Coronavirus: Local business owners are feeling the pinch as concerns spread

  • Travis Tomlin, an employee at the Lake City Chick-fil-A, stands outside the business, which has closed off its dining area to customers and gone to drive-through-only service. Other fast food chains are doing the same. (CARL MCKINNEY/Lake City Reporter)
    Travis Tomlin, an employee at the Lake City Chick-fil-A, stands outside the business, which has closed off its dining area to customers and gone to drive-through-only service. Other fast food chains are doing the same. (CARL MCKINNEY/Lake City Reporter)
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The normal flow of day-to-day Lake City life has been disrupted. Limited restaurant service, bar closures and a general slow-down of commercial activity are set to be the new normal for the foreseeable future, as the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic continues to creep closer to home. 

Local businesses were already adapting to the situation when the governor’s office on Tuesday ordered all bars in the state to close for 30 days and asked restaurants to reduce their capacity by half. James Crenshaw, part-owner of Phish Tales, a family-run restaurant off Southwest Main Boulevard, fears more government-mandated shutdowns may be incoming, and worries his business won’t survive. 

“If restaurants are forced to close down for 30 days like the bars and nightclubs, I don’t know how I’d be able to pay my mortgage at home, let alone our business expenses and staff,” Crenshaw said. “Unless somebody tells me to close down, and they have a badge, I’m going to stay open as long as I can.”

Phish Tales employs a staff of about 30. 

“I have to provide for them — these guys work hard,” he said. “I’m losing sleep over that.”

The governor’s order came out on Saint Patrick’s Day. A flurry of customers called to ask if Phish Tales would cancel the event it had planned for the occasion, but the business opted to go on with the celebration, Crenshaw said.

The restaurant set tables six feet apart for the party, as the governor instructed. 

Without knowing what mandates or rules state or federal officials may enact tomorrow or next week, Crenshaw said it’s impossible to know how much inventory to order — or to really plan ahead at all. 

“Doing nothing is not an option, but there’s got to be a happy medium somewhere,” he said. “I don’t know where it is, but thankfully I’m not the guy who has to make that decision.”

Phish Tales has seen some impact to its bottom line as a result of the pandemic, but Crenshaw said it’s nothing the business can’t survive.

Lunch and dinner service has been slower than usual for most of the past week, with the exception of a wedding and birthday party-fueled spike on Friday.

To adapt, the restaurant is trying to make its sanitation practices more visible — keeping cleaning supplies in plain sight, for example.

 Additionally, customers can now ask for curbside takeout service and staff will bring food to their cars, Crenshaw said. 

“We’re doing everything we can to help ease the minds of our customers and still feed them,” Crenshaw said.

Other restaurants are making similar adjustments.  

Under orders from corporate, the McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Jersey Mike’s Subs locations along U.S. Highway 90 have closed off their dining areas to customers and are only offering drive-thru or takeout service. 

The Regal Cinema sign overlooking U.S. 90 is now entirely blank after the company announced all its movie theaters would be closing down during the pandemic. Competitor AMC, which has theaters as close as Jacksonville, did the same. 

The Planet Fitness gym chain is remaining open, but has started offering live-streamed fitness classes as an alternative to in-person sessions, said Dynasty Deloatch, an employee at the U.S. 90 location. 

The decline in tourism brought on by the pandemic is expected to cut deep in Lake City and Columbia County. 

Out-of-county visitors, whether they are stopping here on the way to Disney World or visiting town for events such as the Battle of Olustee Civil War reenactment, injected upwards of $170 million into the local economy last year, according to the Columbia County Tourist Development Council. 

The Columbia County Tourist Development Council has suspended all marketing efforts, according to Executive Director Paula Vann. 

“We want to be sensitive to the situation,” Vann said. 

“This is unprecedented, so we don’t know what to expect,” Vann said. “With a hurricane, you at least have some idea that things are going to get bad and then they’ll get better.”

Lake City Hall will not be holding City Council meetings until at least the end of the month, said City Manager Joe Helfenberger. 

City and county officials are meeting today to coordinate a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helfenberger said. 

“We need to have a unified approach,” Helfenberger said. “Otherwise you’re going to have confusion.” 

Columbia County commissioners have a meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. today, where they are expected to declare a state of emergency.