The OC Voice is a portion of the OC Report newsletter where local residents may have a platform to talk about local issues they care about. Brittany McGee is an assistant city & state editor and a senior at UNC.
Walking down Franklin Street is a much different experience than it was a year ago. People wearing masks, curbside seating, and a noticeable drop in foot traffic are signs of the strange times we are living in. However, the boarded up businesses that pepper the street are evidence of a more concerning change.
Ms. Mong, Lula’s, Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza, and Waffle House have all closed their doors since the pandemic began, and with students leaving after classes have gone remote, the economic impact COVID-19 is having on downtown Chapel Hill may be creating long-term changes.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order banning dine-in in restaurants on March 17 and issued a stay-at-home order on March 27, which resulted in numerous businesses closing temporarily with hopes to reopen once the worst of the pandemic was over. This decision by Cooper was controversial, but the threat of the virus called for unprecedented actions to flatten the curve in order to save lives.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has dragged on, as well as its effect on businesses. Yelp Inc. released a second quarter report that examined trends among permanently closed businesses since the pandemic and found that despite some industries bouncing back as stay-at-home orders are relaxed, the restaurant industry reflected the highest total business closures, surpassing the retail industry.
For a restaurant-heavy Franklin Street, this data does not help to create optimism for the future. However, the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership aims to help businesses ride out the storm the virus has caused. Experience Downtown Chapel Hill, announced at the end of May, is an initiative by the partnership to help businesses regain financial stability and encourage residents to visit downtown in a safe, socially distanced manner.
It is easy to notice the struggles that small businesses are facing right now, and stories to cover the immediate fallout of the University going to remote classes after numerous clusters were reported on campus are abundant. The question becomes about what happens after a couple of months pass, and people begin to focus their attention elsewhere.
Our goal is to make sure that we are providing the people of Orange County with comprehensive coverage that will continue to focus on stories that are important to our community. The 2020 election is fast approaching, and the results of it will easily become the next big story of the year. But businesses on Franklin Street will not stop feeling the impact of the pandemic because they are no longer the top story.
In April, I spoke with Eddie Williams, the owner of Time-Out, who said his restaurant had become a fixture of Chapel Hill, and he was committed to staying open to serve the community. Williams said his restaurant has been open 24 hours a day for 40 years, and he does not have a lock on his door. He said he hoped the coronavirus would not make them close, and he was optimistic that it wouldn’t.