Limited operations began this week for many area businesses
By Michael Hall and Grayson Williams
The Hartwell Sun
Julie Thomas was back cutting hair for the first time in more than a month last Friday at Beards and Shears, her Hartwell barbershop, only this time she wore a mask over her nose and mouth.
Her business is operating differently now as she adapts to the requirements of reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic that forced her shop closed in the first place. Other than the mask, what was previously a walk-in barbershop, Beards and Shears is now by appointment only. And she has plenty of appointments to keep her busy, Thomas said.
“I have some people coming down from North Carolina, three, four hours away, where they still can’t get a haircut,” Thomas said.
She also had Friday, Day 1, and Saturday, Day 2, booked solid for nearly 12 hours each. Sunday and Monday, previously days she was closed, were filling up fast.
Thomas and other salon and barbershop owners, as well as restaurant owners, gym owners, tattoo artists and bowling alleys, among others, got the go-ahead from Gov. Brian Kemp on April 20 to begin reopening as of April 24. The decision made national headlines and prompted criticism of Kemp for allowing business to open too early and while COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to increase in the state.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 infections grew to nine in Hart County and the statewide deathtoll surpassed 1,000 as some businesses began opening back up this week.
Kemp announced Tuesday, April 28, that the state recorded its largest single day for testing since the novel coronavirus pandemic began with nearly 13,000 tests reported to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
As of Tuesday, more than 140,000 tests have been administered statewide and more than 24,000 people in the state are confirmed to have tested positive for the virus. The death toll reached 1,032 Tuesday and more than 4,800 people have been hospitalized due to the virus, including 1,097 patients who have been administered to intensive care units (ICU).
Hart County has seen just nine cases of COVID-19 since the health department began reporting confirmed cases, which have resulted in zero reported deaths and zero hospitalizations locally, according to the DPH.
Nearby counties have been hit much harder. In Habersham County, seven people have died from the virus and an additional 46 have been hospitalized while the total number of infections reached 207 as of Tuesday. Stephens County hit 73 confirmed cases Tuesday, with one death from the virus and 21 hospitalizations. Four Franklin County residents have been hospitalized due to the virus and the county now has 17 confirmed cases. Infections in Elbert County reached 19 as of Tuesday with one hospitalization.
A chart of daily new confirmed cases over time on the health department’s website shows the number of newly confirmed cases dropping daily statewide since April 20, but the health department notes that confirmed cases over the last 14 days may not be accounted for due to illnesses yet to be reported or test results may still be pending.
Kemp and the state’s cosmetology and barber association issued guidance on how to operate while maintaining safe and sanitary practices as businesses begin to reopen. Those guidelines were enough for Thomas to take the chance and try to start recouping some of the income she lost during the statewide shutdown.
“I’m not nervous,” Thomas said. “If I follow the guidelines for sanitation, I feel comfortable with it.”
Clint Bridges was comfortable with it too, and about to be a lot more comfortable with a freshly cut head of hair.
“It was getting bad,” Bridges said, noting he is a frequent customer of Thomas’. “I usually have had three or four haircuts in the time since my last.”
On Depot Street, Blush Hair Studio was busy as well, with a complete list of rules posted on its front door and stylists wearing masks. It was a similar scene at salons and barbershops across the county and the state.
Restaurants could open to dine-in customers on Monday, April 27, an option Hannah Whitsel at Bobbers and Beer Family Steakhouse took Kemp up on, at least for now.
“We’re going to try this for at least a week and see how it goes,” Whitsel said, speaking from behind her mask as a couple of diners sat far from each other and ate at lunch on Monday.
She said the guidelines provided for restaurants are not difficult to follow. Many of them, in fact, the restaurant follows as general rules of cleanliness regardless of a pandemic.
“We’re actually doing more than we have to,” Whitsel said.
But getting enough business to keep the doors open is not something she is anticipating will happen overnight. Everyone is hurting financially from the stay-at-home order, she said, which means less money in people’s pockets to spend at restaurants, even if dine-in service is available.
She said she is fortunate to be in a position in which she can close temporarily and still reopen. Other businesses, restaurants included, may not make it out on the other side, Whitsel said.
Her restaurant has been open for seven years, three in its current location at 1541 Anderson Highway in Hartwell. During that time she said she’s built a steady clientele of loyal customers who have been supportive and helpful through the shutdown. She feels worst for her staff who have not had an opportunity to make money in weeks.
“My staff is fly family,” Whitsel said. “I feel for them.”
Complicating matters is the difficulty she has encountered stocking her kitchen. As meat processors shut facilities due to COVID-19 outbreaks, beef, chicken, pork and seafood have all become more difficult to find and more expensive. The same goes for pretty much everything in the kitchen as food service companies have begun limiting deliveries and the supply chain nationwide has been interrupted.
Looking at all the factors involved, Whitsel said she hopes business will be strong enough to keep her doors open, but is hesitant to let herself feel fully optimistic until everything is open without restrictions again.
“I hope we stay open, but realistically we may close again temporarily,” Whitsel said.
Other restaurants, like Backstreet BBQ, have chosen to keep the dining room closed for now.
“We are fortunate enough to have a drive thru and will continue to be drive thru and curbside only,” the restaurant’s Facebook page said. “We will re-evaluate in a few weeks. Thank you all for understanding.”
That drive-thru has been useful during the stay-at-home order for Backstreet. Facebook posts indicate several weekends in which the restaurant has sold out selling only through the drive-thru.
Churches will have the option to meet as a congregation this Sunday under the first phase of reopening the economy, but only if they can follow social distancing standards. For some churches, like First Baptist Church Hartwell, online services will continue for the time being.
“We understand everyone is growing anxious to meet together again and the leadership continues to think of the health and safety of ALL of our church members,” a Facebook from the church read on April 21. “Because of this, we will continue with our plan to have online church services through April 30th. After that, the deacons and staff will assess the logistics required to begin meeting together again.”
Other churches are going even longer with virtual services. Sardis Baptist plans tentatively not to meet in person until May 10, Mother’s Day.
The North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church advised its churches following Kemp’s April 20 announcement of phased reopening to refrain from meeting in person through May 13.
Cornerstone Baptist plans to meet in person starting May 17 with two services spaced apart enough to allow for a thorough cleaning between them.
Contact your church for specific information on services.
To get a free screening,
Georgians with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 can download the Augusta University ExpressCare app at augustahealth.org, or call 706-721-1852.
The Internal Revenue Service has extended the deadline to May 5 for Social Security and Veterans Affairs recipients to register their dependent children to qualify for an additional $500 per child, in addition to their Economic Impact Payment of $1,200. For more information, visit the agency’s website at