Some have closed; some have adapted; others hope to hold out
How much longer can they last?
As North Carolina’s coronavirus shutdown enters its fifth month and with a rocky road at best ahead, that’s what many shuttered businesses and their vendors are considering.
Some say it's unfair that they have to stay closed while other places, such as restaurants, have been allowed to reopen. They contend they can operate as safely as the restaurants and other venues that have been allowed to open.
In the meantime, some are looking for ways to adapt.
‘Man, it has killed us’
At most bars, the pool tables, dartboards, jukeboxes, automated teller machines (ATMs) and similar amenities don’t belong to the bar owners, say those in the industry.
Instead, they belong to a vendor like Fayetteville-based New Vemco Music Co. Vemco installs and maintains these attractions and splits the revenue with the bar owners, said company President Ralph Amick.
Amick’s 42 employees work in four states, but mostly in North Carolina, he said.
But now most are laid off.
"Man, it has killed us," Amick said. "We have almost zero going on right now, and have been since March."
Many of Vemco’s clients are mom-and-pop operations, Amick said, and some have already permanently closed. He estimated 10 in Fayetteville alone have gone out of business.
Amick said he is trying to hold out as long as he can until the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
"As long as we can keep on surviving, we’re just basically having to lay low," he said.
First show in months
On Sunday, the Fayetteville-based Rivermist band played its first in-person show since March 13. It performed at an outdoor event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., because in North Carolina the venues remain closed, said Greg Adair, the band’s founder and manager.
"It definitely felt good," he said.
Rivermist had paying performances booked across the spring and into summer, Adair said, but since March, 29 gigs were canceled.
Except for two online performances, the band had not played publicly before Sunday’s show.
Including Adair, who is the drummer, Rivermist employs five musicians and two crew members.
The members have other incomes, such as from teaching music lessons, Adair said.
In the Myrtle Beach venue on Sunday, the audience had plenty of space for people to socially distance themselves from each other, Adair said. The band had sanitizer on stage and wasn’t near the audience, he said.
To keep his family safe when he returned home on Sunday night, Adair said, he washed his clothes and got a shower.
‘It’s really frustrating’
In Wilmington, Burlington and Fayetteville, bar owners hope Gov. Roy Cooper will let his shutdown order expire as scheduled on Aug. 7.
Cape Fear Wine & Beer in Wilmington was closed from March 17 until July 5, said President Maaike Brandis.
The bar was allowed to reopen because for its first 16 years it was a bottle shop instead of a private club, she said. A bottle shop sells beer and wine and customers can drink it there or take it home.
But a bottle shop is not allowed to sell liquor, and many customers wanted mixed drinks, Brandis said. So Cape Fear Wine & Beer in 2019 converted to what North Carolina alcohol laws call a "private club." State law allows private clubs to sell mixed drinks made with liquor without also operating a restaurant or hotel on site.
The governor’s COVID restrictions allow bottle shops to reopen at reduced capacity and with other safety rules. Brandis and her business partner decided to do that.
"We were fortunate enough to be able to find that option," Brandis said. "Unfortunately a lot of bars — private clubs — are not able to do that because they weren't originally a bottle shop."
These include Smokey’s in Burlington and in Fayetteville, the Louie’s Sports Bar & Pub and Cheers Too! bars.
Their owners are upset that restaurants, which have bars, have been allowed to reopen while they stay closed.
"We are still having to pay rent, we’re still having to pay lights, we’re even still having to pay for our Dumpster pickup," said manager Tricia Brown at Smokey’s. The trash truck has been emptying an empty trash bin, she said, because in the long run it’s cheaper for Smokey’s to keep the trash service instead of cancel and then start a new contract, which would have a significantly higher price.
The owner of Smokey’s has been relying on savings to cover the expenses, Brown said. She has doubts he can continue to do this past December.
Gayle Bedsole and Greg Offenhauser own the Cheers Too! and Louie’s bars in Fayetteville. They said they have received a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) set up to help businesses get through the pandemic, and they are seeking another loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
The couple would rather that Cooper allow them to reopen their bars and bring back their 18 employees.
"It’s really frustrating, especially when you look around and see how the governor has decided to do things — who he has chosen to let open, and who he’s keeping shut down — is totally unfair, in my opinion," Offenhauser said.
In restaurants, customers congregate at the bars, he said.
"Forget social distancing, because that’s pretty much a joke" Offenhauser said.
Bedsole and Offenhauser said they have enough room, including outdoor space, for their customers to visit and maintain social distancing.
‘Do we have a purpose?’
Cooper’s shutdown order closed the Zing Zumm Children’s Museum of Jacksonville less than 18 months after it opened.
The museum provided hands-on educational experiences for young children and their families. In its 13 months, it had 20,000 visitors, said Executive Director Samantha Plocica.
"We were doing really, really well, and were hiring extra staff because we were so busy, having to turn people away," said Plocica. "And then this happened."
The museum obtained loans, she said.
"We will reopen, but we had to let our staff go, besides a couple of key people," Plocica said. Seven of the nine workers were laid off, she said, and some have found other jobs.
In what Plocica described as a "worst-case scenario," Zing Zumm could stay closed for 12-18 months.
She wonders whether the museum will have to significantly alter how it operates when it finally gets permission to reopen.
"If all these really strict things are put in place about how people can interact — the whole point of a children’s museum is for them to interact with each other and their families — and if they can’t do that, then do we have a purpose?," Plocica said.
If that happens, she said, she and the museum’s board of directors would have to come up with a new business plan "and come at it from a different approach."
Paul Woolverton can be reached at email@example.com and 910-261-4710.