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Atlanta’s economic reopening amid pandemic unsteady and uneven

Matt Friedman, chief executive of the 90-restaurant Wing Zone chain, says the takeout and delivery business is booming, but with the current restrictions, his dine-in business is not sustainable. (contributed)
Matt Friedman, chief executive of the 90-restaurant Wing Zone chain, says the takeout and delivery business is booming, but with the current restrictions, his dine-in business is not sustainable. (contributed)

The restart to metro Atlanta’s economy has been halting as many consumers hang back and numerous businesses continue to limit services and hours because of the coronavirus.

While precise data is elusive, the tracking of cell phones and company software sketches a picture of an Atlanta rebound that is patchy and uneven, according to Dallin Hatch, a spokesman for California-based Womply, which sells software for managing small businesses.

"Reopening is happening across the board, though there's still a long way to go for many business categories," he said.

At the end of April and start of May, Gov. Brian Kemp lifted many restrictions on companies and ended a statewide stay-at-home order. Still, about 25% of metro Atlanta retail stores remained closed last week, according to Womply.

As May started, consumer spending locally was down 33.4% from January, on everything from clothes to entertainment, according to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, produced by researchers at Harvard University.

Only spending on groceries was up.

Many business owners are concerned about the danger the coronavirus poses to their workers and customers. Some said they don’t plan to open anytime soon, even though they are worried about how they will pay expenses.

The best chance of survival is in having a cushion, said Leslie Kuban, an Atlanta-based franchising consultant.

"Everybody's guessing as they go along," she said. "Ten years ago, there was something similar in the recession. And those businesses that were cash poor didn't make it."

Each business has its own calculation.

FORME Studios, a women's fitness club in Buckhead with a staff of 12 and 120 members, closed in March. Since then, some larger gyms have reopened. But Donna Burke, the owner of FORME Studios, has hesitated.

“If someone were to be infected at the club, I would never be able to forgive myself,” she said. “I asked my clients, and 98% of the people said they would not be coming in.”

She finally decided that she will stick with online programs. “It was very tough, but our community has been supportive of the change,” she said.

The more businesses stay virtual, the fewer jobs will return.

More than 885,000 Georgians were receiving jobless benefits as of May 2 – and hundreds of thousands have filed since.

And, for many of the businesses that are reopening, the needs are different as they emerge from the shutdown. Sales will not support as many workers as before.

Restaurants that offer only takeout and delivery service require fewer employees than when customers dined in.

Atlanta-based Wing Zone has 90 restaurants. Most specialize in takeout and delivery, said chief executive Matt Friedman, but some depend on dine-in customers. For instance, its East Cobb sports bar typically seats more than 150 customers and employs 40. The restaurant opened inside dining Monday with a staff of 30 and half the seating.

"I don't think it's sustainable," Friedman said. "If we have a certain square-footage, we need to fill those seats."

The return of all the seats – along with customers to fill them – ultimately depends on whether the virus is controlled or contained, treatments are developed and a vaccine delivered.

Until then, there won't be a return to normal at Just Bakery, a not-for-profit operation that employs refugees and had been operating in a Stone Mountain church, said the executive director, Leah Lonsbury. "There is absolutely no way to get six feet between people in the kitchen."

The bakery is trying to develop a different approach, perhaps offering a limited menu, maybe just four or five items that could be ordered online and distributed at a community market.

“I am trying to take it one day at a time,” Lonsbury said. “The future, at least the medium future, doesn’t look great right now.”

Georgia consumer spending, April compared to January

Restaurants: -65.1%

Entertainment: -77.6%

Health: -53.4%

Apparel: -54.4%

Transportation: -76.9%

Groceries: +15.5%

Source: Opportunity Insights, a Harvard University

Share of businesses closed, week of May 14

Arts and entertainment: 40%

Auto services : 8%

Bars: 58%

Health and beauty: 34%

Lodging: 7%

Pet services: 8%

Restaurants: 28%

Retail and wholesale: 13%

Sports and recreation places: 29%

Source: Womply

Share of residents not traveling beyond one mile of home, by county, week of May 11

Clayton: 31.9%

Gwinnett: 26.4%

Fayette: 24.3%

DeKalb: 23.4%

Cobb: 21.9%

Fulton: 20.4%

Source: Cuebiq