Atlanta Businesses Navigate Uncharted Waters as Georgia Reopens

Many businesses in Georgia’s capital city are implementing new rules to protect clients and staff.

A Waffle House employee gets takeout orders ready as a seated guest enjoys his meal on April 27 in Brookhaven, Ga., where restaurants have opened back up during the coronavirus pandemic. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA (CN) — In the week since Georgia Governor Brian Kemp lifted the state’s shelter-in-place order and allowed businesses to reopen, Atlanta business owners have found themselves in uncharted territory as they try to stay afloat and prioritize their customers’ health in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since reopening on May 1, the phones at Melrose & McQueen, an upscale hair salon located in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood, have been ringing off the hook.

 “We’ve been slammed every day. Business has not slowed down whatsoever for us,” Brooke Ford, a manager at the salon, said Tuesday.

Hair salons were given the green light to reopen in the Peach State on April 24, along with bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, and gyms. Movie theaters and restaurants were allowed to open on April 27.

Like many other Atlanta businesses, Melrose & McQueen has implemented a new set of hygiene rules to protect clients and staff.

Ford said all clients are asked to bring a face mask to their appointment and must have their temperature taken before entering the salon. The business has also stopped accepting cash and added “touchless everything,” including touchless hand sanitizer dispensers.

But the most dramatic change has been to staffing.

“We have minimized the amount of people in the building by at least 75%,” Ford said, explaining that only three or four stylists will work on a day when normally 10 or 15 would be scheduled.

Although some clients have been uneasy about coming in for appointments – Ford said a few people declined appointments over health concerns or simply refused to answer the salon’s calls – others have flocked to Melrose & McQueen while their regular salon remains closed.

Not everyone has chosen to reopen.

More than 50 restaurateurs, who together operate over 120 restaurants in Savannah and the greater Atlanta area, announced their refusal to open for dine-in service in a full-page advertisement in the April 28 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“We agree that it’s in the best interest of our employees, our guests, our community, and our industry to keep our dining room closed at this time,” the ad said.

Restaurant dining rooms are allowed to operate as long as they follow a set of 39 guidelines laid out by state officials, which includes requirements that all employees wear masks and admit only 10 customers per 500 square feet of space.

Cinemas in Atlanta also remain closed. AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas, and Cinemark have not yet announced plans to reopen in Georgia.

Brian Lambert, owner of coffee and sweets shop Scoops in Forsyth, Ga., opens up the windows of his business on April 22. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

But some Atlanta small business owners don’t feel they have the option to keep their doors shut.

In Sandy Springs, a suburb of Atlanta, tattoo artist Charlie Cu said his decision to reopen his private tattoo studio on May 1 was a stressful but financially necessary one.

“We’re a small business and there’s no funding to pay for our mortgage or help us out financially. We were staying in place for a month and a half and things were getting a little tight. It put us behind. It was very frustrating not being able to work,” Cu said.

Now that he’s back open for business, Cu said he’s taking extra precautions to keep clients safe.

“We’re in close proximity but both me and my clients wear masks, I have an air purifier, I keep the doors open and I’m wiping the station down… I’m already a neat freak as it is but the precautions that I take are pretty crazy,” he said. “All my clients say they feel safer coming to my shop than going to a grocery store because of the precautions I take.”

Cu’s business took a big hit during the shutdown. Inquiries for new tattoos stopped coming in and his bookings have dropped dramatically, “at least 80%,” he said.

“Everybody’s priority is to be safe and to take care of their family and themselves. What can you do? There’s no funding that can help us with anything. Nobody is really helping us out. It’s gonna be really hard. It’s gonna be really hard to bounce back from this,” he said.

Sandy Watson, the owner of Dog School 101 in Marietta, another Atlanta suburb, reopened her dog daycare and grooming business on April 27 after staying closed for three weeks.

“I lost 85% of my clientele, but now my clientele is starting to come back,” she said.

Watson, who works seven days a week, said she hadn’t taken a vacation since 1985 and had to adjust to taking time off.

“The second week I had a nervous breakdown because I missed my dogs and missed my clients,” she said. “It was not a good feeling to have.”

After doing research and consulting with her sister, who is a registered nurse at Emory Hospital, Watson implemented guidelines to carry out when she resumed operating her business. She and her employee wear masks, and she greets dogs at the door.

“Owners have to stay outside,” she said. “I usually take their credit card. The majority of my clients already paid before we closed. If they’ve got a credit card I take it. I wipe the credit card down before and after I put it in the machine.”

Despite having her business back up and running, Watson thinks it’s too soon to open up the entire U.S. economy.

“I think the whole country shouldn’t have opened,” she said. “I think we should have waited a bit longer to see what was going on. It’s hard. I’m still worried. What if we turn around and take a nosedive?”

Despite worrying constantly, Watson said her faith is helping her cope with her concerns.

“If everyone got down on their knees and prayed, this would all go away,” she said.

Watson’s concerns are not unfounded. Georgia public health officials have seen a surge in new Covid-19 cases since the state’s shelter-in-place order was lifted.

The Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed a total of 30,696 cases and 1,311 deaths as of Wednesday afternoon. Researchers say infection and death rates could continue to climb as a result of the move to reopen businesses.

Youyang Gu, a data scientist whose coronavirus projection model is cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Courthouse News on Tuesday that it will be awhile before the impact of reopening is clear since it can take up to two weeks before infected people begin showing symptoms.

 “For reopenings such as this, it takes several, usually two to three, weeks before we can see any noticeable effects at least in terms of new reported cases. It will be at least three to four weeks before we see deaths beginning to increase from the reopening,” Gu said.

He added, “That’s why it’s important that states take their reopening approaches very slowly because it takes so long for the effects to be seen in the data, and by the time you realize what’s happening it may be too late to reverse the decision.”

Gu emphasized that “even small, minor policy changes” like mandatory mask-wearing in public could impact the infection rate and death toll.

According to Gu’s forecasts on covid19-projections.com, 4,772 Georgians could die from the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus by August.

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