Mixed Reactions

business collage

Mixed Reactions

Some Knoxville businesses are eager to open their doors this Friday, but others are taking a more cautious approach.

by jesse fox mayshark • april 28, 2020


On Friday, many businesses across Knoxville that have been closed for a month or more will be able to reopen. But that doesn’t mean all of them will. 

For  restaurants, operating at 50 percent capacity could be a money-losing proposition.

Conversations with business owners Monday suggested that a range of factors, including health, safety and economic concerns, will guide whether and when they decide to open their doors again.

“We feel pretty confident that we’re going to be able to provide a safe environment for people who choose to get out and shop,” said Scott Schimmel, who co-owns the Bliss furniture and gift stores with his wife, Lisa Sorensen.

“We’re excited that there is a plan in place that’s going to give us the opportunity to open up two of our five stores,” Schimmel said.

Their gift and clothing store on Gay Street will open at 11 a.m. Friday along with the Bliss Home location at 7240 Kingston Pike. 

Their other three locations remain in limbo. One is in West Town Mall, which has made no public announcement of its plans since its owner, Simon Property Group, closed all U.S. locations on March 18. The other two are in Nashville and Louisville, Ky., cities that have yet to announce reopening plans.

Matt Gallaher, on the other hand, plans to wait until at least mid-May before thinking about opening his two popular downtown restaurants, Knox Mason and Emilia. 

“Knox County is still not close to meeting the criteria from the CDC,” Gallaher said, referring to guidelines for reopening issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which include 14 days of downward trends in new confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

According to the county Health Department, Knox County added 21 new cases in the past week, about 10 percent of all cases confirmed in the county since the pandemic began.

“On a personal level, I think we’re moving too quickly,” Gallaher said. “This is a tough thing for everybody, but two to three more weeks of lost revenues is worth protecting our staff and protecting our guests.”

Compounding the safety concerns are economic factors. The guidelines issued Monday by the Health Department allow restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity for the first 28 days, with no standing in bar areas and tables spaced 6 feet apart. For small spaces like Gallaher’s, which each seat about 100 people at full capacity, it will be hard to just cover the cost of operations under such restrictions.

“We can’t pay our bills at 50 percent capacity,” Gallaher said.

"If the numbers look crazy and I am putting my staff and people at risk, I’m sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable doing that.”  – Cindylou Douglas, owner of Chop Shop salon

He said he and his business partner have agreed to wait until at least May 15 to see how the numbers of cases look. Another possible factor is whether they receive a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan under the CARES Act, which would help cover costs incurred during the pandemic.

Cindylou Douglas, owner of the Chop Shop hair salon in Happy Holler, received a PPP loan, which has enabled her to keep her employees on payroll while the business has been closed. But like Gallaher, she said she will base her opening on when she feels it’s safe.

“If the numbers look crazy and I am putting my staff and people at risk, I’m sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable doing that,” Douglas said.

Even before Monday’s Health Department announcement, Douglas was tentatively thinking about a May 5 reopening. But she said she will wait and see the status of local coronavirus infections before a final decision.

Under the county guidelines for the first 28 days after May 1, hair salons and barbershops can open this Friday if they maintain at least 6 feet of distance between stations and require staff and clients to wear facemasks. They also can operate by appointment only, and customers will not be allowed to wait inside. Also, all staff and customers will be required to answer questions about potential coronavirus exposure and symptoms. 

Douglas said she had already printed off those questions and when she does open, she will at first allow only two stylists to work at any one time. She will also post signs on her door to discourage drop-ins — which she said will be necessary in the friendly neighborhood.

“You know, people like to stop in and say hi,” she said.

In briefing County Commission on the reopening plan Monday evening, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs acknowledged the range of concerns from business owners.

“The reaction’s been mixed, it depends on who you talk to,” Jacobs said. “Some people are ready to go, and other people are tepid.” 

Even in places that are preparing to open Friday, it will not be a return to business as usual. At Bliss, Schimmel and Sorensen are planning different measures for the two stores.

“Downtown, we’re going to start off with eight customers in the store at a time just to make everyone feel confident in their safety,” Sorensen said. An employee will work the door to limit access, and there will be spaces marked on the sidewalk to keep people 6 feet apart.

At the larger Kingston Pike furniture store, Schimmel said distancing shouldn’t be an issue. They are looking into upholstery disinfectant to keep the showroom pieces clean as customers come through. 

Even with the complications and extra steps, Schimmel said he expects there will be pent-up demand from stir-crazy clients.

“We get phone calls and emails every hour about when we’re going to reopen,” he said.

Some other high-profile downtown businesses had not made up their minds Monday about when to reopen. At Mast General Store, a manager who answered the phone said the local guidelines had been sent to the chain’s leadership team. “We don’t have a game plan at the moment,” she said.

Yassin Terou, proprietor of Yassin’s Falafel House, posted on Facebook that he plans to wait at least a few days past Friday before reopening his locations to dine-in service.

“That way we’ll pass the weekend and we can maybe have more data about what’s happening around us,” Terou wrote. “We can’t wait to see all our customers and community members, but we prefers safety first.”