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A group of friends walk past bars on Court Street. (FILE)

Athens bars, restaurants forced to adjust, close in response to coronavirus

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s order to close restaurants and bars across the state by 9 p.m. Sunday is forcing many Athens eateries and dives to make difficult decisions on how to best serve the public and its employees.

Like many other bars in town, The Union is being forced to close its doors, leaving a large number of people without employment for the foreseeable future.

When Cullen Beach, a 27-year employee of The Union, first heard the news, he said it came as no surprise that the governor was moving to prohibit dine-in experiences. 

Prior to the order, the bar had implemented new cleaning procedures and protocols to limit the spread of any disease.

“It's kind of frustrating,” Beach, a manager, said. “Our prerogative is to just move forward.”

On Court Street and West Union Street, businesses are displaying signs alerting their customers of new procedures, with The Union simply stating “It sucks, but safety first.”

Some establishments, like Smiling Skull Saloon, are unsure of how they will adjust come 9 p.m. Sunday. Others like the Union Street Diner, or USD, are already establishing plans.

USD owner Timothy Carman said the diner was already considering a reduction in operating hours prior to Sunday. His business has since implemented changes such as all employees wearing elastic or latex gloves and even displaying a sign outside recommending sick customers order carryout.

“It's unfortunate, and it's definitely going to cost a lot of jobs and a lot of hours,” Carman said. “The students not being here already had a large enough impact.”

USD will likely transition to carryout only but will attempt to stay open 24 hours a day. Carman expects this to have a huge impact on his workers and hopes the state government will provide some source of unemployment compensation for those affected by this.

Earlier Sunday, Lieutenant Gov. Jon Husted announced the state has plans to extend benefits to workers in quarantine or whose businesses are closed because of the virus, according to an article from NBC4.

Extending unemployment benefits to affected businesses and workers isn’t the only effort being made by the state of Ohio. Bars and restaurants are now permitted to return unopened, high proof liquor products that have been purchased within the past 30 days to the wholesale contract liquor agency they purchased it from. 

The contract liquor agencies in Athens county are Kroger, 919 E. State St., and Busy Day Market, 30 W. Stimson Ave. 

The buyback program is only for restaurants, businesses and F2 permit holders, a permit for those with a temporary permit for an event. The liquor agencies will call the Liquor Enterprise Service Center for approval. 

“We're just trying to … find ways to help out those small and large businesses with their wholesale purchases, and they may or may not choose to do that,” Brian Hoyt, stakeholders relations manager with the JobsOhio beverage system, said.

Mary Ryznar, a bartender at The Pub, said although there were a lot of people out “mourning” the closure of the bars, it is a time when people have to rely on one another.

“You got to do what you got to do,” Ryznar said.

Carman and Brenen’s Coffee Cafe owner Joshua Thomas believe their businesses will be able to weather the storm because they have been around for a long time, but they both say newer businesses are at risk of closing down.

“It wouldn’t shock me to have the students come back in the fall or even in the summer and find they are missing a couple of their favorite local places,” Thomas said.

Brenen’s is one of many businesses in Athens that has already begun the change to a carryout only model. Thomas and his wife, Jessica Thomas, spent Saturday and Sunday cleaning the restaurant and putting up chairs.

“My wife and I are upset, and we’re disappointed, and we’re worried, and we’re panicked,” Thomas said.

The coffee shop is just one of many who are facing difficult challenges in determining whether to stay open or not. The Thomas’ believe they can push through but are worried about their employees, their ability to stay afloat and their ability to keep their employees.

Other delivery-centric businesses, like Avalanche Pizza, could expect to see an increase in orders and customers as dine-in experiences are shut down.

Chris Tricarichi, general manager and managing partner of Avalanche, said while Avalanche could see an increase in commerce, they are trying to mitigate any transmission of the infection by limiting staff and customers in the building.

Aside from new cleaning procedures, Avalanche is requiring face masks to be worn by employees, and they are displaying a sign preventing customers from directly approaching the counter.

“We will most likely not be able to keep up with the increased business,” Tricarichi said. “We’re also not sure as to what our supply chain will look like.”

Until they are able to hire more delivery drivers to keep up with the increased demand for delivery, Avalanche will be moving to a carryout only system. As Avalanche looks for new drivers, Tricarichi said they are hoping to hire more people like bartenders who are now without a job and need a way to make money.

The Union is also hoping they can stay open and give their employees hours through renovations to the restaurant.

“When we do open up, maybe we will have a different face,” Beach said.



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