Biltmore Ave.

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.”

Biltmore Ave.

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.”

Courtesy of Rachael McIntosh Photography and The Scout Guide AVL

Tracey Morgan Credit: Courtesy of Rachael McIntosh Photography and The Scout Guide AVL

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

9 replies on “The Fear of Re-Opening: Small Business Owners Opt Out”

  1. I understand their fear and think they are being both reasonable and responsible. Better on err on the side of caution. As a customer, I am not comfortable shopping or eating in a venue w/o established and consistently monitored protocols in place

  2. We did not reopen our business either. When we do (which will be well into phase 2 or beyond), it will likely first be by appointment only – which we hate and feels so unwelcoming. But we echo concerns expressed here – how do you deal with people coming in without masks and seemingly uncaring about it all? It’s very scary and frustrating to be put into that position. I’m very disappointed that our state and county decided to proceed with opening.

  3. I am supposed to start working tomorrow at a store that does not require people to wear masks. We were going to but the owner changed her mind because it has become so “controversial” and she doesn’t want any incidents over requiring people to wear one. But it makes me feel less safe because I think the people who aren’t wearing masks are the same ones who aren’t observing social distancing and think that the threat of COVID 19 is overblown. But if I don’t go back to work when asked, I don’t get unemployment (not that mine has come in yet). We need our local officials to stand up for us, to make it safe to return to work.

  4. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself right? Unfortunately, this current situation has forced us to decide … do we hide in fear and not open waiting for more government assistance or do we have the courage to face this thing using the proper precautions. To hope your business will be bailed out by the government is a mistake. It is up to you to decide what works for you and your business. Anyone who tells you that our or any government can control all of these things is wrong. This country was built on self-reliance. We are being tested now as in never before. Open up, but do it carefully. For example, you could have a sign saying in the window saying that you’d appreciate only mask-wearing customers and provide hand sanitizer upon entry. That’s has worked for many business owners I know.

  5. There is a sweet dog bakery in Waynesville. The owner simply looks up and asks anyone without a mask to put one on. She has a supply and hand sanitizer available. It isn’t necessarily difficult to require masks as a business owner. It sounds to me like there are other worries in place. We know nothing and are unlikely to suddenly be able to understand this virus. I would posit that by staying home we are losing our lives and our businesses.

  6. Masks are not to protect the person wearing them as much as they are others.
    It is annoying to wear a mask, gloves and carry hand sanitizer only to have others walk right past your not taking precautions. I just heard that the airlines will not enforce masks they will suggest. I understand the dilemma of a steward arguing with a passenger, but this is for the 2 people on either side and others.
    One person’s personal freedom is not more important than another person,s health. It took years to get smoking bans to protect others and employees in stores. How long will it take for people to care about others in this epidemic.
    My refrigerator is on it’s way out and we went to Lowe’s. About 80% of people were not wearing masks and walked right near us. We went into another store where the employee put on a mask and gloves only after my husband’s comments about me staying a distance from her.
    I was saddened to see those in charge go into a hospital, and a mask making facility, and not wear a mask. What are they thinking? It will be a real setback if the virus returns when we had the opportunity to reduce infections.
    I know someone who died, in Asheville, of the disease and it hit me very hard. I hope that’s not what it takes to wake people up.

  7. A thoughtful article, and reflection by the gallery owner. For the most part, I appreciate what the city and county have done to try and stay ahead of this crisis, but I agree that a much stronger push by local government for masks is appropriate. Without that, compliance will be spotty. Seems an unfair burden to put on individual owners. We advocate for a universal standard for a minimum wage, easing the burden on individual business owners. Why in the world would we not do the same for a clear public health need. The evidence is powerful that simply having most people masked and respecting social distancing alone can make a huge difference in infection rates. I think in time we will regret the laxness over masks.

  8. I think if businesses offered 10% or 15% purchases for customers who wore a mask and used hand sanitizer when they enter the store it would be a great motivator to get people to wear masks, and it would be better for the business compared to being completely shut down and having no sales. Also, Savannah, GA police are using drones to safely request that people in downtown distance, when they find people aren’t doing so.

  9. Wearing a mask and gloves is cautious behavior like keeping the safety on a gun. It’s not a political issue and infuriates me that people will risk my health for their convenience or their beliefs. I’m at risk. I will not go into stores where the staff are not wearing masks. Period. You lose my business. I’ll remember.

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