Virginia businesses are preparing for Phase One, a slight loosening of economic restrictions. With the exception of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Accomack County, it’s scheduled to start Friday.
We visited Brookland Park, a historic business corridor in Richmond, where a small but vibrant business community has been shut down.
From barbershops to juice bars, the streets are now deserted. We talked to a handful of those business owners, and found many are hesitant about opening their doors.
Willie Hilliard is a barber, and the president of the Brookland Park Neighborhood Association. Under Phase One, barbershops and salons are allowed to re-open with one-on-one appointments.
That’ll be different for this business where most people just walk in and chill.
“Those days are over, at least for now. I can’t see anyone, me personally, having anyone hanging in here,” says Hilliard. “I don’t know where you’ve been. I don’t know what you’ve been exposed to. And vice versa...it’s devastating to be honest.”
The bottom line for Hilliard is this: you can’t cut someone’s hair from six feet away. In many ways, he’s not grateful for the chance to get back to work. Instead, he feels like a guinea pig.
“I mean, we’re on the frontlines. I mean we’re at a job where social distancing does not work. So I’m very concerned about that.”
Without more testing, Hilliard isn’t confident he can keep himself, his colleague, and his customers safe. But he is preparing. He’s cleaned the store and has masks on hand. He just hasn’t taken the final step: making any appointments.
A couple blocks away is Sarah Mizer’s craft gallery and shop, Alma’s RVA. It’s considered non-essential retail, and under Phase One she’s allowed to open with 50-percent capacity.
For the past two months Mizer has been staying afloat through online sales and a few one-on-one appointments.
“All small businesses are limping right now, and the prospect of re-opening is attractive for the opportunity to do better,” Mizer says. “But it doesn’t come without a serious amount of concern.”
Her first concern is health. Second, how to restructure programming she normally holds in the store, like artist talks. But finally, she’s not even sure if people will come in. She admits she’s not ready to go browse in shops. She hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll open her doors this weekend.
“I lean towards yes, but it’s not definitive. I don’t know the definite answer yet and I probably won’t know until the day of.”
Mizer later reached back out to say she was postponing opening and would re-evaluate in June.
Across the street is a bar and music venue called the Fuzzy Cactus. Unlike the other business owners we spoke with, co-owner Michael Cipollone has employees. At the beginning of the shutdown he had to let 17 people go.
“For the first couple weeks, while we were closed, we were cooking food for our employees twice a week that they could come pick up,” he recalls.
But things have gotten better since then. Unemployment kicked in for the employees, and because of the Paycheck Protection Program the restaurant was able to bring back their chef. Now through takeout they make about a quarter of normal revenue.
“I feel pretty good about the future of our business,” Cipollone says. “We’ve been able to change our business plan to make it successful enough, sustainable enough.”
Under Phase One, restaurants will be allowed to seat small parties of people outside, six feet apart. The Fuzzy Cactus doesn’t have outdoor seating, so things won’t change for them.
And, frankly, Cipollone doesn’t mind.
“With numbers still going up, it’s hard to justify opening back up to the public,” he says. “Where somebody could come in and not know that they have the virus and contaminate a lot of people. And we don’t want that for our staff and we don’t want that for our customers.”
You can find a full list of Phase One Restrictions and Business Guidance here.