An emergency public health order that took effect Saturday evening, forcing the closure of numerous retailers in Alabama in an effort to slow transmission of the coronavirus, was a brutal blow to many Decatur businesses.

“Hell, we’ve never been through this before,” said John Seymour, CEO of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce. “Some businesses are pretty day-to-day. We don’t know where we’re going. Some businesses, like groceries and pharmacies, are doing well, but local retailers are not. There are some businesses that just can’t afford to shut down for a long period of time.

“Some businesses won’t be able to bounce back.”

Many businesses in Decatur and elsewhere in Alabama were already struggling because of the March 19 order closing restaurant dining rooms and bars, and banning gatherings of 25 or more people (a number that on Friday dropped to 10) and all gatherings in which people could not consistently stay 6 feet away from each other. Even those businesses not directly affected by the orders dealt with a loss of sales as customers voluntarily avoided retailers for fear of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

The emergency order issued by State Health Officer Scott Harris on Friday, which went into effect Saturday at 5 p.m., required the temporary closure of specified “non-essential” businesses until April 17. The order closes to non-employees four categories of businesses, and includes a detailed list of specific businesses in each category:

• Non-essential retail stores. This includes furniture and home-furnishing stores; clothing, shoe and clothing-accessory stores; jewelry, luggage and leather goods stores; department stores; book, craft and music stores; and sporting goods stores. Gun stores are not affected by the order and can remain open, Harris said.

• Entertainment venues. This includes nightclubs; bowling alleys; arcades; concert venues; theaters, auditoriums and performing arts centers; tourist attractions (including museums and planetariums); racetracks; indoor children's play areas; adult entertainment venues; casinos; bingo halls; and venues operated by social clubs.

• Athletic facilities and activities. This includes fitness centers and commercial gyms; spas and public or commercial swimming pools; yoga, barre and spin facilities; spectator sports; sports that involve interaction with another person closer than 6 feet; activities that require the use of shared sporting apparatus or equipment; and activities on commercial or public playground equipment.

• Non-essential "close-contact" service establishments. This includes barbershops, hair salons, waxing salons, threading salons, nail salons and spas, body-art facilities and tattoo services, tanning salons, massage therapy establishments and massage services.

"Unfortunately, there's no instruction manual on how to do this," Gov. Kay Ivey said Friday at a somber press conference with Harris. "Yes, it will be hard, but I am more confident than ever that we will get through this together."

David Wiley, owner of Wiley’s Trading Post on Sixth Avenue Southeast, said business was already down before he was required to shut his doors Saturday.

“Our January and February were off the charts this year. When this came out two weeks ago, traffic counts have probably been down 80% or so. I don’t think there’s been three times this week when we had more than two different shopping groups in at the same time, and nowhere near 10 customers,” he said.

The timing of Friday’s order was not ideal, he said.

“We wish we had known about three weeks ago, because we got in all of our spring shipment. We have well over $100,000 of new product on the shelves,” Wiley said. “Most of our vendors are going to push out the terms in the outdoor industry, but we have ongoing expenses. We’re fortunate that we don’t have any debt.”

Wiley had just recently created an online presence, and on Friday he was wondering if customers could order online and pick up products at curbside.


ADPH guidance

Late Friday, additional guidance from the ADPH appeared to answer Wiley’s question in the affirmative. The order requires closure of store buildings to customers “but would not preclude delivery or curbside service,” according to the Alabama Department of Public Health  memo, provided social-distancing requirements are followed.

The memo also gave more context on the types of “gatherings” that are prohibited in retail stores. While the emergency order limits such gatherings to 10, Friday night’s memo left some flexibility. 

“In a large, uncrowded grocery store, for example, it is unlikely that any ‘gathering’ is taking place even if more than 10 people are inside,” according to the memo. “On the other hand, a group of 10 people congregating in a confined space over an extended length of time would be more likely to constitute a gathering.”

While department and clothing stores must close, the memo says big-box stores may stay open.

“Remember, if a store is not on the list, it’s not closed. So a ‘big box’ store would not be closed,” provided it complies with social-distancing rules, according to the memo.

Any questions about ambiguities in the order should be directed to local law enforcement, according to the ADPH.

The wiggle room created by the ADPH memo provides no help to Amanda Vachon, owner of Red-X Fitness with locations in Decatur, Hartselle and Madison.

Like Wiley, Vachon said the coronavirus was already taking a toll on business before Friday’s order.

“Typically this is a good time. It’s springtime. People are thinking about weight loss. But we haven’t seen any new memberships. We have seen cancellations. I know people are worried about their income,” she said.

The only revenue stream coming in during the closure is from Red-X's online weight-loss coaching.

She said Red-X has always emphasized cleanliness, and has been obsessive about it since COVID-19 became an issue. Not only was exercise equipment cleaned after every use, “I did the fans, I did the clipboards, I did the pens, every little piece of equipment. We even (used an antiviral cleaner on) the floors.”

She plans to put the time off to good use.

“Our main goal is just to use this time to do a deep, deep cleaning and when we open up, hopefully on the 17th of April, have everything like new,” Vachon said.

Seymour hopes Vachon’s confidence in the emergency order ending April 17 is well-founded.

“Maybe it will be over then. Maybe it will only be for a month or two. Maybe it won’t be so bad. But I’m kind of thinking this will go on for a while,” Seymour said. “We’ve got to get this disease put away.”

Most of Red-X’s 54 employees are part time, supplementing income from other jobs.

“I do have several people who are depending on the income. We’ll do what we can to make sure they’re taken care of,” she said. “Our goal is to keep our employees employed as long as possible, possibly with the help of government loans. I’m working with our accountants to make sure we are doing right by our employees and right by our members.”


'Serious situation'

Vachon said she understood the reasoning behind the closure order.

“I’m trusting the governor to make the decision that’s best for the state,” she said. “The state, I think, is trying to help businesses, but at the same time protect the health of everyone involved. It’s a really serious situation.”

Ivey said she decided against a more onerous shelter-in-place order, as has been adopted in various forms by 21 states, opting instead for the limited retail closures.

“This is not a decision I came to lightly, but you have to consider other factors such as the importance of keeping businesses and companies open and the economy going as much as possible,” she said Friday. “When a business closes down, it’s almost impossible to bring it back to life.”

The plight of employees weighs on Vickie Milliken, area manager at Martin’s Family Clothing on Beltline Road Southwest.

“We’re all just a little shell-shocked. We’re trying to figure out where we go. Most of my people will be filing for unemployment,” she said.

Milliken said business had been steady despite the coronavirus outbreak, and she was remaining open through Saturday’s 5 p.m. deadline. She said she was not surprised by the health order.

“I’m a little disappointed that it’s come to this, but we’ll come back stronger than ever,” she said. “We’ll still be here.”

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