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'Atlantic' Examines Georgia's Decision To Reopen Small Businesses


Georgia has started to reopen its economy. Business owners are scared. They're caught between needing to make money and trying to stay safe. Journalist Amanda Mull of The Atlantic talked to small business owners who are doing this very hard calculation. One of them is Derek Canavaggio. He manages a pub called the Globe in Athens, Ga. Amanda and Derek talked to me yesterday, and Derek started by telling me what it was like to shut the pub down.

DEREK CANAVAGGIO: All of the food that we ordered for a big St. Patty's Day, we started giving it to our employees so that they could stock their fridge to weather this storm. We got rid of all of our perishables to our staff and then opened it up to more people in the public and, like, started out word of mouth. And then it was like, OK, we can donate what's left after we do this.

KING: When the governor announced that some businesses in Georgia could reopen, including bars and restaurants, did the Globe decide to not reopen because you don't have any stuff to reopen with, meaning your food is gone, your drinks are gone, or did you decide not to reopen because you're concerned about people's safety? Or is it both?

CANAVAGGIO: Well, safety was the No. 1 thing, for sure - for our guests and for our employees. Like, it's a responsibility of being a business in general is to operate ethically. But from there, yeah, like, now we're looking at, like, we've already taken major hits financially from all of this. And, like, that - in a industry that's run on razor-thin margins, like, that's a lot to try and bounce back from.

KING: Amanda, who interviewed you for her story, ended up titling her article "Georgia's Experiment In Human Sacrifice." When the governor made a decision to reopen businesses like bars, like salons, barbershops, is that what it felt like - like an experiment with human lives?

CANAVAGGIO: Oh, absolutely.

KING: Yeah.

CANAVAGGIO: We're - it feels like we're supposed to be the lab rats with the most unorganized version of a case study there could be. It's been a total folly, and we're the frontline that's expendable is what it feels like.

KING: Amanda, you talked not only to Derek. You talked to many business owners while you were reporting this article. What did they tell you?

AMANDA MULL: Business owners, I think, feel like they're being pulled in two directions with no clear direction in which to go. A lot of them feel like this was done sort of hastily, even if they're in favor of reopening, even if they see a way forward to reopen their business in a way that they consider safe. I think that people on either end of this are stressed out and worried that they're going to put their employees at risk, their co-workers, their customers but also that now that they can reopen, that they have to for financial reasons. There's the appearance of choice in this, but I think when you get down to it, people are not really being given much of a choice at all.

KING: Amanda, the other day I talked to a man named Neil Bradley. He's in leadership at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he said a lot of businesses are afraid that they're going to be sued if they reopen and then an employee or customer gets COVID-19. And he said that's why the chamber and many Republican lawmakers are pushing for a liability shield so that business owners can't get sued. When you were talking to business owners, did you have people tell you, look, I'm afraid of opening up because if someone catches COVID-19 in here, they could turn around and sue me? Is this a legitimate concern?

MULL: Yes. That was mentioned to me by several business owners. It wasn't their first concern. Everybody listed the safety of their employees and their co-workers and the safety of their customers as the most important thing, plus the financial setbacks that they've taken and the difficulty in restarting. But once you get past those concerns - there are some hairstylists in particular I've heard this from in Georgia who are giving their clients release forms...


MULL: ...To try and shield themselves from liability. It's not at all clear whether or not those release forms will be binding, but I think that because you're dealing with a lot of businesses who don't have a great deal of legal resources, who don't have a great deal of money to, you know, consult their attorneys on retainer, people are trying to shield themselves in whatever ways they can if they feel like they do have to go back to work in order to feed their families.

KING: Did you write the title "Georgia's Experiment In Human Sacrifice"?

MULL: Yes.

KING: And I would imagine if you wrote it, that must seem to you what it feels like down there in Georgia.

MULL: Absolutely, yes. I think that working-class Georgians, a group that is largely people of color, are being sacrificed to the state's economy, largely. The view is that the state probably doesn't want people to collect as much unemployment as they're collecting now. So if you allow businesses to reopen, a certain number of them are no longer going to be able to collect that unemployment and will have to go back to work. And it seems like that's what this order is designed to do. And I don't know how you term that in any other way but human sacrifice.

KING: And lastly, any idea of when you will open back up?

CANAVAGGIO: That remains to be seen. Like, we're still - like, we're in a historic building downtown. Like, proper protocol to open safely, as they say - quote-unquote "safely" - now is not feasible with our sit-down dine-in structure. Even if we tried to put in all the protocols that we've been given, like, that cuts our capacity effectively in half. And we can try and supplement that with to-go sales and selling merch and gift cards from the goodwill of our community, but ultimately, the numbers still don't add up. And we want more than anything to get back to some version of normal, but not at the cost of somebody's life. It's not worth it. Like, we have to sleep at night. So I guess the best I can say is sometime soon.

KING: Derek Canavaggio manages the Globe bar in Athens, Ga. And Amanda Mull is a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine. Thank you both so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.

CANAVAGGIO: Thank you.

MULL: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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