Businesses face uneasy future

COUNTY — As Pickens County residents were stocking up on groceries and other essentials early this week, sales were dropping off in many local businesses as shoppers wary of the spread of the coronavirus began trying to avoid crowds.

“I think it’s too early to tell what the economic impact is going to be,” said Cindy Hopkins, president of the Greater Easley Chamber of Commerce, “but we know that it’s probably going to be significant.”

Perhaps hardest hit is the restaurant industry, with the White House urging Americans to avoid eating and drinking establishments.

Even before the guidelines came down from Washington Monday afternoon urging people to avoid groups of more than 10 and to stay away from restaurants and bars, some businesses in Pickens County were moving to limit exposure of their customers.

Coyote Coffee, which has shops in Easley, Pickens and Powdersville, shut down its indoor dining areas and started offering curbside service.

Some were contemplating shutdowns.

Larry Velatis, owner of Silver Bay seafood restaurant in Easley, said he has been losing $1,500 a day in recent days after a big dropoff in business over the weekend.

“If you lose $20,000-$30,000 in a month’s time, it’s hard to recover that,” he said.

He was weighing his options on Monday and planned to make a decision within a few days about how to go forward.

“If it goes the way it’s gone the last couple of days, I might close the dining area and just try carryout and see how it goes,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, I’m going to shut down the restaurant completely.”

That would put some 35-40 employees out of a job.

Other restaurants also were taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“Business is definitely slower,” said Kevin Johnson, manager of OJ’s Diner in Easley. “We’re kind of waiting to see what other restaurants are going to do.”

But Johnson had already cut back the operating hours.

The impact of the admonition for Americans to practice social distancing is having an effect on all kinds of businesses across the county.

March is usually one of the best months of the year at Benson Nissan, as people receive income tax returns and Nissan offers special incentives, said Ashby Crow, general manager of the Easley dealership.

But it doesn’t look promising right now, he said.

“You can kind of feel it in the air a little bit,” he said. “Definitely, we’re still selling cars, that’s for sure. But the traffic is not quite as high as it was.” And customers have been canceling service appointments, he said.

Some merchants were trying to remain optimistic.

“Our contingency is we’re going to stay open no matter what,” said Travis Nalley of Nalley Furniture in Easley and Liberty. “If people decide to stay home, they might want a more comfortable couch to sit on.”

Business has been a little slower, but not necessarily a lot more than happens occasionally, he said. The family-owned company has been in operation for 35 years and doesn’t necessarily follow national trends, he said.

“I hope everybody relaxes and chills out, because I don’t think it’s as big a deal as it’s being made out to be,” he said. “But hey, I could be wrong. I’m not a doctor.”

At Main Street Barber Shop in Easley, owner Jim Messer said he was more concerned about the long-term financial impact to the economy. But he was taking precautions against the virus.

“We’re Lysol-ing the handles on the door knobs and the toilet flush knobs and things like that,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Business hasn’t been too bad, he said, but he added, “Right now there’s not a single person in here.”

Chamber of commerce officials pointed to special programs being offered by the Small Business Administration that might help local businesses stay afloat until the pandemic passes. There’s an economic injury disaster loan program and guidance for businesses and employers as well as other resources on the website.

There was some frustration, though, at being able to access some of the resources the federal government has promised, according to Jason Zacher, executive director of the Upstate Chamber Coalition.

“Right now I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear, because they don’t understand what’s coming next,” he said. “I think the biggest issue is just the unknown.”

The Greater Easley Chamber postponed its annual meeting and awards dinner that had been scheduled for Thursday.

“From our perspective as a chamber, we are obviously taking the necessary precautions and we’re going to be postponing any and all events we were having over the next two to three weeks, just to be mindful of the seriousness of the situation and to keep everybody safe,” Hopkins, the chamber president, said.

Velatis, the Silver Bay owner, said safety would have to be the top priority.

“We have to do what is good for the country,” he said. “We have to contain this virus.”