On March 15, Shooters II Saloon opened for a last hurrah.
The coronavirus pandemic was spreading quickly, and Shooters owner Kim Cates expected Gov. Roy Cooper to order restaurants and bars to close. She decided to open again before the hammer fell, since people had called to ask if she would.
The doors opened at 10 p.m. that night, a Sunday. The staff set out hand sanitizer and put up signs telling customers to wash their hands. Cates stood at the door to keep out people who might have the virus. An hour passed, then another. Nobody showed up.
Just as Cates started to close, six people came to the door. She let them in, and they danced and drank a couple beers. They left after less than an hour. The bar, where in happier times innumerable Duke students have come to celebrate or blow off steam, closed its doors.
“My heart just fell,” Cates said. “Like, ‘this is it.’”
On March 17, Cooper issued the order for bars and restaurants to close. A stay-at-home order closing all non-essential businesses followed the next week.
The orders were intended to save lives by slowing the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, they left Durham business owners like Cates struggling to pay the bills and their employees in this new world of closed doors and social distancing.
“I’m looking into doing the small business loan, possibly,” Cates said, referring to the Small Business Administration loans included in the most recent coronavirus relief bill. “If I can’t do that, I’m not sure how long I will be able to keep doing it.”
During the shutdown, Cates is paying her full-time employees to work on projects like redoing the camera system and working on the lights. Her part-time staff are no longer working, but she said they will have a job when things are back to normal and Shooters reopens.
She is grateful that she does not have to pay rent.
“I own my building. That is one thing I have that is a positive,” she said. “If you don’t own your own building, that’s when it’s tough.”
At Devine’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, another frequent late-night haunt for Duke students, take-out food orders are bringing in a little bit of money.
“At least if I can pay a couple of people, that’s a good thing, and maybe some small bills for the restaurant,” said owner Gene Devine, Trinity ‘75.
March is usually the most prosperous month for Devine’s, as throngs of people descend on the bar scene during March Madness and other spring sporting events. The coronavirus, however, paid no heed to organized sports. Even if restaurants were open, there would be no NCAA tournament, no fans packed into bars, no postgame revelry or drowning of sorrows.
Now, with only take-out orders coming in, Devine has worked out a deal with his landlord to pay half his usual rent. For now, the arrangement covers the next two or three months. Devine has been able to continue to pay his five full-time employees, but they are now working part time, and another dozen or so part-time workers are no longer working.
All of his staff is eligible for unemployment benefits under the economic relief bill, he said.
“I’m telling everybody, file for unemployment, you’ll receive unemployment… and then hopefully when we open back up we can get you back,” he said.
Like Cates, Devine is hoping for money from the SBA. Loans offered through the Paycheck Protection Program are forgivable if they are used to pay employees, so Devine plans to hire some of his staff back early if he receives one. He would then be able to expand his takeout operation to work with services like UberEats—and get the bar ready to open again when the crisis passes.
Community support and silver linings
On the other side of East Campus, Ninth Street mainstay Elmo’s Diner has not yet begun taking take-out orders.
“We didn’t feel comfortable going directly into take-out without consolidating our menu and hours of operation,” co-owner Cammie Brantley wrote in an email. “We also feel that it would be best for the safety of our customers and staff to wait to reopen until we are on the downside of the curve.”
Brantley wrote in another email that the diner would begin take-out operations with a reduced menu and hours of operation in late April or the beginning of May.
Elmo’s is helping all its employees in one way or another, she wrote. The restaurant distributed extra food to its staff, as well as to homeless shelters and a youth recreation center, and they are paying a “modest stipend” to some staff members.
Some of the staff have started to get unemployment checks, Brantley added, and others have found work at grocery stores, which are hiring during the crisis. If they can get a Paycheck Protection Program loan, the diner’s owners will use the money to put those who are not currently working back on their payroll.
Elmo’s has also seen an outpouring of support from the local community. A GoFundMe page had raised more than $12,000 as of April 8.
“Our customers are the BEST around,” Brantley wrote. “Community support has been awesome. The GoFundMe topped its goal and we have loved and needed all the warm messages sent by our community. It has truly been the silver lining in this horrible situation.”
The money didn’t come out to much after it was split among around 75 employees, Brantley wrote, but it still helped.
At Devine’s, regular customers have been supporting the restaurant by getting take-out, and Devine said he might consider crowdfunding. Cates, on the other hand, won’t take donations.
“Everybody is going through the same thing, and I don’t feel like it is appropriate for anybody to give anything to anybody, because everybody is going to need it at some point,” she said. “And I would feel guilty knowing that somebody gave me something and they are in need.”
Life under lockdown
Durham’s business owners are not only facing the challenge of keeping the lights on while the economy slowly grinds to a halt. Like the rest of the world, they are navigating a life reshaped by the virus.
Devine can tell from the outdoor seating area of his restaurant that there are fewer cars on the streets. People have taken to the sidewalks to run or walk their dogs, though they keep a safe distance when they do.
For Cates, the emotional toll has been the worst part of the crisis. She is worried that her mother, who lives in a Durham living facility and has COPD and diabetes, might be exposed to the virus.
With her business closed, she also is separated from the Duke students and siblings and parents who frequent Shooters in simpler times.
“I’m very social, I’m a hugger, and not being around people is like the very hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “I am having a hard time, but I don’t have a choice, because I want to be alive when this is over with.”
She urged young people to practice social distancing to protect others and help end the pandemic, saying anybody could do it if she could.
“I want this to be over with, and if everybody does this we can get back to normal sooner rather than later,” Cates said. “And I will be so glad when I can see everybody come through my front doors again.”
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Matthew Griffin was editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 116th volume.