Asheville retailers finally received approval to reopen Friday after seven weeks of forced closure, but some are choosing to remain closed.
Their biggest fear: exposing themselves and their employees to the coronavirus. Patrons are advised to abide by social distancing, but wearing masks is not required under Buncombe’s order, and few downtown visitors appear to be complying.
Betsey-Rose Weiss, owner of American Folk Art & Framing at 64 Biltmore Ave., is choosing to stay shut. Her fears went back to March 17, the day she temporarily closed. Gallery visitors “were touching things, even though I asked them not to,” she said. “People were trying to hand me cups for me to throw away for them.”
As re-opening neared, she emailed her concerns to Fletcher Tove, emergency preparedness coordinator for Buncombe County Health and Human Services, and Esther Manheimer, Asheville’s mayor. She asked that they mandate a mask to enter retail establishments.
Manheimer threw the dilemma back to proprietors.
“The governor is not going to require people to wear face masks,” she said. “But if you [the business owner] want to require people to wear a face mask, that is your decision.”
Weiss feels that’s impractical.
“Maybe I’m trying to sell something, and someone walks in the door without a mask,” she said. “I’m supposed to stop what I’m doing, run to the front door, and ask them to put on a mask or leave?”
She said she had suggested that city officials establish ‘safety ambassadors’ downtown to hand out masks and hand sanitizer. The city, she said, asked how such helpers would feel safe. Her response: How does anyone feel safe in a crisis in which carriers of the virus may show no symptoms?
“How am I supposed to feel safe having people wander into my space?” Weiss asked. “How am I supposed to welcome them in?”
During the shutdown, Weiss has been residing at her gallery and keeping a watch on how downtown visitors behave.
“There’s like five people walking up the street right next to each other, not wearing masks,” she said Friday.
Tracey Norman-Morgan, the owner of Tracey Morgan Gallery, 188 Coxe Ave., also lives downtown and agrees that visitors aren’t taking precautions.
“About 10 percent of the people I see daily have masks on,” she said. “It’s worrisome.”
Law enforcement officers keep statistics on complaints about people ignoring safety precautions, Manheimer said, and they “have set up a way to turn violators in.”
On Friday, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce hosted a Zoom meeting on social distancing and other guidelines for re-opening. Norman-Morgan attended and said that about half of the business owners who participated said they planned to open this coming week.
But she plans to wait until roughly June 1. She doesn’t want to risk another lockdown in case there’s a second wave of infection.
“If we’re going to have to close down again in a couple of months, then we did the first 50 days for nothing,” she said.
Marthe Le Van, who owns Mora Jewelry at 9 W. Walnut St., echoed that apprehension.
“I just don’t feel like the benchmarks that were originally set by the governor have been met,” Le Van said. “I think that there is not a steady decrease in coronavirus cases, and certainly we haven’t done enough testing.” She plans to wait.
“Our best guess now is that we’ll open when phase two goes into effect,” Le Van said. “What’s two weeks of waiting when health is on the line?”
For Weiss, who’s 65 and has asthma, there’s no easy answer. She’s stalling, “one day at a time.”
“I am literally stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “It’s either sacrificing my business or sacrificing my life.”
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sara Frazier is a graduating senior from Boston University’s College of Communication, who now lives in Leicester. Ilana Fiorenza contributed to this report. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.