August 4, 2021

Downtown Durham businesses hope online sales, outdoor dining will help them survive pandemic ::

— In addition to stunting the national and global economies, the coronavirus pandemic has changed how some places do business.

The Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill issued a study Tuesday outlining seven ways the pandemic is reshaping institutions, including people now shop online more and get things delivered rather than going out to stores.

Jeddah’s Tea, on Market Street in downtown Durham, never had a website before the pandemic. Now, the shop sells only online for delivery or curbside pick-up.

“We’re probably doing about 35 percent of what we were doing when we were open,” owner Morgan Siegel said. “It was extremely stressful. I would have nights where I was dry heaving and stressing out about how are we going to make this work.”

Siegel said she can’t afford to open for service inside the shop because downtown Durham remains fairly desolate on many days.

“The foot traffic downtown is not where we need it to be,” she said. “I don’t, to be honest, want to risk being able to put food on my kids’ table. If I open up and we lose any chunk of money, that’s a detriment to everybody personally.”

Local hotels are at about 40 percent occupancy, about half of the levels seen a year ago, said Susan Amey, president and chief executive of Discover Durham, which has shifted from trying to attract visitors to town to trying to help local businesses survive.

“We are starting to see some people out, but it’s certainly not the bustling place it used to be,” Amey said.

Elizabeth Turnbull, who owns Copa restaurant on West Main Street, said she has newfound optimism for downtown Durham’s future because of the “Streetery.”

Starting last weekend and running every weekend through mid-December, the city is closing some streets downtown to allow for outdoor music and dining.

“We had a record weekend of both income and number of guests served,” Turnbull said, noting that the restaurant has operated at 25 to 30 percent of normal levels during the pandemic.

“We were really proud of the guests who came out,” she said. “Everybody that we took care of was wearing their masks. They were being very careful to wait 6 feet apart. Everybody just did their best to make it fun and safe for everyone.”

Still, downtown business owners said the Streetery alone won’t be enough to save many of them.

“The business owners that I know and are in communication with are doing everything that we know to do to keep our businesses, to keep our people employed, to figure out how to draw more people,” Turnbull said. “Downtown has lost a lot of t he things that drew people to us.”

“I am very worried for the future of small business downtown in any city but in Durham in particular,” Siegel said. “We do have so many small family-owned businesses that are taking massive hits right now.”

Amey said she remains optimistic that the area will rebound as the pandemic eases.

“It will be different, and I do think it’ll bounce back,” she said. “I am starting to see the signs of life.”

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