Tuscaloosa bars and restaurants reopen, find 'new normal'
Signs of life have returned to the Tuscaloosa Strip. Students sitting 6 feet apart sip beers on shaded patios. Incoming freshmen wander campus with masked families. Local businesses are taking advantage of eased restrictions to recoup revenue lost during a season that usually keeps them afloat over the summer.
Pandemic shutdowns disrupted an important financial season for college towns. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said that Alabama and Auburn are "tied together" in this crisis. Both cities lost nearly 25% of their populations when campuses closed. Maddox estimates that Tuscaloosa lost "about a half a billion dollars' worth of economic activity."
Campus hotspots are feeling the direct impact of students' absence. Innisfree Irish Pub manager Nick Snead said that having to close on St. Patrick's Day was detrimental to their bottom line.
"Obviously, that's the Irish holiday with us being an Irish pub. Then, after students get back from spring break until graduation, it's a free for all," Snead said.
Innisfree, which reopened on May 13, was open for curbside and takeout through the state's stay home order. Snead said the community was supportive. They made some money off lunch and dinner crowds, but not enough to compensate for lost alcohol sales. Snead said they were surprised with how lucrative their first week back was, given the circumstances.
Business looks different for the Innisfree now. Before the coronavirus, their patio was often packed. Now, they are operating at 50% capacity. Patrons cannot rearrange chairs and tables to sit with their friends. All cups, plates and menus are disposable.
Bars are not known for having copious personal space. On May 16, Tuscaloosa firefighters and police officers visited 22 establishments that were violating safety protocol. Snead said they have not had many problems enforcing social distancing, but hopes that patrons can get used to the new normal.
"I don’t hate that the fire marshal and TPD are going around and enforcing, checking to make sure we all have masks on and everyone's social distancing. I'm about that. Because if they're holding everyone accountable then it's just gonna end up good for us," Snead said.
Maddox said the city wants to help businesses open safely instead of reprimanding them. He said they will work with those who are reprimanded to get it right on the second try. But he thinks most people are doing a good job so far.
"I know of 22 businesses that were cited out of 5,000 plus in Tuscaloosa…that's such a small percentage, so most people are doing the right thing," Maddox said.
Beyond University Boulevard, restaurants face different challenges. Michael Parrish owns Mr. Bill's Southern Smokehouse in Northport. After closing in March, they tried curbside takeout for four days. Parrish said it was "like digging a hole and throwing more money into the hole."
Parrish said the restaurant would not have been able to reopen without federal funding. He said the application process was simple.
"You just get your list of items they require for documentations, provide to your banker and they submit it into the form the SBA or the treasury provided. As long as you met the requirements and didn’t lack on information that was required it was not very difficult at all," he said.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan covered eight weeks of payroll, allowing them to reopen for curbside for three weeks before the state allowed restaurants to reopen their dining rooms.
Dine-in has generated about as much revenue as curbside did for Mr. Bill's restaurant. Parrish speculates that people are still hesitant to venture out in public. But he was surprised by those who did return.
"The first customers that came in were the older demographic…the ones that would be in the at-risk categories," Parrish said. "At our particular restaurant, we serve a lot of folks like that, so it was encouraging to see that they were not too concerned."
Mr. Bill's is also transitioning to disposable cups, plates and menus. Tables will not have sauce or ketchup bottles that diners could touch. Parrish said their space is big enough to accommodate several socially distanced tables, which are sanitized after every guest.
Parrish is optimistic about an economic rebound. He gages consumers' confidence in the economy by how his friend's car dealership is doing. He tells, "I called a fella I know when this all began and he said 'Michael, we're selling nothing, we don't have any customers…' and I called him again about two weeks ago and he said 'We can't get cars fast enough. We're selling them as fast as we can get them."
He hopes that if people have enough money to buy cars right now, they will be willing to spend money at restaurants too.
Businesses know that being safe now might mean the return of Alabama football. Innisfree Manager Nick Snead said, "Whatever gets us to September and being able to have everyone in here for a football game is our main goal at this point."
But Maddox said Tuscaloosa's reopening is guided by science. He checks hospital data every day to make sure DCH has enough room for coronavirus and other emergency patients. Tuscaloosa must maintain low numbers or Maddox may have to enforce safety restrictions.
"We just need to be vigilant, and we can always take a step back if we see our numbers rise, especially within the DCH health system," he said. "If we ever feel like our hospitals and its capacity is put into question, whether the ICU or just the capacity itself then we will have to become more restrictive. We have no choice."
Maddox said that Tuscaloosa's numbers are relatively low because the city took early precautions to slow the spread. He acknowledges that individual choices are also important to prevent the spread.
"If you can’t do it for your health and you can' t do it because of love for country, do it for Alabama football," he said.
Businesses that did not receive federal funding are eligible for grants as part of the city's Restart Tuscaloosa program. City Council has allocated $1 million for local businesses that were not eligible for PPP loans. Each of Tuscaloosa's seven districts will get at least $50,000.
To qualify, a business must be in the city of Tuscaloosa, but does not have to be a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
As part of Restart Tuscaloosa initiative, another $14 million will go to public safety, neighborhood infrastructure and the experience industry. The plan intends to "work as a catalyst to jumpstart Tuscaloosa’s economy by setting a strong foundation for Tuscaloosa businesses and residents in the wake of this international pandemic."