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As the public health emergency surrounding coronavirus evolves on a nearly minute-by-minute basis, small business owners must decide whether to stay open or shut down and potentially lose their livelihoods.
"If we had to shut down, we might last two weeks and that would be it for us, not just business-wise but personally, as well," said Elizabeth St. Clair, who co-owns Charlie's Quik Stop BBQ and Bakery on East Main Street with partner Wes Agee.
The two have plowed their personal savings into the place, and have family and friends who have invested to help them make a go of it. The business has been growing steadily, but after traffic trickled nearly to a stop mid-week, St. Clair and Agee decided to offer pick-up service, use only disposable plates and utensils, ramp up their cleaning routine, and shut down the self-serve tea station in favor of bottles and cans. They shared the news on social media, and did brisk business business during the Friday lunch hour.
"It was 'How are we going survive?'" St. Clair said. "We've only been open 18 months, we employ four people. We have this growing business. What are we going to do to make ourselves viable?"
At Southern Soul Yoga on the North Shore, co-owner Sara Mingus and her business partner Heather Dendy initially planned to cap class sizes, mandate more space between mats and keep the heat to a minimum to try to stay open. But once Hamilton County Schools shut down on Wednesday afternoon, they decided to shut the doors until at least March 30, Mingus said.
"We have one full-time employee, and we're going to keep paying her," Mingus said. 'She can't survive otherwise. She's depending on this job to pay her rent."
The closure will hurt financially, and it may take as long as a year to recover — assuming the shutdown only lasts a couple of weeks, said Mingus, who bought the business with Dendy three years ago.
"We just want to do what is best for our staff and our clients because we don't want to be part of the problem," she said. "We're going to try to start doing online classes and offer them for free as long as we're closed so students can practice."
The pastor of St. Paul's Episcopal Church became the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Hamilton County on Friday. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state increased to 26 on Friday from Thursday's total of 18, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update.
Davidson County now has the most confirmed cases — 10 — followed by Williamson County, which has 9 people with confirmed infections. Knox County got its first confirmed case on Thursday.
Alan Outlaw, the owner of Fast Break on the North Shore, said he and his staff of 12 began a few weeks ago wiping down surfaces diligently and trying to keep some distance between themselves and customers.
"As things unfold, we're trying to be mindful of what's going on and still provide the level of service we always have," he said.
Outlaw bought the store in 2012, but it has been around since 1977. The last few weeks have been busy, and Friday was also a brisk day, but the store can be flexible if people stop wanting to come through the doors, Outlaw said.
"The register is ringing, but we're trying to take precautions as we know what they are," he said. "We want to be here to serve our customers, and they can always call us and I'll deliver to them."
At Armando's on East Brainerd Road, co-owner Keith Miller said customers are picking up more orders to go, but business is still steady. The restaurant, which employs nine people, has been around for 33 years and will weather this storm even if it has to close down for a while, he said.
"We have kicked around some ideas of what we'll do if people don't want to come in," Miller said. "If we have to close, we'll try to take of employees best we can."
For St. Clair and Agee, the little barbecue restaurant on East Main Street is a dream they won't let go of easily. This week was hard, but it left them determined to survive, St. Clair said.
"We left one day when it was slow and went home to pet the dog and watch the news, but then you go into fight mode," she said. "We're going to fight for this business. We're digging our heels in. This is our dream, and we will fight to the end. I just hope this isn't the end."
Contact Mary Fortune at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.