Downtown Johnson City merchants reopen with precautions, some wait and see

David Floyd • May 20, 2020 at 9:00 AM

After being closed for two months, the kitchen at Mid City Grill is again alive with activity. Workers clad in masks and gloves toss sizzling fries, assemble sandwiches and sear savory hamburger patties.

Although the restaurant was only a few hours into its first day back open on Tuesday afternoon, owner Theresa Garnett said business had been steady, noting it was probably the restaurant’s busiest Tuesday lunch yet.

“I’m super excited to be back,” Garnett said. “It’s been a long two months.”

After weeks of downtime caused by regional and statewide stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), signs of life are returning to Johnson City’s downtown area.

Gov. Bill Lee has been issuing phased guidance to various business sectors since late April, recommended actions that are intended to act as continued precautions against the illness.

Mid City Grill, at 106 S. Commerce St., has opened dine-in service at 50% capacity and is also offering full-service takeout and delivery. During its hiatus, Garnett said the restaurant underwent deep cleaning, acquired masks and went over appropriate safety guidelines with staff. Caddies have also been removed from tables and employees have their temperature checked.

Staff are also wearing protective equipment.

The restaurant is one of several of downtown businesses that have restarted operations in recent weeks.

Dianna Cantler, downtown development director for the Johnson City Development Authority, said statewide closings began just before the most active time of the year for most businesses. Spring and summer tend to be high-revenue periods, and that drop off, combined with the loss of downtown events that typically attract more people to the downtown area, has been a challenge, she said.

Cantler said several businesses appear to be taking a “wait-and-see” approach to reopening — doing a little business now but holding off in case there’s a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

At the Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room, 216 E. Main St., which is currently closed, owner Teri Dosher said she was originally looking at starting a phased reopening process on June 1, but now she’s not completely sure about that date. She’s wants see how other downtown businesses that have started curbside and online sales fare.

Dosher said she’s trying to evaluate the decision from a health and safety angle, adding that she wants to preserve the well-being of her employees.

“No matter how hard we work to keep things clean and safe on our end, I feel like there’s a lot of people out there who are just completely blowing it off, and I really don’t feel good about exposing the people that work at the Willow Tree to that,” Dosher said. “So I’m just kind of sitting back and watching how things go just a little bit longer.”

For the time being, Dosher has been delivering orders to people’s porches and mailboxes. When the coffeehouse does reopen, Dosher said she plans to start with curbside pickup and to-go orders and possibly expand the list of items the business sells.

“A lot of our business is from people who are students and kind of want to just hang out all day, so taking away that option I feel like we need to come up with some other options to help us keep the doors open,” she said.

The pandemic has also been an adjustment for brand new businesses.

Jennifer Parker officially opened her nail salon, Vibes Nails & Lotion Bar, on May 11 at 325 E. Main St. after delaying the date for about a month because of COVID-19.

“It’s been a little challenging,” she said of opening in the midst of the outbreak. Parker said some of her business’s suppliers, for instance, have shifted their focus to products like hand sanitizer, which has caused shortages of other items.

Like other close-contact businesses in the state, Vibes is also operating at 50% capacity, which Parker said can make scheduling a challenge. But, she added that clients have been understanding.

“We have been very lucky,” Parker said. “We have a very supportive community, and we’ve had a lot of people who have really worked to come to our side and support us in our opening process.”

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