Customers returned to some Georgia businesses Friday as the state’s death toll from the novel coronavirus neared 900. Governor Brian Kemp, who was one of the last state officials to issue a shelter in place order to curb the spread of the virus, became one of the first to roll back such restrictions, signing an executive order on Monday allowing an assortment of high-touch businesses to resume operations.
Kemp said reopening more of the state’s economy would minimize the “terrible impact of Covid-19 on public health and the pocketbook.”
Some business owners who could benefit from the order are saying no thanks. They’re concerned that reopening could endanger their health, as well as the health of their employees and customers. Their fears are echoed by public health officials, White House health adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, among others, who have criticized Kemp’s order as premature and potentially dangerous.
The order could jeopardize some businesses’ finances, as the state-mandated closure of nonessential businesses had helped them obtain temporary relief from landlords, lenders, insurers, or government aid programs.
“It’s a nightmare,” says Ben Horgan, co-owner of the Comet Pub and Lanes, a bowling alley and brewery in Decatur, Georgia. Horgan closed the business on March 16, weeks before government orders, out of concern for the safety of staff and customers; the closure affected roughly 100 employees. “We haven’t gotten any guidelines on how to [safely] reopen,” he says. “At this point, it’s hard to know if our elected officials even care about when it’s going to be safe, or if they’re just [focused] on reopening the economy, whatever that means.”
Under Kemp’s executive order, tattoo studios, hair salons, massage parlors, and gyms were permitted to open beginning Friday, so long as they follow state social-distancing guidelines and restrictions. Bowling alleys, theaters, social clubs, and dine-in restaurants are permitted to resume operations Monday; nightclubs, bars, and performance venues must stay closed.
Horgan says Comet Pub and Lanes will stay closed. “We just don’t feel safe enough to be able to open,” he adds. “We have to make a responsible decision for our community and staff.”
Some national chains aren't biting either. Macy's, Gap, and TGI Fridays told The Wall Street Journal that their Georgia locations would remain closed for the time being. Other chains that have shifted to a takeout or curbside-pickup only model, such as Starbucks and Best Buy, aren’t planning to welcome customers back into their stores either.
“It’s a complete failure of leadership,” says Ryan Wilson, the CEO and cofounder of the Gathering Spot, a members-only networking space and private social club in Atlanta. The Gathering Spot closed its physical space in March, and has since been operating virtually.
Wilson says he has been virtually meeting with and advising many of the club’s members. The discussions are frustrating, according to Wilson, as many small business owners in Georgia face a tough choice: risk their own health and that of staff in hopes of bringing in some sorely needed cash, or plunge deeper into financial ruin. “It’s hard for me to tell a business owner that they should not open their doors when the thing that they’re going to say back to you is, ‘If I don’t figure out a way to start some sort of forward progress here, I run the risk of not having the business be there at all,’“ he says.
About half of the Gathering Spot members that were eligible to reopen Friday did so, while half will stay closed for safety reasons, he noted. As more businesses reopen, Wilson says it will get more difficult for those that stay closed due to health concerns. He reports he’s spoken to restaurant owners who had previously been able to use the state-mandated closure to renegotiate terms with landlords and lenders, and now expect to face resistance. He says the governor’s order also may affect businesses planning to file claims under business continuity insurance policies.
Some business owners worry about their reputation if a customer gets sick. “If you get known as that restaurant where somebody caught the virus—you’re dead, gone. No one will ever go there again,” says Sam Stuhlman, owner of ZuZZu, a small Sicilian restaurant in Roswell, Georgia. Out of concern for the health of his staff and customers, Stuhlman halted most of the restaurant’s operations in mid-March, switching to takeout only a few days before local officials ordered all restaurants in the area to do the same.
“I’m in my 60s; my chef is a few years behind me, but he has diabetes; one of my other staffers is immunocompromised; and then our typical customer is 50-plus. It was just the right thing to do,” he says. Stuhlman laid off two of ZuZZu’s 10 employees, and furloughed another for health reasons. For the last month, sales have been down by 60 percent, which has been difficult, but not enough to convince him to open his doors again.
“We’re not reopening,” says Stuhlman. “Kemp’s move was ill-advised, at best, and irresponsible.” Because so few people have been tested, he adds, “we have no way of knowing how dangerous it is to reopen because we don’t know who’s spreading the virus and who’s not.”
The order also puts some laid-off workers receiving unemployment benefits in a tight spot. Much like grocery workers and medical staffers, employees called back to work by businesses reopening under Kemp’s order will lose jobless benefits if they stay home to protect their health.
The same goes for independent contractors and people who are self-employed, like many of the barbers, tattoo artists, and personal trainers impacted by Kemp’s order. “Being afraid of exposure [to the virus] in the workplace is not a valid reason for granting unemployment benefits,” says Kersha Cartwright, director of communications at the Georgia Department of Labor.
Kathy Harrington-Sullivan, an attorney and partner at Atlanta employment law firm, Barrett & Farahany, says that over the past month, the firm has been swamped with calls from workers who were fired or experienced retaliation from employers for exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms or attempting to see a doctor. As of late, they’ve seen more calls from employees worried about putting their health at risk.
“A lot of employees are concerned about getting the virus if they’re made to report to work and [have questions] about whether they can still get unemployment if it’s unsafe to go back,” says Harrington-Sullivan. “After this reopen order, we’re going to see calls about that on the rise. And I think we’ve got some tough news to deliver.”
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