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Virginia takes step forward into reopening businesses

Mike Still • May 16, 2020 at 12:00 PM

NORTON — Many Southwest Virginia businesses on Friday did something they have not done for two months: open their doors to customers.

While Gov. Ralph Northam’s emergency orders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses such as hair salons and barber shops, tattoo parlors, restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters, gyms and other businesses deemed non-essential, some of those businesses were authorized to open again Friday under his Forward Virginia plan.

While state health officials are monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and increasing testing for the disease and the virus causing it, stylists and barbers in Wise and Norton were back at work. A barber shop across from the Wise County Courthouse displayed a sight not seen downtown since March: the barber pole spiraling again.

In Tracy’s Salon on Main, across from L.F. Addington Middle School, stylist Katie Niece was finishing cutting Sarah Lawson’s hair.

“I’m happy to be back,” Niece said through her face mask.

“All I can say is it’s so nice to be back again,” Lawson said, also wearing a mask and checking Niece’s handiwork in a mirror.

“I’m smiling,” Toni Blair, another stylist at Tracy’s, said with a laugh through her bright yellow mask.

While some restaurants were allowed to open for outdoor dining in addition to the takeout and delivery business all Virginia restaurants have been allowed to do since the pandemic, Jennifer and Greg Bailey said the wait has been hard on them and employees.

“We closed our dining room March 18,” said Jennifer Bailey, operator of Sugar Hill Cidery, as she and her husband checked the final layout of their outdoor dining area before opening Friday afternoon. The city of Norton had put finishing touches on an outdoor event space next to the cidery, allowing the Baileys to spread out tables and chairs to meet state social distancing rules.

“Nobody expected this,” Jennifer Bailey said of the pandemic and its impact. “A lot of people made an effort to come by and support us during the closure. They ordered takeout and said they’d be back when we opened.

“You’d go to Walmart or Lowe’s and wonder why they could be open and you couldn’t,” she added.

Greg Bailey, who now operates the couple’s first venture, Sugar Hill Brewery in St. Paul, said the closing forced them to lay off about 40 employees at the cidery and 25 at the brewery. Federal stimulus unemployment aid and expanded state unemployment benefits allowed those employees to get by the past two months.

Jennifer Bailey said the experience could have been worse.

“Everybody worked with us,” she said of suppliers and vendors. “We were up-front and honest about the situation, and they said they understood and would work with us.”

“It was a domino effect,” Greg Bailey added. “We had gone to a restaurant show because you can buy furnishings and supplies cheaper there, and this happened the next day. We had things we needed to pay for, and suppliers are having to pay their bills. They say the average small business has about two weeks of cash on hand. Restaurants have less than that.”

Navigating state emergency rules during the pandemic has also been a challenge, Jennifer Bailey said, because the couple’s businesses depend on alcohol sales for a significant part of their revenue.

“It was great that the state allowed us to sell drinks for takeout,” Jennifer Bailey said. “When they announced that restaurants could offer outdoor dining, we went to the town to let us put tables outside, but the ABC first said we couldn’t sell alcohol outside except for one day at a time four times a year. Then they came back and said they could work with us.”

“We as a people are pretty resilient,” Greg Bailey said of business owners and Southwest Virginia residents in general.

Just across Park Avenue from Sugar Hill Cidery, Southern Steel Tattoo owner Rob Kinman was enjoying his first day open since March 24.

We’re booked up for the next two weeks,” Kinman said. “People keep calling trying to get in, so the backlog is probably going to roll over for a while. We’re still by appointment only under the governor’s Phase One.”

Kinman said he and three other tattoo artists typically handled a total of 12 to 16 customers a day before the pandemic closed his business.

“It was a blessing to be able to spend more time with my family,” Kinman said. “The stimulus and state unemployment made it easier, but some of us like to work. For us, it’s what we do. It’s our craft and we still miss doing it.”

Northam on Friday said the Phase One reopening does not mean life and business as usual.

“Easing restrictions does not mean we can behave like we used to,” Northam said. “We need to gather in smaller groups, we need to wash our hands and we need to wear face masks.

“I also anticipate if we continue to make progress, we can enter into Phase Two and Phase Three,” Northam said. “We’re doing it with safety and we’re doing it responsibly.”

Back across Park Avenue, Jennifer Bailey said the reopening still means cidery staff have to wear face masks and take plenty of precautions cleaning and seating customers according to social distancing guidelines.

“We have to respect that,” Jennifer Bailey said. “We want to abide by the rules and make sure our customers are safe.”

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