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Local Business Owners Make Tough Decisions As County Reopens

Just a phase

If there’s one essential message that came out of the virtual May 11 meeting of the COVID-19 Business Leaders Roundtable, which calls on local business owners and leaders to build out the best way to implement Phase One of Gov. Cooper’s plan to reopen North Carolina, it’s this one: Masks are vital.

In March, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear masks over their noses and mouths in public to stem the spread of COVID-19, and now it’s on Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio and Co. to spread the word.

“We are going to [look at] what we need to do to get that message out and what’s the most effective way to do it,” Diorio said.

Diorio convened the meeting following the launch of Phase One at 5 p.m. on the previous Friday. The group met again on May 19 to discuss Phase Two, which is expected to be implemented on May 22, though that’s not yet been made official.

Phase One modified North Carolina’s stay-at-home order to allow people to leave their homes for commercial activity with retail business capacity increasing from 20% to 50% as long as cleaning and social distancing continues. The early part of the meeting addressed fine-tuning a toolkit, available on the county’s website, that consolidates guidelines for local businesses to reopen safely — cleaning and disinfecting, signage, how to figure maximum capacity and, of course, masks. (As of May 19, the county’s dashboard reported 2,695 cases of COVID-19 and 69 deaths due to the disease.)

Are Local Business Owners Ready to Reopen? 

As much as the county strove to stay ahead of the information curve, many Charlotte businesses were already determining the safest course forward in the pandemic. Their efforts raised a question not heard at the roundtable: What if you threw an opening-the-economy party and no one came — or at least showed up late?

“We just don’t think it’s safe yet,” said Karla Southern, event and creative coordinator at Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find.

Any doubts about where the Elizabeth comic book shop stood on jump-starting the COVID-19 ravaged economy were addressed on the store’s blog, where a sobering illustration by artist Patrick Dean boldly declared, “We won’t die for the Dow.”

Organizers with Reopen Meck, an advocacy movement that aims to surpass Phase One’s guidelines and have more restrictions removed, hold the opposing view. The movement held a 200-person strong protest in Uptown on May 1.

Reopen Meck protest in Uptown Charlotte
Maya Pillai speaks at a Reopen Meck rally on May 1. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

Reopen Meck founder Maya Pillai, a student and president of the Davidson College Republicans, seemed surprised when Queen City Nerve told her that some businesses were imposing stricter safety measures than those allowed, if not completely delaying opening their doors.

“What are their reasons for not opening?” Pillai asked.

Teresa Hernandez, owner of local business, Pura Vida Worldly Art in NoDa, offers one obvious answer to Pillai’s query.

“I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want my employee to get sick,” Hernandez said. “He has a family — two daughters and his wife.”

Hernandez closed her business on March 16, several days before the mandated shut down. Schools had been let out, and students were hanging out in the shop, Hernandez remembered. This normally is not a problem, but at a time before social distancing requirements and face masks, she grew concerned.

She kept her two-person staff on payroll for a couple of weeks, but when she, like many other small businesses, was unable to secure a loan through the Payroll Protection Program, she reluctantly laid them off.

Local business, Pura Vida in the NoDa neighborhood of Charlotte
Pura Vida Worldly Art in NoDa. (Photo by Teresa Hernandez)

With the May 8 relaxation on retail restrictions, Hernandez contacted her staff. One member declined citing safety concerns, but the remaining employee, Paul Kepp, was eager to work. The following Saturday, Hernandez implemented what she calls a “soft test opening.”

The following weekend, Pura Vida opened for a set of abbreviated five-hour days. Instead of 50% capacity, the store imposed a 20% capacity, established hand-washing stations and required staff to follow a strict sanitation regimen, cleaning surfaces and merchandise. Hernandez also required customers to wear face masks, and provided masks for customers who did not have any.

“Sixty-five percent of the people who came through had their own masks,” Hernandez said. “The other 35% we ended up giving them a mask.”

Though she considered the weekend test a qualified success, Hernandez decided to implement appointment-only shopping, in which a patron reserves either 30 or 45 minutes to shop in a small group of two to three people. Masks, sanitation and social distancing requirements remained in place. She also implemented curbside pickup for patrons who don’t yet feel comfortable inside a store.

As restrictions lifted, Queen City Nerve interviewed several more small businesses that sought their own path forward in the first days of Phase One. While their decisions varied, all of them shared similar concerns.

