Small businesses have established themselves as a part of the Dahlonega community by always being ready to support whoever is in need.
Now they are the ones in need of support.
“Everything we could possibly be there for, we have been there for and have given time and money and support to the whole entire town,” Kevin Mealor, owner of Bourbon Street Grille said. “If we’ve ever asked on the locals, if they can and if they’re willing to help us out as well, this is a big time.”
As the practice of social distancing works toward the elimination of COVID-19, it has also worked strongly against small businesses who depend on a socially active community such as the restaurants and retail stores that make up downtown Dahlonega. CDC guidelines discouraging gatherings of 10 or more people have put a strain on these local businesses.
More so, they’ve left the owners conflicted.
“We’re just having to take this day-by-day and we’re trying to figure out every single day, ‘what’s the next right decision to make?’” Deb Rowe, owner of Shenanigans Irish Pub, said. “Until which time that we can’t anymore, I do think the most responsible thing we can do is keep money in our employees pockets and try to keep people fed as best we can as grocery stores and everything else run out of product.”
Since then, Rowe and some other restaurant owners downtown decided the “next right decision” was to opt to close their dining rooms and close their doors to the public, in order to help combat the virus. The restaurants are still offering curbside pickup orders.
“...By shifting to this approach now we feel we will be doing our small part to enforce the social distancing guidelines and ensure we protect our staff and patrons while still continuing to serve the Dahlonega community we know and love. If we continue to create opportunities for people to interact in public spaces, the virus will continue to spread. If we limit those opportunities now before it's too late, we can defeat this virus and get Dahlonega, Georgia, and the country back to normal sooner…” a Monday morning post on the Shenanigans Facebook page read.
Dr. Donna Whitfield has a unique perspective, as both small business owner as owner of Consolidated Gold Mines as well as healthcare worker as Chief of Staff for NGMC Lumpkin. Weighing all sides, Whitfield decided to side with healthcare.
“We made the extremely difficult decision to shutdown earlier this week, because we didn’t want to encourage people to get out and about,” Whitfield said. “It’s tough, especially for our beloved employees, but we truly believe it’s the best thing we can do to protect their health and the health of Lumpkin County.”
And while other restaurants around town were still allowing dine-in guests, the inevitable end seems to be coming soon as the Dahlonega City Council is expected to approve a proclamation declaring a Public Health State of Emergency in the City of Dahlonega today. A significant part of the proclamation would prohibit restaurants from offering dine-in services. On Friday, Mealor said he felt the implications of potentially restricting businesses in the food industry to carryout or delivery would be tough.
“If we shut our inside down, that would be a big big decision to count on that many to-go orders to come into one restaurant, much less all of them,” he said. “That’s a big factor.”
Yet even before dine-in services were prohibited, the strain on local restaurants had already started when customers began social distancing and only making essential trips.
“It just kind of all hit at one time, the tourism got affected big time,” Mealor said.
For Geoffrey Stephens, manager of 19 Degrees North, the lack of traffic meant laying off part of his staff.
“We have had to lay off quite a few of our employees or at least give them furloughs which means we do plan on bringing them back on, but right now it is a situation where we just can’t afford to pay them and that is because we aren’t experiencing any foot-traffic,” he said. “We would definitely like to get involved in the community more so in delivering food and carryout.”
Others like Sabrina and David Walker who own Spirits Tavern may have to follow suit, already researching how to terminate their employees in the best way for them to be eligible for resources like Unemployment Benefits. While being forced to cut their employees, the owners are still trying to look out for them.
“We’re approaching all possible avenues, through either loan money or forgoing our salaries, whatever is needed so that we can keep money coming to them,” Sabrina said.
Mealor also worries about his employees.
“I have a lot of them here that count on this restaurant to be open to pay their bills and their groceries,” he said.
Anticipating that their restaurants’ dine-in days were numbered, Rowe met with the Walkers and other restaurant owners on Friday for a brainstorm.
“Part of the reason why a few of us got together today was to try to come up with ideas to think outside of the box,” Rowe said. “If tomorrow if they decide to close everything for inside dining, we’re still going to have supplies and stuff that could be really useful to the rest of the community or to our employees.”
One of the ideas generated was making meals for a whole family that could could be prepared at home.
“Another thing that we brainstormed about today was providing meals, like ready to reheat meals. When you look at things the grocery stores are running out of, a lot of it is, some proteins and stuff like that, so ways that we can help supplement what you can’t get from the grocery store anymore,” Rowe said.
Most restaurants are offering either curbside pickup and/or in-town delivery as well as gift card purchases to help get them through for now. Nick Alicea began offering gift cards at a discount to promote them to customers looking to support his restaurant, Yahoola Creek Grill, while also scoring a deal for themselves.
“One thing you can do is buy gift cards in advance,” Alicea said. “We’re selling them at a discount now so it’ll help sustain us for the next few months and then everybody can come back out and have a party.”
Yet to make it through to the party, the owners of all small businesses are calling on the communities that they exist to serve, asking them to accept their service, so the businesses can continue to exist. To help the businesses that have so often offered to help.
“Now we need that help in return,” Stephens said.