DOWNTOWN SHOPS: Customers, retailers excited about reopening

By Jessica Barnett (The News Courier) – For the first time in nearly a month, retail stores on The Square in Athens on Friday opened their doors to customers.

Many small business owners were as excited and anxious as their clientele to have the option of indoor shopping again. Gov. Kay Ivey’s stay-at-home order, issued April 4, had limited them to delivery, online sales, or a total shutdown until the order’s expiration Thursday.

Regina Crawford, of Crawford’s Gifts on the southeast corner of The Square, said most folks were happy at the chance to finally be out and about.

“Most of our customers are excited to at least be out and able to look,” she said, adding she was also ready “to get back to some kind of normalcy.”

Under the new safer-at-home order — Ivey’s first step towards a full reopening of Alabama’s economy — retailers are allowed to open their doors to customers as long as they follow certain guidelines, such as making sure everyone is 6 feet apart and limiting the number of people inside at any given time.

Crawford said they’ve distanced their registers to promote social distancing and are regularly cleaning and sanitizing. The store is running a 20% off storewide promotion today and Monday to celebrate the reopening.

Crawford noted many customers, despite being eager to visit, are also anxious about being out in public again. Most have made sure to wear face masks while they shop, something Ivey and the state health department have strongly encouraged.

Tere Richardson, executive director of Athens Main Street, said sixteen downtown retailers reopened Friday. In addition to Crawford’s Gifts, the list includes Bliss Boutique, Pimentos, Hendricks-Patton, Toodlebugs, Frame Gallery, Bird’s Nest, Riff Raff, Hyatt & Sims, Willow Cottage, Snapdragon Kids, Epiphany Boutique, Tammy’s Fine Jewelry, Bennett’s Clothing, Garnet’s and Trinity’s.

U.G. White’s, which was partially renovated during the shutdown, could reopen today or Monday, Richardson said, while CEI Books will reopen Monday and Belles & Beaus will reopen Tuesday.

“Not all of our businesses will survive, which breaks my heart,” Richardson said. “We are all in this together, and I work every day to provide any help or information I feel can make a difference to their success.”

Athens Main Street has helped downtown businesses with state and local updates, as well as working collaboratively with state and national organizations to make sure they had access to the best practices for reducing the spread of COVID-19 while keeping their businesses afloat.

“We promote not only the business but what businesses are doing to best ensure a clean, safe and comfortable environment and experience,” she said.

Many shops continue to offer online shopping and curbside pickup. Some have changed their floor plans to make sure there is plenty of space for social distancing, and some have begun offering special appointments outside normal business hours and contactless payment options.

“Our downtown retail businesses are excited to be open again, to see their customers and to begin bringing back their most important asset, their staff,” Richardson said. “The shops are working hard to enhance their customers’ comfort level.”

She thanked Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks for allowing designated parking around The Square to continue. This allows customers of a business who are engaging in the curbside pickup to make sure they are parked near the business entrance. Restaurants on The Square are also working to expand their outdoor seating options so shoppers can feel more comfortable picking up lunch or dinner during their visit downtown.