As the world continues to deal with the unpredictable impacts of COVID-19, local businesses are being struck especially hard. A stay-at-home order by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has recommended that Ohioans stay inside unless absolutely necessary in order to promote social distancing and avoid the spread of the virus.
In a time where shops and restaurants are usually packed and thriving, many of Athens’ local businesses are now struggling to stay afloat. Bagel Street Deli employee Sean King said the restaurant isn’t even seeing half the number of customers they normally draw in.
“To get personal about it, this is a job that I really look forward to coming to, and recently, it’s just sort of hit-or-miss,” King said. “If it’s super slow, I get really sad. It’s just kind of not knowing.”
King said Bagel Street’s dining room is now closed, employees instead taking tickets and payments and providing food through the front window in order to limit human contact. Bagel Street is strongly encouraging over-the-phone pickup orders, also providing delivery by an in-house employee for those who don’t want to risk infection by leaving their homes.
Hours have also been cut for employees, and bagels are only being made by a skeleton crew with fewer shifts and a smaller pool of people working those shifts, King said. However, all of these changes are necessary in order to allow Bagel Street to stay open.
“The way I look at this job is (that it’s) a service to the community,” King said. “We serve people food, really good food that we’re pretty proud of, and I’d like to see this place be able to keep doing that. If this is what it’s gonna take, it’s what it’s gonna take.”
Restaurants with larger staffs like Brenen’s Coffee Cafe are unfortunately unable to employ the same number of workers simply because they don’t have enough customers. Josh Thomas, co-owner of Brenen’s, said the cafe normally employs almost 30 people and has had to cut the staff down to 12.
“We’ve really cut our hours back,” Thomas said. “We’ve got 12 people working, but each of them only have like six hours this week. They live here in town, and if they wanted to come in and work a shift or two, we let them do that. None of them are required to work.”
Just like Bagel Street, Brenen’s is encouraging call-in orders. Thomas said Brenen’s is no longer allowing customers to sit inside, per the Ohio governor’s order that sit-down service be banned.
Banning sit-down service drastically impacted Brenen’s number of daily customers. Thomas estimates that Brenen’s is now seeing about 20% of its usual customers. However, they’re staying optimistic because they’ve dealt with seasons like this before.
“At Brenen’s, we’re pretty confident that we can weather this storm and figure it out,” Thomas said. “But, for the restaurant industry in general, it’s gonna be bad. I think we’ll see some places in Athens that might just have to hole up and say, ‘We’re done.’”
Thomas said a number of people in Athens have been incredibly charitable as the crisis has worsened, buying gift cards for later use or to give to friends. Customers have even purchased box lunches and asked Brenen’s to just keep the lunches to give to those in need.
Donkey Coffee and Espresso has also had to temporarily let go of a number of employees, dropping from a staff of 17 to five. Employee James Mcree-Moore emphasized that these changes were made because Donkey Coffee is seeing an estimate of only about a third of the regular rate of customers.
“We haven’t fired anyone, and we want them to come back,” Mcree-Moore said. “It’s just, with how much money we’re making, we can’t support that many employees. And, with how slow it is, we don’t need as many people in the shop, so we’ve had to let a bunch of people go. Otherwise, we’ll go under.”
Donkey Coffee has taken steps such as restricting all purchases to carry-out or delivery through iChowDown, a local delivery service. In the shop, Xs have been placed on the floor in order to let people know how far apart to stand in line while waiting to order. New employee policies have been instituted regarding handwashing and sanitizing the register, which is frequently touched by both customers and employees.
Mccree-Moore’s primary concern through all of this has been other local businesses. She is mainly worried about businesses that don’t have a community as supportive as Athens. She hopes people will spend their time and money helping out local businesses.
“Spread wealth around,” Mccree-Moore said. “If you still have a job or enough money to eat out once or twice a week, keep going to different restaurants. Circulate it and leave good tips because the servers are really struggling right now, too.”