With May 1 approaching, Johnson City businesses consider timing for reopening

David Floyd • Apr 22, 2020 at 7:00 AM

Azlinn Edwards, the owner of clothing boutique Azlinn Hope, anticipates there will be plenty of demand for goods and services when the state economy starts reopening next month.

“Our favorite thing to do is have women come in and let us personally style them,” Edwards said, “and so for us to be able to see them come back in and have that, I think it’ll impact our sales a lot.”

With Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announcing plans Monday to begin a phased reboot of the state economy on May 1, local business owners are evaluating their options in light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Both of Azlinn Hope’s brick-and-mortar locations, one in downtown Johnson City, which opened on Tipton Street in late 2019, and the other in Morristown, have been closed since mid-March.

Edwards said her two locations saw healthy business during the Christmas holiday last year, momentum that she said continued into 2020.

“I would say it definitely impacted our sales for spring,” she said of COVID-19. “But luckily spring is not our biggest selling time.”

The pause in foot traffic caused by the virus has given Edwards time to rebrand the boutique, and the business has also managed to streamline its online sales process. Although its physical locations are closed, Edwards said the boutique has continued to ship orders to customers.

NuYu Hair Lounge, 201 E. Main St. Suite 2 in Johnson City, has been closed since late March. The business has rescheduled appointments in anticipation of opening on May 1, but owner Felicia Arreguin said she’s taking the decision day-by-day and week-by-week as the situation changes.

“We’ve been dramatically affected,” she said about impact of COVID-19 on her business. “Right now there’s been zero income for the month of April.”

She’s also foregone rent, another form of income, from the stylists who work at her establishment.

“I just didn’t feel like that was fair, and I wanted to help them out as best as I could, too,” she said.

Asked if she thought the timing of the reopening was appropriate, Arreguin said she doesn’t anticipate the novel coronavirus is something that will clear up by May 1. Arreguin added that she would be discussing plans on the appropriate time frame for reopening with her team on Tuesday.

“If they don’t feel comfortable, then I’m not going to push that, either,” she said. “We’ll continue to stay closed until we feel that it’s safe.”

Noting that the businesses technically can’t abide by the six-feet social distancing recommendations, Arreguin said it could be necessary for hair salons to have masks available for stylists and clients.

In a news release issued Monday evening, the same day that Lee announced he wouldn’t be continuing the state’s safer at home order beyond April 30, the City of Johnson City said it has extended its safer at home order through April 26.

Originally issued on March 31, the order closes non-essential businesses, requires adherence to social distancing guidelines and restricts travel. It can be extended in one-week increments.

“We are currently working on a ‘reopening plan’ that will ensure the health and safety of our residents and visitors, while gradually relaxing the requirements of the stay at home order currently in place,” City Manager Pete Peterson said in the release. “This is being developed following the national guidelines and in conjunction with health and business professionals.”

Peterson and Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

As of early Tuesday afternoon, Dr. William Block, dean of the Quillen College of Medicine, said the state hasn’t yet seen the decrease in cases outlined in a federal plan released by the Trump Administration last week, which lays out the conditions for a staged reopening of the economy.

One prerequisite was a downward trajectory in documented cases or the number of positive tests as a percentage of total tests within a 14-day period.

“I can’t predict what that’s going to look like nine days from now,” Block said. “And so I hope the governor is correct in his assertion, but his guess is maybe as good as mine.”

Having the capacity to conduct adequate rapid testing and contact tracing would also be ideal conditions to start reopening the economy, Block said.

Block said the region is close to having adequate testing capacities, but noted that if the area saw a surge in cases, it would be beyond its ability to test as rapidly as desired, possibly leading to delays in results.

Supported by the best medical evidence and not a calendar date, he also hopes local mayors and officials will be empowered to stage the reopening plan as appropriate for their area.

Block indicated the manner in which the opening is conducted is more important than the date itself. He added that Lee is balancing more than just the medical considerations in his decision making.

“We’re also very hopeful that the decision is correct,” Block said, “and ... I hope that the loudest voice being heard is that of (Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey) and her committee that is really driving the medical decisions for this.”

Even when her stores do reopen on May 1, Edwards said the boutiques will still be offering curbside pickup and will likely maintain a maximum of 10 people inside at a time.

As a small business with two storefronts, Edwards said it will be easier for the boutique to enforce proper safety guidelines than supermarkets or larger restaurants.

She doesn’t think there are many small businesses that would be able to weather a multi-month economic shutdown.

“We set ourselves up well,” Edwards said. “We saved and we’re always very prepared, but I do know that there are some different businesses around town that it could really help them stay open.”

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