopen.
“It’s just not worth it. You can’t feed people if they’re not here,” said Chan, whose uncle died three days after testing positive for the coronavirus. “We’re going to trust the CDC and the experts on this. I’m going to listen to my community and science.”
Havird Usry, an Augusta restaurateur and board member of the Georgia Restaurant Association, is a Kemp supporter but said relaxing restrictions is “premature.”
Usry is concerned about fellow restaurant owners not taking the proper precautions to keep COVID-19 from spreading. “It’s really in the owners’ hands to do the right things , and I just don’t think we’re ready for that,” said Usry, who co-owns Fat Man’s Cafe and the Sno-Cap Drive-In.
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In Savannah, Johno Morisano, owner of The Grey and The Grey Market, also has no plans to reopen either eatery to dine-in guests anytime soon, primarily because he said he doesn’t believe diners want to risk coronavirus exposure inside a restaurant. “In order to run a restaurant, you need guests,” Morisano said.
For Jen Jenkins, owner of Savannah’s popular Foxy Loxy Cafe, Kemp’s reopening order is another complicating factor after spending weeks adjusting operations to focus on takeout service – including installing plexiglass dividers at the counter – as well as shifting resources to participate in Savannah’s Meals for Medical organization.
“All that I have gotten from my staff, and my own concern, is trepidation” about potentially reopening dine-in service in the near future, Jenkins said.
The decision-making process for reopening is in flux at other Savannah eateries. On Tuesday, restaurant chain Carey Hilliard’s posted a “staff update” on its Facebook page announcing that its eatery would reopen dine-in service April 27 – but by Wednesday, the announcement had been edited.
“We hope to open the Dining Room when safe, but Monday will NOT be the day,” said the post by Carey Hilliard’s, directed to staff members. “Thank you for all the constructive feedback.”
Management at another popular Savannah eatery was even more direct. “We’re good Kemp, thanks anyway,” a post said Tuesday on the Bull Street Taco Facebook page.
For Georgia residents considering patronizing businesses Friday, del Rio suggested wearing personal protective equipment.
“If I was going to go to a bowling alley today, I’d certainly be using a lot of hand sanitizer. I’d be wearing a mask. And I’d social distance,” del Rio said. “Am I going to go bowling? No.”
Contributing: Damon Cline, The Augusta Chronicle; Nick Robertson, Savannah Morning News
Follow Grace Hauck and Nicquel Terry Ellis on Twitter @grace_hauck and @NTerryEllis
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