Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Owner Larry "Bear" High poses at Bear's Barbershop on Wednesday, April 29, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Larry High tried everything he could. The 72-year-old owner of Bear's Barber Shop applied for a grant to help keep his business alive.

He has not received any help, he said. But he has continued to receive bills.

With each passing week, High worried more about losing the business he owned for more than a half century.

"Something has to give," High said. "They have to give us some money to survive or they have to let us reopen our doors."

High believes there is a safe way to open businesses like his during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. He could limit the number of customers in the shop at a given time. The barbers could wear masks. He could run only a few of the five chairs in his Alton Park shop.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County to allow barbers, salons to reopen next week after COVID-19 shutdown)

After all, restaurants in Chattanooga were allowed to reopen this week and they are following similar rules, he said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Bill Lee announced barbershops, hair salons and nail salons can open in a week as part of his plan to reopen Tennessee's economy. The news came as a relief to some local salon and barbershop owners, whose businesses have been forced closed for more than a month.

"I am very excited," High said after hearing the announcement. "I am very excited."

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Business owners cautious about reopening

Lee allowed restaurants to reopen for dine-in services on Monday and retail stores to reopen starting Wednesday. The governor's strategy has been met with confusion over the past month, with mixed messages coming from state and local leaders about who has jurisdiction to keep businesses closed.

The coronavirus has infected more than 10,000 people in Tennessee and killed at least 188 people in the state.

(READ MORE: These Chattanooga area restaurants are open for dine-in service amid the coronavirus pandemic)

Yet, the governor's announcement was met with caution from some business owners who are concerned about stopping the spread of the virus.

Lee Chang, owner of Judy's Nails and Skin Care, said the ability to reopen is good news, though he does not want to rush it. In his industry, there is no way to avoid being in close proximity with people. Chang said he will be watching to see if there is a spike in cases in Georgia, which reopened many businesses, including salons, last week.

"We're not going to jump into it," he said. "We're going to test the water."

However, the business cannot stay closed indefinitely. Judy's Nails, along with its five employees, has been out of work since March 24. Chang said he believes he lost a lot of customers to nearby North Georgia salons since businesses there opened earlier. People have been calling asking when his salon is going to open again, Chang said. He could not give them a clear answer.

"Many of them are going to go elsewhere to get their services done," Chang said.

Entertainment venues and tattoo shops will remain closed under Lee's most recent executive order. For Comedy Catch and Backstage co-owner Michael Alfano, the situation is further complicated because his business has aspects of being an entertainment venue, bar and restaurant. Less than half of its revenue comes from food.

"As of right now, our plan is to open Backstage on Thursday, May 6, for just food," Alfano said. "We won't have comedians for quite awhile."

(READ MORE: Jobs are waiting, but some Chattanoogans hesitate to return to work during COVID-19 crisis)

Mike Dougher, who programs the music at Songbirds North and South, said he does not know when the venue will reopen but the capacity of both clubs will likely be cut in half — 250 for the South venue and about 75 for the North venue.

"I know I keep rebooking the dates," he said. "Whenever we are ready, we will be ready to go."

Chris Cobb, owner of music venue Exit/In in Nashville, is fine with not opening venues such as his for at least another couple of weeks. He would rather take a conservative approach to reopening, he said.

"My concern is that we haven't done enough testing to relax the mandates that we've all been following for the last month," Cobb said. "I would rather give it another couple of weeks and analyze the data before we open a handful of businesses and risk making it worse. The concern there is that we could prolong the situation."

Jennifer Edge, owner of tattoo studio Main Line Ink, said she would not reopen her business now even if she could. With Tennessee being one of the first states to open, there is too much unknown about whether current measures can keep down the number of coronavirus cases, she said.

"Before venturing out, I think the biggest thing is the safety of everybody," Edge said.

The shop employed six artists and two front-desk workers, she said. When Main Line does reopen, visitors will be required to wear mask sand have their temperatures checked. There will not be walk-in clients, and the number of people allowed in the shop at one time will be limited, she said.

Edge said she is comfortable with reopening Main Line toward the middle or end of May.

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.