Business Owners Remain Wary Despite Social Distancing

Scott Wishart, owner of Lunchbox Records in the Belmont neighborhood, has opted not to open his store for now.

“I don’t feel safe yet,” Wishart said. “My employees don’t seem to feel that way either. [We] have kids who are in school. It’s kind of hard to work when your kids are out of school.”

Opening up would be especially problematic for a record store, he offered.

“It’s the kind of business where everyone has to touch everything and I have to show people stuff,” Wishart said. “I can’t just sit behind plexiglass at the counter like a dude in a convenience store.”

Like Hernandez, Wishart shut down in-store operations on March 16. A few days later, he switched to a business model split between mail order and curbside service. Even with his doors locked, Wishart cleans frequently with sanitizer that he makes himself with alcohol, water and aloe.

For pick-up, patrons pay for merchandise online and then arrive by car. Wearing gloves and mask, Wishart takes the bagged merchandise out to the parked car. He said only half the people who come up to the door and try entering the store wear masks.

“I still don’t think they get it,” he said.

Amy Goudy is also keeping her doors closed. The former owner of the 8910 Music record label channeled her love into a passion project, a hip-hop-themed bodega, retail space and event venue called The Corner. The north Charlotte establishment had a soft opening in December but Goudy reserved the grand opening for CIAA weekend in late February. As COVID-19 began to spread, Goudy also closed before the legally mandated date. By March 8, The Corner’s doors were locked. Goudy’s decision was health-based.

“I don’t have health insurance and my daughter has Type 1 diabetes,” Goudy explained. “So, we’re at relatively higher risk.”

Outside of local business, The Corner in North Charlotte
The Corner had to close just days after holding its grand opening. (Photo by Marc Prosper)

Goudy has started curbside pick-up for the store. With the shop less than half a block away from her house, she can easily don gloves and a mask to bring goods over to her establishment. “It’s only 144 steps away,” Goudy proclaimed. “I counted them.”

Goudy’s business frequently takes her to New York, so she’s seen how COVID-19 can ravage a community.

“It’s so unpredictable and contagious,” Goudy said. “I don’t understand why we’re reopening now. The entire state shut down with less than 1,000 cases. We now have 15, 000 cases or more and they want to reopen.” [The state has now seen more than 19,000 cases.]

For Some, the Threat is Closer to Home

Goudy maintained that advocates for reopening might be more circumspect if they knew someone who has died from COVID-19, or someone at great risk due to a compromised immune system.

For Susan Nesterowicz, that person is herself.

“As someone who is immune suppressed because of being in active chemotherapy, it is scary to think about contracting it,” Nesterowicz said, “because I imagine I’d be a sitting duck.”

Along with husband Nami Nesterowicz, Susan owns and runs The Bag Lady, a Charlotte metaphysical store with a feminist bent. Like many other businesses, The Bag Lady closed its doors before the state-mandated shut down. Although the store followed the lead of other establishments and launched curbside service for merchandise like books, crystals and jewelry, Nesterowicz estimated that The Bag Lady saw a 90% drop in business.

Even so, they didn’t rush to reopen at half capacity on May 8. The Bag Lady opened the following day, Saturday, with limited hours, a four-day work week, a socially distanced staff of two, a five-customer capacity and strict handwashing and sanitation procedures.

“Everyone has to wear a mask — employees and customers,” Nesterowicz offered. “No one can come in without a mask.” There has been no pushback from customers, she maintained. “It’s been pretty darn joyful. People are excited. They’re thrilled to come back into the store.”

Susan (left) and Nami Nesterowicz. of The Bag lady
Susan (left) and Nami Nesterowicz.

But the Nesterowiczs can’t lose sight of what is at stake for them. Susan’s husband Nami offered a sobering assessment. “Susan has cancer, so if she gets sick, she’s done,” Nami said. “We have bills to pay, but her life is more important than the job.”

The bills have been piling up for everybody, and the situation is exacerbated by commerce slowing to a crawl.

“In March the comics industry stopped,” Southern offered. “The last time we got new product was March 25, and no new books have shipped since. Our business went down a good 40%.”

March 25 is also the date the comic book store shut its doors. Mail order and curbside picked up some of the slack, and Southern is grateful to community members who reached out to support the store by buying comics that were already in stock.

Karla Southern in Heroes Aren't Hard to Find.
Karla Southern in Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find.

