As Governor Ralph Northam continues to lift coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses, how are shops in downtown Staunton responding? WMRA’s Mike Tripp has the story.
The streets of downtown Staunton still see foot traffic, but that traffic is still lighter these days --- the wake of COVID-19.
GREG BEAM: We were fortunate that downtown was definitely alive and doing well. When news of this hit, it was frightening as everyone in the world was facing it.
Greg Beam serves as executive director of the Staunton Downtown Development Association.
Full disclosure: The Staunton Downtown Development Association sponsors programming on WMRA.
BEAM: There were just so many uncertainties. We weren’t sure what to do or how to do it. And then several of our businesses one by one start to go offline and share with us they were closing. Rapidly that increased each day. And it definitely was that feeling of panic.
[Sounds of cooking on a grill]
With the pandemic and state-ordered restrictions came hard decisions. Chip Clark is owner of 101 West Beverley or simply … “The 101” --- a downtown eatery, and other properties in town, including The Wine Cellar.
CHIP CLARK: In general we felt the best option was to not operate. We were a small enough operation, we could contain the expenses by just shutting down the operation. We felt that was our best strategy.
Beam says he’s not aware of any permanent closures, but several businesses did close temporarily.
BEAM: I think it’s been great how many of our businesses have quickly learned how to shift how they were operating. How they were reaching their customers … the services they were providing. Some folks quickly adapted and developed new websites and ways to sell their products online.
As well as curbside pickup.
BEAM: Some of our restaurants figured out how can we deliver food differently? How can we reach our customers? I was really impressed with the folks that quickly pivoted to a new format and developed new ways to reach our supporters and customers of downtown.
Beam says even as most businesses are able to relax restrictions under Phase Two – for example, restaurants allowing patrons inside at 50% capacity – it’ll still take a while to recover.
BEAM: For me, I think it’s going to be a long process. Gradually, we will see more businesses returning, but in different ways. The way they operate … The way they once again reach their customers and our downtown supporters, I feel more businesses are going to have develop ways of being online.
[Sounds of scissors cutting hair]
Nikki Swats, owner of Allure Salon, was ready for her business to make its return.
SWATS: We had honestly no idea what was going to happen. At first, we thought we were only going to be off for like 30 days. And then we thought it was going to be June 10th. Then we thought it was going to be May 8th. So, a lot of uncertainty.
Then Phase One, which began May 15th under Governor Northam’s order.
SWATS: It was good. It was a good feeling that we could reopen and get back to work.
As for their customers …
SWATS: Well they’re all happy to see us, and they’re glad to be back in here. And we’re glad to see them.
[Sounds of hair brushing]
Hayley Stewart leans back in her chair with eyes closed. The stylist runs a brush over her still damp hair.
HAYLEY STEWART: Oh my god, yes! Feels amazing! It’s been too long. I had been stuck in the house two long and was ready to get out and just get life back to normal.
With Phase One came certain restrictions, in addition to the governor’s order at the end of May that masks be worn inside most businesses.
SWATS: It’s different. We can only have one client at a time where most all of us double book all the time. And are popping people in and out of the chair. And obviously it’s difficult communicating with everybody with a face mask on, and people not knowing that we are smiling.
How does Stewart feel about her mask?
STEWART: I’m not against it in any way, I guess. I mean I think it’s a pretty simple thing to do. So if it’s an order to do so, it’s pretty easy to comply.
Shane Hill walks along East Beverly Street, tugging at his mask while crossing New Street.
HILL: I don’t like it. It’s hot.
So why does he wear it?
HILL: I do it because I’m told to.
Observing foot traffic for a time, I noticed a mixture of those wearing masks and those not. Of the businesses, I saw a sign in the window at Fretwell Bass stating “masks recommended” while two doors down Camera and Palette had a sign stating, “masks required.” Across an intersection at the Beverley Cigar Store, patrons were coming and going without masks. Of course, it would be kind of hard to smoke a cigar while wearing a mask.
Back to Shane, he says this is his first time out and back downtown.
HILL: It’s different. Everything is still curbside, it seems.
CLARK: You know, Phase One I don’t think really changed anything in either direction for us.
The 101’s Chip Clark…
CLARK: You know, we don’t let customers inside here. So they don’t have access to our bathroom. They don’t have access to seating in here. It’s mostly to protect the staff … so that they have a safe environment, both in the kitchen and the front of the house so we can provide food.
What might help?
CLARK: The plans that the city has for opening up the Beverley Street block and allowing outdoor seating … That will probably have a significant impact.
Beginning this weekend, the city will close off Beverley Street in the downtown area to vehicular traffic and allow outdoor dining areas from 5:00 p.m. Fridays until 9:00 p.m. Sundays.
Mayor Carolyn Dull likes the concept.
CAROLYN DULL: I give all the credit to our recovery team, which includes a variety of city staff as well as some local business owners. They worked really hard to make this a safe opportunity for businesses to open in this next phase.
BEAM: Our downtown still is here. And even if folks can’t see us in person, I hope they’ll still reach out.
The Staunton Downtown Development Association is also working to put hand sanitizer stations throughout the downtown area.