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Several states are trying to get back in business after shutting most to stop the spread of the - shutting down to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In Alabama, beaches have opened. Retail stores are now allowed to operate at half capacity. NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us to the reopening of a woman's boutique in Orange Beach.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Jo Hood impatiently waited for 5 o'clock, the hour Alabama's stay-at-home order lifted, and he could open the doors at Jane Loves Shoes.
JO HOOD: OK. It's time.
SYDNEY ALLEGRI: I needed it. It's time.
ELLIOTT: This store is named for and owned by Hood's wife, Jane. They have three small storefronts in this outdoor shopping center in Orange Beach, a resort town on the Alabama Gulf Coast. They sell shoes, women's clothing, accessories and gifts. Hood says he wanted to open as soon as it was legal as a ceremonial gesture after being closed for more than a month.
HOOD: You know, I'm not sure what to expect. But any business would be better than none.
ELLIOTT: The question facing hood and thousands of other small businesses around the country is whether people are ready to shop again in a pandemic. Tourists, a key customer base, are returning. You can see it in the parking lots at the public beaches and grocery stores - car tags from Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Michigan and Virginia. April, May and June are typically the busiest months for Jane Loves Shoes, which employs six people. They lost half of their March business and all of April. Hood says it's been frustrating that big-box stores remained open, selling the same goods.
HOOD: I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, I went to Target (laughter). I bought things at Target. But it did seem a little unfair that you could still go buy a swimsuit there or a pair of shoes or an outfit. People are still trying these clothes on and putting them back on the rack.
ELLIOTT: His employees have spent the last month deep cleaning and reorganizing. Sydney Allegri manages the shops.
ALLEGRI: We've just been, you know, cleaning real good, disinfecting, doing everything we can to make it safe.
ELLIOTT: Seating areas have been spread out, each stocked with disposable footies for trying on shoes. Hood says clerks will hand the shoes to customers but won't be touching any feet. Disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers and masks are available. But beyond those safety protocols, the business is going to have to change in a more fundamental way.
ALLEGRI: I guess I won't hug anymore.
ELLIOTT: Allegri and clerk Haleigh Yeates have stories about how close they are with some of their regular customers.
HALEIGH YEATES: Almost family-like, almost - so it's - that's what it is. It's going to be - we can't get close to them. We can't sit down with them and have a conversation with them closely. You got to do it from a distance. You can't - I don't know - it's just going to be different. I'm going to miss our normal.
ELLIOTT: Customers seem to miss it, too, based on the voice mails that have piled up.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOICE MAIL)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm just so anxious for you all to get back open.
ELLIOTT: Nonetheless, business this first day is very slow - only one customer.
ALLEGRI: Hey. How are you?
NANCY SEBASTIAN: I'm good. How are you doing?
ALLEGRI: Good - thank you - ready to be open. Finally, it's our first day. You're our first customer.
SEBASTIAN: I am?
SEBASTIAN: Good - I need shorts.
ALLEGRI: Shorts? Come on.
SEBASTIAN: You see what I'm wearing. I'm wearing CVS clothes.
ELLIOTT: Nancy Sebastian is a local real estate agent and happy to be able to shop again and not at the drugstore.
SEBASTIAN: It feels really, really good. It really does. And I know there's so many mixed emotions with everybody. But we have to get back to work.
ELLIOTT: Health officials warn if social distancing protocols aren't taken seriously, people will get sick. And businesses could suffer later. Jo Hood calls it liberating to be back even under new norms.
HOOD: Small-business commerce is an essential part of our economy. And it was good to know that we were able to practice it again.
ELLIOTT: By Friday, traffic picked up at Jane Loves Shoes but still well below a typical spring weekend. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Ala.
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