BY: JILL BURGIN
DIRECTOR, DOWNTOWN FRANKLIN ASSOCIATION
As the weather gets warmer in Middle Tennessee, Downtown Franklin is showing signs of life that come with a typical spring – store doors are propped open, the trees are blooming, and more people are filling the sidewalks and restaurant patios.
The year 2020, however, has been anything but typical.
Since Gov. Bill Lee announced earlier this month that stores and restaurants could reopen after the Covid-19 stay-home order, the guiding principle seems to be … trepidation.
While some shoppers and diners are eager to resume their usual habits, others are not. Personal preference is guiding their actions, but business owners downtown have another factor to consider: their livelihoods.
Since the State of Tennessee hasn’t mandated, but is only recommending certain safety protocols, those who venture downtown will see a wide variety of situations.
While most downtown businesses are open, some are only seeing customers by appointment. Others have stations at the door where shoppers are asked to wear a mask and apply hand sanitizer. At some stores, all employees wear masks while at others, masks are optional. The lack of consistency seems to match the feeling most have about how to move forward in the midst of a pandemic.
For restaurant owners like Andy Marshall, whose company owns Puckett’s and Americana Taphouse downtown and employs several hundred, the safety protocols are simply an amped-up version of what they were previously doing.
”The addition of masks and wearing of gloves for all associates has been different and a bit awkward, but I imagine in Phase II of this we may see the gloves come off, getting away from the false sense of security they provide and go back to frequently washing our hands, which is more effective. Masks will probably remain in use in the near future for our front of the house associates. Sanitizing stations will probably be something that will remain for both the customers and associates to use. I anticipate that counter seating will come back shortly, but maintaining social distancing will be with us a bit longer,” Marshall says.
The Harpeth Hotel, which is the first new hotel located in Franklin’s historic downtown core, had only been open a few months when the pandemic forced the stay-home orders. General Manager Justin Foster says they’ve “been to rock bottom, and are now just slightly above that level.”
“Business is still drastically poor,” Foster says. “But we are seeing glimmers of hope, what we’re calling ‘green shoots’ like you see in springtime.”
Foster says they’ve actually had many guests from Michigan and other states that are still on lockdown, but also people who have booked rooms as a halfway point while picking up kids from college and locals who just want a change of scenery.
He says the hotel was looking forward to a summer that is fully ramped, but it looks like it will just be a quieter version of what they had planned.
“It’s almost like we are reopening again,” Foster says.
Other businesses have laid off most of their staffs, while some are waiting to reopen until they are more sure of how the case counts and public approach will go.
The National Main Street Center recently blogged about this issue, noting, “Businesses need to feel comfortable, protected, and have the tools to adapt business models to better meet the needs of consumers. Consumers need to feel comfortable in their personal safety, financial position (remember 30+ million unemployed), and formulating hybrid shopping habits that combine the good in new and old patterns of consumerism and social engagement.”
Combining the old and new habits is one thing downtown Franklin merchants can agree on. Many merchants we talked to agreed that certain protocols such as touchless features and sanitizing stations will probably continue after the pandemic.
The City of Franklin, the Downtown Franklin Association, and the Visit Franklin Convention and Visitors Bureau are working together to formulate published guidelines businesses can follow so that they feel safer operating, but that also will reassure residents and visitors that they can be safe when visiting our downtown.
The National Main Street Center points out that what makes a town unique can guide its reopening approach:
“While there are certainly general things that we should consider in district management post-reopening, it is prudent to recognize that recovery will be built upon the unique characteristics and assets of a place, coupled with an understanding of consumers, small business owners, and macro-societal conditions.”
The eager return of customers to downtown Franklin has surprised many business owners, but the district’s attractiveness as a walkable historic area has always drawn people who care about their communities.
A successful reopening will require that both store owners and customers communicate that care consistently.