By Nancy E. Oates
In early August, after nearly five months in lockdown, Chapel Hill woke up to visitors.
Students and their families drove into town — remember traffic jams? — and unloaded a semester’s worth of belongings into dorm rooms and off-campus bedrooms. Restaurants along Franklin Street and all the way into Carrboro that had subsisted from months on takeout orders from year-round residents felt the faint stirrings of hope.
The students are back, and they’ve brought their debit cards with them.
But the pandemic has taken an economic toll on downtown businesses. At Chapel Hill’s main downtown intersection, Franklin and Columbia streets, all three corner storefronts sit empty. (A church occupies the fourth corner.)
MidiCi pizzeria, on the southeast corner, closed last year; on the north corners, Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza and Lula’s were casualties of the COVID-19 shutdown order.
What does that mean for a downtown when its most prominent intersection, the “crossroads of Chapel Hill,” looks like it has been left behind?
Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, shares that concern.
And “we’re even more concerned about the health of our remaining businesses in downtown,” he said. “The pandemic is having a devastating impact on our restaurants, bars, hotels, services and performance venues. Nightlight, Local 506, the Cave and the Pit are performance venues with no expectation of an opening date. Our bars, like the Crunkleton, Imbibe, Goodfellows, West End Wine Bar, haven’t been open for almost five months.”
And Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week that Phase 2 restrictions — which, among other things, limits restaurants to 50-percent capacity — will continue for at least another five weeks.
On the Saturday night before classes began, despite the restaurants’ closure, the crossroads of Chapel Hill had some of its old vibrancy back. Students, almost all of them masked, didn’t seem to notice the papered-over windows.
“Students on UNC campus have many options for dining and they might be inclined to hunker down for a while,” pointed out Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.
The students seemed to understand that if they didn’t follow public health measures and a spike in infections ensued, they’d be back at home living with their parents. A motivator, for sure.
Businesses want to keep their customer base healthy. The town is helping out by offering window signs urging “wear, wait, wash” and X stickers for floors to indicate how far apart people should stand. The town is also providing masks that businesses can give to customers who enter without one.
“These are small items to reduce the costs to businesses and make it easier for them,” Gladdek said.
After waiving parking fees during the shutdown order, the town resumed charging for parking during the day in August, but the first hour is free. There is no charge for parking after 6 p.m.
The town also made it safer to socially distance on sidewalks by temporarily converting a lane of vehicle traffic on Franklin Street to pedestrian-only. The extra space enables some restaurants to set up sidewalk seating, important for business given the limitations on the number of customers allowed to dine inside. The town plans to paint some spots for curbside pickup to make it easier for customers who prefer takeout.
“We hope that this makes downtown a place for our local businesses to thrive,” Gladdek said, “and will invite new businesses to fill our vacant spaces.”