Local businesses hope nicer weather, improving COVID-19 metrics draw people back

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- President Joe Biden addressed a desire felt by many Americans to return to pre-pandemic norms during his hour-plus long State of the Union address, echoing a sentiment shared by a number of small-business owners.

"We have the tools we need. It's time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people. People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices," said Biden.

COVID-19 metrics have greatly improved during the past several weeks after the US saw record-high case counts and hospitalizations earlier this year spurred by the more transmissible Omicron variant.

"They say it takes 30 days to form a habit, and 90 days to make a lifestyle change. And we've all changed our lifestyles for the past two years," said Nick Johnson, a co-owner of Dashi in downtown Durham.

All of Dashi's staff is vaccinated, and the restaurant still requires customers to provide proof of vaccination. Johnson, who said ownership and staff are discussing the future of the vaccination requirement, pointed specifically to decreasing hospitalizations as a sign that people should feel comfortable returning to local businesses.

"The money that's spent in this restaurant - 90% of that goes right back out the door to the community in the form of wages, in the form of buying produce from farmers," Johnson noted.

Taking steps to return in a timely fashion is becoming increasingly important.

"Those of us that have hung on have borrowed huge amounts of money to be able to be standing here talking to you today and still be operating. Money that we'll be paying back when I'm in my 70's. If that's going to have been worth it, we need people to come back out. We need people to realize, 'yeah, it's time. We're going to go back out and we're going to support these businesses because we want our city to still be here as it was,'" said Johnson.

"All small businesses need people now. Many of them are carrying a significant amount of debt, and all that debt is coming due. You have things that helped them get through the last two years, all of that now they have to start paying back. And it's very important if you like what the downtown has, you like that uniqueness of the downtown, the authenticity of downtown, you have to come down and support them," added Nicole J. Thompson, the President and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc.

The warmer weather, allowing businesses to utilize outdoor seating and cater to customers still wary of returning indoors, has been a big help.

"Lots of progress. A lot more people coming out. A lot more people feeling comfortable being out. And especially the weather. We really go as the weather goes with the outdoor seating. And just with the parking in general. People being able to come, move through the city, go through downtown, kind of walk around, kind of sight-see a little bit, and be able to stop in and dine with us," said Juwan Neal, the General Manager of Press Coffee, Crepes and Cocktails.

However, one key clientele group has not returned at full force - office workers. That has limited lunch business for many downtown businesses, who rely on that group to boost sales.

"What I'm hearing from some of the larger employers as I'm talking to them is they're planning to come back. Many of them were planning to come back in September - then we had Delta. Many of them were planning to come back the first of the year - then we had Omicron. Many of them are talking now late-March, early April. All of them are talking some kind of hybrid, and now trying to get a handle on what that means," Thompson said.

"Some days when people do come to the office, we get really big pops. For people that are in the office, we supply breakfast and lunch, which is what people need while they're at work, which is really nice. If you ever come around (noon), you'll see us at our busiest during the week for the people who are here. We are excited for more people to come out and come back to work," added Neal.

While uncertainty remains over a full return-to-work, Neal is optimistic that better days are ahead.

"There was a low point where I was very nervous, but I'm as confident as ever right now," Neal said.

Downtown Durham Inc. created Downtown Durham Feast, a program that incentivizes diners to shop and eat locally by allowing them entry to a raffle with prizes ranging from a gift basket to a gift card to a one-night stay at Unscripted Hotel. If you're interested in learning more about the program, which both Dashi and Press are participating in, click here.
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