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‘No other choice’ - Georgia businesses cautiously reopen amid coronavirus worry. Here's one owner's story
American Barber Shop owner Choman Ali decided to open his business's six locations in the metro Atlanta area, including two in Forsyth County, on Friday, April 24, 2020, after Gov. Brian Kemp announced earlier in the week that barber shops and other "non-essential" businesses could reopen. (GoogleMaps)

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Choman Ali doesn’t know if he made the right decision.

The owner of American Barber Shop announced on social media that his six locations in the metro Atlanta area, including both in Forsyth County, will reopen April 24, after Gov. Brian Kemp gave the OK to several “non-essential” businesses earlier in the week. 

From a business standpoint, it was a welcome development. Since shuttering his barber shops on March 20, Ali has had to continue to pay for rent and utilities without another source of income. His business or its employees haven’t qualified for any government relief either, he said. 

But Ali is also concerned about the health ramifications of Kemp’s decision, as well as the potential backlash for his own business. When American Barber Shop announced it would reopen, followers bombarded the company’s social media accounts with criticism that it was opening too soon.

“We don’t know what to do really,” Ali said.

Ali isn’t alone. The controversy surrounding Kemp’s decision thrust business owners into a precarious position, having to weigh economic considerations with logistical realities and personal convictions.

Starting today, barber shops, bowling alleys, nail salons, gyms and other “non-essential” businesses can reopen as long as they practice minimum basic operations, social distancing and follow sanitation guidelines. Limited in-restaurant dining is scheduled to resume on Monday. 

Kemp’s abrupt decision prompted criticism from political opponents and health officials, and even President Donald Trump. They said Kemp went beyond recommendations in a three-phase plan unveiled by the White House last week for states to safely reopen their economies. The plan advises 14 days of declining new infections and robust testing of health care workers before proceeding to a phased opening of the economy.

As of Thursday night, Georgia had over 22,000 cases and nearly 900 deaths from the virus, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Kemp also considered that 1.1 million Georgians have filed for unemployment in the past month, more than the combined total for the previous three years, the state Department of Labor said on Thursday.

“I think this is the right approach at the right time,” Kemp said during a press briefing on Tuesday. “We’re not just throwing the keys back to these businesses.”

For American Barber Shop, Ali said he had “no other choice” but to reopen. His business’s employees are independent contractors, so it didn’t qualify for the Payment Protection Program, he said. Meanwhile, Ali had to maintain rent and utility payments.

“We don’t have other source of income,” Ali said, “like selling online or delivering things or having [curbside pickup]. This is obviously a very personal service we provide. For us to shut down, it was very hard.”

When Kemp announced Monday that barber shops could reopen, Ali reached out to his staff to see who wanted to come back to work. Some were ready. Others didn’t feel comfortable.

“I’m not pushing anybody to come back,” Ali said.

Ali then devised a plan for American Barber Shop to open, aided by guidelines provided by the Georgia State Board of Cosmetology and Barbers.

Ali is limiting staff at all American Barber Shop locations and removed seating in the waiting area. Customers can only get a haircut by appointment, and they have to wait in their car until their designated time. 

American Barber Shop staff will wear masks and gloves, and their tools will be sanitized regularly, Ali said. 

Ali also hurried to get thermometers to screen clients and staff before entering the building, per state guidelines.

Ali was grateful for the wave of clients that booked appointments after American Barber Shop’s announcement. He was also mindful of the criticism the company received for the decision.

“From the business perspective, [we] like getting clients; yes, I’m happy,” Ali said. “But our messages [on] social media has been bombarded: ‘How you guys opening?’ ‘What’s your protocol?’ ‘Why you open?’ ‘This is too soon.’

He added, “Hopefully this is gonna be over soon, and we can all get back to our normal life and business plans and daily routines.”