As Kemp eases coronavirus restrictions, businesses ask what’s next

04/21/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Salon Next owner Tucker Callaway inspects a box of masks she plans on having the stylist wear as they work with clientele when the salon reopens in Atlanta’s Wildwood neighborhood. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

04/21/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Salon Next owner Tucker Callaway inspects a box of masks she plans on having the stylist wear as they work with clientele when the salon reopens in Atlanta’s Wildwood neighborhood. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a comment from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

A little more than a month ago, before Georgia fully understood the magnitude of the coronavirus, a barber at Shape and Shave Barbers in Woodstock had a question for one of her young clients.

It wasn’t yet 3 p.m., and schools were still in session. So she asked him why he was there so early.

“The little boy told her that he was sick and was home from school that day,” said Maria Smith, who has owned the shop for three years. “The barber ended up getting very sick, and she was very upset about it. We were all upset about it.”

It turned out, the barber had a severe cold, Smith said. Not COVID-19.

But she wonders how long she will be able to dodge bullets, given Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order that will allow some businesses that were forced to close, like barber shops, to reopen.

“It is very irresponsible to think that a haircut or a shave is more important than doing the right thing,” said Smith, who has no immediate plans to open her shop, which has been closed since March 21. “The tone of Gov. Kemp’s rollout to reopen this part of the industry shows that he may not fully comprehend what we’re up against here. Executives and governors can afford what it takes to keep themselves safe, while the masses of blue-collar front-line workers suffer.”

Maria Smith,  (left) the owner of Shape and Shave Barbers in Woodstock with one of her barbers. She said she does not plan to open her shop on Friday.

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On Monday, Kemp made the controversial decision to restart the state’s economy by allowing some businesses to start up operations again. Kemp said that, along with barbershops, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, bowling alleys and fitness centers can open Friday. Restaurants, theaters and private social clubs will be allowed to open Monday.

Reactions have been mixed.

In a statement Tuesday, Georgia Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Clark said the business community “appreciates the leadership” of Kemp and other government officials “ to prioritize the health of all Georgians while delivering a common sense approach to slowly reopening our economy and getting Georgia citizens back to work safely."

Gabriel Ware, a veteran barber in Atlanta, said the coronavirus is forcing him to give up the profession. ERNIE SUGGS / ESUGGS@AJC.COM

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Gabriel Ware, who has cut hair at several spots in Atlanta over 17 years, said the virus helped solidify the answer to a question he has been wrestling with for months — when is it time to hang up the shears?

“I think the plan is ridiculous,” said Ware, who is retiring to devote his efforts full-time to financial management. “If Brian Kemp wants to come by my house and pick up my equipment, he can go to the barbershop and cut all the hair he wants. Then, after two weeks of exposing himself to a deadly virus, he can come talk to me. This is inconsiderate of the health and safety of the people he is supposed to be leading.”

Businesses that plan to reopen must meet 20 guidelines set out by the governor’s office, including screening workers for symptoms of the disease, improving workplace sanitation, wearing masks and gloves if appropriate, separating workspaces by at least six feet and teleworking when possible.

But few business relationships are as intimate as that of a barber or hairdresser who can hover over a client for hours. Or a nail technician, massage therapist or tattoo artist.

“Being in a room as close to a person as we need to be, for long periods of time, it will take some time and planning to make the office space safe,” said Pam Martorano, a massage therapist in Chamblee.

That is why Tucker Callaway, who has owned Salon Next for 21 years, doubts she’ll be ready to open up by week’s end.

“I don’t think there is any way we can be open by Friday, and it is so frustrating because this just hit us out of the blue,” Callaway said. “We can’t physically get the supplies in time. Do we all have to wear masks? And if the health care officials can’t get masks, how are we going to get them?”

04/21/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Salon Next owner Tucker Callaway shows off some of the materials she and her stylist will be using to make sure everyone is safe when the salon opens back up in Atlanta’s Wildwood neighborhood. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Since Kemp’s announcement, Callaway said she has gotten “500 phone calls” from clients aching to get their hair done.

“My employees want to make money. But, at the same time, they feel pressure,” Callaway said. “They are petrified to come back to work. But if they don’t, they can’t put food on their tables. Kemp made this decision too quick.”

04/21/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Salon Next owner Tucker Callaway created a list of new procedures that stylist will be adapting to when the salon reopens in Atlanta’s Wildwood neighborhood. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Christopher Escobar has plenty of reasons why he needs to reopen the Plaza Theatre. But there’s no way Escobar will open the historic two-screen theater on Ponce de Leon Avenue on Monday.

“Just because we’re allowed to reopen doesn’t mean we’re in any position to do that,” he said.

The coronavirus shutdown has hit the Plaza Theatre hard. It hasn’t screened a film since March 18. The Plaza is not paying fees to movie studios for new releases, and it’s not buying food or drinks for the snack bar. Still, the business is about $25,000 in the hole.

Escobar said he still has monthly rent, even though theaters were ordered to close. Escobar applied for a federal relief loan through the Small Business Administration but has yet to receive final approval.

It wouldn’t make sense to open the Plaza now, he said. Movie studios have postponed until summer the release of most new titles. And many of the Plaza’s regular customers have told him they wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing a movie in a theater now anyway.

Nicole Willingham, a tattoo artist at Apocalypse Tattoo in Buckhead, said many of her customers wouldn't feel safe having a session, even if she takes extra precautions.

“We have absolutely no plans of reopening until we’ve been provided with sufficient evidence that it’s safe,” said Willingham, whose husband, Ryan, owns the shop. “We probably won’t reopen until there’s a vaccine.”

Bryan Wetzel — owner of of The Local Gym, a 2,500-member club in Dallas — said he plans to re-open Friday, with employees sanitizing every piece of equipment, doorknob, mirror or other surface after it has been touched. Members won't be allowed to use adjacent machines. Group classes will be conducted outdoors. 

More conflicted are Lauren and Elliott Smith, owners of Total Row in Buckhead. They plan to stay closed until at least May 1.

The financial damage of closing has been severe. March and April are crucial months for fitness clubs to pick up new members.

“This is just a really bad time for this to happen,” Elliott Smith said. “We’ve lost half the new money we would have made this year.”

Many current members have told them they love the club, but simply won't be coming in, he said.

They plan many safety measures – like paring back on classes – but mostly they have been waiting to see clear signs that the illness has peaked in Atlanta, Lauren Smith said.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “you have to decide, what are your priorities?”