Jonathan Bernard, left, is the owner of the Ohio Valley Running Company on Station Street in Athens. He’s pictured here on Tuesday outside that business on its first day of re-opening to the public. He said he’s worried about how much the pandemic, and declining enrollment at OU, will hurt Athens businesses.  Photo by Conor Morris. 

With Ohio’s retail stores allowed to reopen this Tuesday, and much of the rest of Ohio’s economy set to reopen this Friday and later this month, some Athens business owners and workers are worried about keeping themselves, and their customers safe.

Starting on Friday, May 15, Ohio’s bars and restaurants can reopen their outdoor spaces, and Ohio’s barbers, hair salons, day spas and tattoos parlors can reopen as well, per directives from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and his administration. Meanwhile, starting on May 21, bars and restaurants can reopen their indoor spaces, although all of these businesses will be required to take precautions.

While many local business owners interviewed said they need to reopen in order to keep paying their bills, they worried about how best to balance customer and employee safety during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

One of those business owners, Ohio Valley Running Company owner Jonathan Bernard, sat outside OVRC on Station Street in Athens Tuesday, with staff helping small groups of customers inside and Bernard handling other potential customers outside (he’s limiting it to two groups of customers at a time inside the small storefront in order to maintain social distancing). In order to reduce crowding, he said customers are being asked to call in advance and make appointments regardless. 

Bernard said it’s been difficult for him and other businesses to keep going in Athens; he and his staff pivoted to selling much of the store’s stock online while the store was closed, and the community responded well to that.

Still: “We’re significantly down from a normal year,” Bernard explained. “For a running store, having a pandemic hit in March and spring is really the worst timing. We missed out on all of the marathons… The Athens Marathon packet pick-up (usually in April) is our biggest day of the year.”

IN OTHER NEWS, MULTIPLE Athens workers in the service industry say they’re anxious about returning to work. Sarah Slater Box, a server at Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery, admitted that she’s “conflicted” about that.

“On one hand I miss my team and regulars, and I want all of the businesses I love to survive,” she said in an email over the weekend. “On the other hand, I am concerned about spreading the virus. Restaurant service involves a lot of contact.”

Still, she said she doesn’t have a lot of other options for income.

“I am thankful that I work for a business that will go above and beyond to equip us with the best plan to safely serve customers,” Box said. “I am feeling most anxious about the customers and their reactions to the regulations. Dining out is not going to be the same for a long time, so I think managing expectations is important. I would ask that customers remain patient, and to please comply with the policy of each establishment.”

Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s, said that he and his staff are still working on plans for reopening Jackie O’s. As of earlier this week, he said Jackie O’s this Friday is planning to reopen the outdoor area, with social distancing, at the Taproom on Campbell Street in Athens.

There won’t be a public opening of the back patio at Jackie O’s Public House and Brew Pub locations on West Union Street this weekend, however; Oestrike said Jackie O’s is being very cautious in moving forward on that front.

Carry-out and delivery at Jackie O’s uptown facilities likely will continue “forevermore,” according to Oestrike. 

Meanwhile, as of May 21, Oestrike said Jackie O’s will begin “socially distanced dining options” inside the uptown location; dining and inside service at the Taproom is more of an open question at that point, however.

“We’re going to walk and move very slowly and add more in over time rather than trying to open everything at once,” Oestrike explained.

At Donkey Coffee on West Washington Street in Athens, owner Chris Pyle said it’s been a difficult transition for his business, which has been doing take-out only for the last several weeks.

Starting on this Friday, Donkey’s outdoor seating will open with distance between the tables, and on May 21, Donkey will open its indoor seating areas, but with lots of regular cleaning of tables and distance placed between the seating, Pyle said.

Pyle said that a big unanswered question for many business owners in Athens, especially those in uptown Athens, is whether Ohio University will reopen to in-person classes this fall semester.

“I think it’s going to be really crazy to open up OU without adequate (COVID-19) testing (in Ohio),” he said. “…If OU doesn’t open up, I think you’ll see maybe 40 percent of businesses go out of uptown (Athens). We’re in a really good position compared to a lot of people, but we’ll still go if students don’t come back in the fall.” In this context, “go” means “close.”

James McGee-Moore, a barista and manager at Donkey, said it’s hard not to feel “uneasy” in the current climate.

“Many people are putting an effort forward: wearing masks, keeping clean, keeping their distance,” McGee-Moore said. “However, a lot of people come in, and not all of them are taking this pandemic seriously. I feel good about the precautions Donkey is currently taking, not allowing people to congregate and remove any communal surfaces (like our creamer table) where germs might transfer.”

McGee-Moore said that while she feels good about Donkey’s plans, she worries about businesses making across-the-board decisions to reopen entirely, with the potential to make Ohio’s coronavirus cases increase significantly.

Alice Ratliff, owner of the small Suite 476 hair salon in Athens, said that as a “one-woman salon” with many regular customers who have been coming to her for years, she’s not too worried about reopening this week.

She said she will wear a facial covering if customers ask for it, but she said she won’t if they don’t want her to; she said she trusts her regulars will use their best judgment and not come in if they’re sick.

Ratliff said she needs to get back to work, and said the closure hit her small business hard, but she doesn’t blame Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine for the closure. She said she’s more upset at President Donald Trump.

“He’s got blood on his hands,” she said. “Because of his neglect and his arrogance and his narcissism, he just kind of turned his back on it because he (thinks he) knows everything, and he allowed this to really devastate our country.”

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said in a brief interview Tuesday that he’s worried about people’s safety as Ohio begins to reopen its business sectors. He said he’s not happy after seeing a lot of people not wearing masks or other facial coverings when they’re in public spaces and patronizing businesses in Athens, especially during the recent OU student move-out weekends.

“What is a little disheartening for me is the disregard for the safety of everyone around you by not wearing a mask,” Patterson said. “I do feel that people should be wearing masks when they’re out and about.”

The mayor also expressed concern about the long-term economic impact of the pandemic, especially with the 140 layoffs that took place at OU recently. Just from a city revenue standpoint, he said, those layoffs alone could mean a loss of about $160,000 per year in income tax revenue, in addition to other social costs of people being unemployed.

“A lot of these individuals live in the city, they are our neighbors, and so I worry for them,” Patterson said. “A lot of them have mortgage payments to make and other (bills).”

Patterson said he’s trying to keep members of the community connected with several working groups that meet weekly, including a “COVID-19 virtual roundtable” with a variety of community leaders from OU, including Athens City School Supt. Tom Gibbs; Karin Bright with the Athens County Food Pantry; Ohio University’s Jennifer Kirksey; and Paige Alost with the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Meanwhile, there’s also a working group of local bar owners who meet with Patterson and the Athens City-County Health Department regularly, as well as a group of local landlords who came together to talk with Patterson and other city officials to coordinate the city’s move-out weekends.

Moving forward, Patterson said the city is and will continue to be seriously impacted by the pandemic. The city already has stopped most of its big upcoming capital improvements that don’t have grant or other external revenue funding, he said, and has halted all of its non-essential purchasing. Road repaving and emergency repairs will continue, Patterson said. But in the coming months, he acknowledged, he expects the city to experience continued revenue declines, especially as OU’s enrollment is likely set to take another hit this fall semester.

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