Yet, despite the economic hardship, the shop is not going to reopen — yet. The comic book store faces the same conundrum as Wishart’s record store. They both sell a product that people need to hold. It’s hard for people to shop for comic books without picking them up and flipping through them, and sanitation is a challenge.

“You can’t spray Lysol on books,” Southern said. Until the management sees a definitive break in the spread of COVID-19, the doors will stay closed. Southern maintained that it makes no sense to rush. “People’s health is worth more than a comic book. It’s more important to keep our employees and customers healthy.”

The way Southern sees it, the store is advocating tough love — with a heroic bent.

“We’re kind of like Greek Gods,” Southern offered. “If people don’t believe in us, then we don’t exist. We have to take care of the people who take care of us, even if they get grumpy about it.”

Among the local stores contacted by Queen City Nerve there runs a common thread of practicality: It’s just good business not to risk your staff and patrons. It’s a view driven not by partisan talking points, but by boots-on-the-sales-floor practicality. Many more establishments have adopted this approach.

As this story went to press, VisArt Video Executive Director Gina Stewart reported that the Charlotte video store and nonprofit film resource was bringing in staff to do inventory, but that there were no plans to open. Curbside and delivery will likely come soon, Stewart said, and tax deductible donations are accepted.

Comparing Apples to Oranges

Reopen Meck’s Pillai said it’s up to each local business owner to decide whether or not to reopen, but that the county can no longer bear the economic impact of small businesses being closed as well as rising unemployment. Phase One is a slight vindication of Reopen Meck’s platform, she maintained, but it doesn’t go far enough.

She pointed to South Carolina as a model for Mecklenburg County to follow, even as the Palmetto State reported more than 100 new COVID-19 cases each day since May 5 and the death toll there rose to 391 by May 18.

Pillai also cited the unintended consequences of North Carolina’s stay-at-home order.

“What’s happened with the closure of these businesses is, we’ve seen drug and alcoholic rates increase. We’ve seen suicide rates increase, and we’ve seen domestic violence rates increase,” Pillai maintained.

While the shut-down surely fuels economic tensions that can lead to increases in suicide, alcoholism and domestic violence rates, it is not the only contributor. The North Carolina Republican party’s cuts in unemployment benefits, Medicaid expansion, public education and mental health services have also exacerbated economic tensions for North Carolinians, and have done so without the purpose of stemming a pandemic and saving lives.

Pillai also pointed to other pandemics that have impacted the county, such as H1N1, the flu, SARS, MERS and Ebola.

“In those instances, we never shut down the state to the degree that we have now,” Pillai maintained. “I’m not trying to compare coronavirus to those pandemics. I’m simply saying look at previous instances where we’ve had huge outbreaks of other viruses and pandemics that have plagued Mecklenburg County.”

Data shows that COVID-19 is killing 20 times more people per week than the flu does; SARS and MERS are not as contagious as coronavirus; and COVID-19 is much easier to contract than Ebola and far more deadly than H1N1.

Pillai said she would like to see North Carolina reopen small businesses such as salons and restaurants. As long as we have occupancy limits, sanitation and social distancing, COVID-19 will be contained, she offered. However, masks should be optional for customers at businesses.

Maya Pillai of Reopen Meck
Maya Pillai (Photo by Deanna Beckley)

Above all, Pillai advocated for reopening sooner rather than later.

“We cannot bring our economy to a screeching halt,” she urged.

Susan Burns Nesterowicz agreed that we cannot stay at home indefinitely.

“But at the same time, I think human life is more important,” she offered. “We have staff depending on us and we’re trying to walk the edge of a knife. We’re hitting that balance between safety and still being able to recoup some income and pay rent and our bills.”

Southern agrees with Pillai that the county needs to open back up, but how much will opening lead to closing again in two months, she wondered.

“Is it better to just give it more time now and hopefully not have to repeat the same process that we’ve been through in March and April?” Southern asked. Her concerns were supported in mid-May when a previously unreleased White House report listed Charlotte high among the next potential COVID-19 hot spots.

As for optional masks for customers, that idea will be a non-starter at Heroes, Southern offered.

“There’s always going to be that one person who doesn’t want to wear a mask, who doesn’t want to have their quote-unquote rights infringed upon,” she said. “But at what point are they infringing on other people’s rights to lead a healthy lifestyle? We’re only as strong as the weakest link in the chain right now.”

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