As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 and mask mandates are lifted, several businesses are returning to Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.
On Friday, all state restrictions on capacity and social distancing, as well as mask mandates for vaccinated adults, were lifted, though businesses still retain the right to require masks for customers and employees.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, more than half of all adults in Virginia are fully vaccinated and the positivity rate of COVID testing is at 2.8%, the lowest in months.
As life begins to return to some semblance of its pre-pandemic reality, so are Charlottesville businesses beginning to return to their old spaces.
In March 2020, Telegraph Art & Comics owners Kate DeNeveu and David Murray chose to close their flagship shop on the Downtown Mall. The space was just too small to properly social distance, the pair said, and so their uptown location temporarily became their sole operation.
“We said we weren’t going to reopen until we could guarantee the safety of our employees and customers, but I think now people are ready for downtown businesses to reopen,” Murray said. “Just looking at the patios on the mall and the people out and about, I feel like Charlottesville has a nice, hopeful optimism.”
As things continue to improve locally and nationally, Telegraph’s mall location likely will reopen in mid- to late June, with products more tailored for the smaller space.
Instead of offering back issues, the storefront will offer a swath of other tried-and-true comic shop staples and manga — comics of Japanese origin that the pair said have exploded in popularity.
“It’s definitely going to be Telegraph’s greatest hits,” DeNeveu said. “We’re going to start carrying more board games and collectibles but still have a heavy emphasis on kids’ books and graphic novels.”
DeNeveu and Murray said they were grateful to their landlord, who, during the more difficult months last year, allowed them to pay a lower rent rate until sales picked up. Despite further difficulties caused by a nationwide temporary disruption to weekly comic book releases, Murray said they have been lucky to receive a wide amount of support from the Charlottesville community.
“When our doors were fully closed, so many customers reached out to us and bought gift certificates, ordered stuff for friends and family, and we did a lot of local deliveries,” Murray said. “Charlottesville is an incredible town and everyone really helped us out.”
Telegraph will still require customers and employees to wear masks for the time being.
Alakazam Toys is also set to reopen its Downtown Mall location, in late June. Though the store has been closed since mid-April for renovations, its owner, Ellen Joy, said they have been operating out of a temporary space just outside of the main drag on East Main Street.
Joy said the renovations have been something she wanted to do since she purchased the store two years ago, and it has turned out to be a bit more involved than initially anticipated.
“The space hasn’t been touched in a real way since probably the ‘60s, so we pushed the space back, knocked down a wall of castles and pushed the retail space back to expand our shopping area,” she said. “We refinished the original hardwood floors, closed the ceiling and contacted artist Christy Baker to do a mural.”
After reopening, Joy said they will not require fully vaccinated customers to wear masks.
While some businesses shut down out of COVID-prompted necessity, Claibourne Nesmith’s temporary closure and relocation of the Honeycomb salon had been planned for a while.
Unable to find an affordable spot on the Downtown Mall, Nesmith said she had planned to merge her salon with Hairsmith and Co., which is more of a co-op space, with plans to reopen in June 2020. However, after the pandemic hit, Nesmith said she decided to stay put a while longer.
“We were really lucky to kind of fare this with another group and, because of COVID, a ton of different opportunities opened downtown when it came to rentals and commercial property pricing,” Nesmith said. “So I think that we’re kind of in this weird point where we actually are opening up the Honeycomb again, but also taking all the best things that I think we got from COVID and kind of like applying it to the space.”
When the Honeycomb reopens in June in the Glass Building, about a block off the Downtown Mall, Nesmith said they’ll still have fewer, more-spaced-out chairs in the space. Masks will still be required, Nesmith said.
“I think that when the time comes, I’ll require people to either show us their vaccination card or just keep wearing a mask,” Nesmith said. “We’re small enough, appointment only and, to be completely honest, we’re busy enough that if that offends you, then that’s such a red flag with your personality that we’d rather not see you.”
While more businesses are returning to downtown, some never really closed, like Rock Paper Scissors. The stationery and gift shop remained open for the bulk of the pandemic, co-owner Heather Haynie said.
After weathering a difficult year, Haynie said business is starting to pick up again as people return to downtown and as holidays and graduations hit.
“We’re starting to see an uptick in traffic between Mother’s Day weekend and in the past two weekends with the [University of Virginia] graduations, and I think that will continue over the Memorial Day weekend,” Haynie said. “Traffic is starting to get busier, which is really refreshing to see, but I think that we still have the challenge of a lot of businesses not being back to work, so weekends with tourist traffic are still our busier days.”
Like many other businesses, Rock Paper Scissors transitioned some of its sales to online, but Haynie said that small businesses don’t do as well with those types of sales as they do from foot traffic.
Haynie said they have been apprehensive about lifting mask requirements inside the store, which is something customers have been understanding about and have generally respected.
“I think everybody wants to be to the point where they don’t have to wear them anymore. I would love to be there, but we have several reasons for not being quite ready and I think part of that is just time,” she said.