In the wake of the Ohio Department of Health’s order Sunday closing the dining areas of all restaurants in Ohio (and bar service as well) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Athens County businesses have had to either close down, seriously reduce their staffing sizes, or rapidly switch their business models.
It’s a difficult and uncertain time for both themselves and their employees, local business owners told The NEWS this week.
Many uptown Athens bars, regardless of whether they sell food or not, have had to close their doors completely. That includes etablishments such as Tony’s, The Pigskin and The Union (although The Union has said it’s still selling off some of its beer for off-premises consumption).
Meanwhile, Athens County’s movie theaters have all been required to close by a new order from the Ohio Department of Health issued Monday, as has the local bowling alley at Rollerbowl Lanes. Despite it all, the Athena Cinema on Court Street bears a hopeful message on its marquee: “Stay Healthy Athens, See You Soon.”
Check out this list on the Athens County Visitors Bureau's website of many of the local businesses that are still operating during the coronavirus shut-down measures in Ohio.
Meanwhile, other businesses are trying to stay afloat and continue keeping some of their workers employed. Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery (with three separate establishments in Athens), said Tuesday that he’s had to lay off 66 of his employees due to the shuttering of the in-house dining/drinking options and the need for reduced hours at Jackie O’s two uptown locations and its Campbell Street taproom.
Oestrike said it’s a “pretty difficult reality to come to grips with,” especially considering these bar/restaurant closures are hitting just as it’s about to be the busiest, most profitable time of the year for those establishments.
“We were heading into one of the busiest times of the year, and that’s not going to happen this year,” Oestrike said, noting families and visitors won’t be coming down for Ohio University’s Commencement ceremony (which has been postponed) or other big weekends in Athens.
Still, Oestrike said he’s still employing about 50 other employees, and urged people to continue ordering carry-out food and grabbing growlers or cans of Jackie O’s to go. He also said Thursday (or thereabouts) will represent a first ever for Jackie O’s: the beginning of food delivery (check out their social media pages for more information).
Another uptown Athens mainstay, Casa Nueva and Cantina, is also remaining open with reduced hours to provide carry-out food and beer for off-premises consumption. Leslie Schaller, a longtime worker-owner at Casa, said that Casa has not had any staff reductions yet at the worker-owned cooperative, but likely will need to soon examine which of its worker-owners will voluntarily be laid off. One of the big challenges is that Casa wants to keep providing health insurance to its workers in such an uncertain time.
“There’s a lot of nervousness as to what’s around the corner,” Schaller said, noting that business will need to close if ultimately people are ordered to shelter-in-place due to the coronavirus.
Off Court Street, Kelly Sauber, owner of the West End Distillery (a sister business to the West End Ciderhouse, which Deanna Schwartz, his partner, owns), said that all of the Ciderhouse and Distillery’s employees are now unemployed. He said he and Schwartz are trying to provide what help they can to those employees in terms of receiving unemployment and finding other resources. At this point, he said, the West End Distillery will be open on Friday and Saturday for sale of cider and spirits for off-premises consumption only, but Sauber said he’ll be evaluating whether that’s even feasible to continue moving forward.
“This is the busiest time of year for bars and the service industry in Athens, from spring break to graduation, which is when we really count on making our money that will get us through to the summer… We’re going to lose all that, and it’s not coming back; that’s not something you can make up so to speak,” Sauber said.
Other businesses have pivoted in other ways. Uptown eateries Bagel Street Deli and O’Betty’s Red Hot! have said on social-media posts that they will remain open and sell their food out of convenient windows adjacent to the uptown sidewalks. Gigi’s Country Kitchen in The Plains is similarly staying open for carry-out (that business also has a drive-through window).
Little Fish Brewing Company on Armitage Road in Athens, meanwhile, is staying open for carry-out of growlers or bottles of beer and food from the in-house restaurant; that business is also working on a plan to begin doing delivery soon.
Casa worker-owner Schaller also directs programs at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet). She said that ACEnet is staying open and will try to help businesses as much as it can. There’s a “ripple effect” when local businesses can’t stay open – local contractors, vendors, food and product processors, and farmers also suffer, she said.
“Let’s try to make sure we can save our small business community,” she said, asking people to continue patronizing businesses that are still open. “We’ve done so much in building up our local food economy. How do we maintain that resilience?”
Schaller added that one good way to support businesses during this trying time is to buy gift cards to those businesses, either in-person, over the phone or online.