When I called Ryan Garrett, the general manager of Stubb's BBQ, he was homeschooling his 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. The giant ovens at Stubbs were stilled. Citizen Cope's April 25 concert in Stubb's Waller Creek Amphitheater had been indefinitely postponed. And Garrett's 106 employees were out of work, although the full-timers were still drawing paychecks.
"We are keeping hope alive," said Garrett, 47.
When the coronavirus pandemic has finished its business with Austin, "the public is going to be stoked to get back out. Having said that, there will certainly be modifications to operations, with sanitary stations, ensuring the good health of the staff and following CDC and public health guidelines."
The venerable Stubb's, which dates back to 1986 in Austin and is famous for its BBQ sauce, is one of 875 storefront businesses downtown. Of those, 615 were considered "non-essential" under the city's March 25 closure order and required to shut down. They include restaurants, bars, nightclubs, entertainment venues, gyms and personal care services. Seventy-eight percent of those were closed or substantially affected by the shutdown, according to the Downtown Austin Alliance, which determined the number by analyzing digital signals emanating from the stores.
"Some are doing take-out or delivery," said Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA). "But you're not going to have a meal at Eddie V's."
The DAA has produced a heat map that shows businesses that were open before and after the shutdown in the DAA-managed downtown improvement district, roughly bounded by MLK Boulevard to the north, Lavaca Street to the west, Cesar Chavez Street to the south, and I-35 to the east. A DAA chart shows a decline of 89% in Congress Avenue pedestrian traffic through March and early April. Together, the documents are a stunning reminder of the impact of the nation's shutdown.
Downtown Austin Alliance
(Above: The Downtown Austin Alliance maps storefront businesses that were open before the coronavirus-related closures. Click through to the second slide to see those remained after.)
Has Peart ever seen anything like this? He said he witnessed the mid-1980s demise of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, accompanied by 30% unemployment, but "this is both an economic collapse and a fear for everyone's well-being."
Meanwhile Garrett says Stubb's team is hanging on. While he let go of part-time and seasonal workers, he is still paying full-time workers. Stubb's can't do that indefinitely. "No, not indefinitely. There are finite resources. Stubb's is a city block. The expenses that come with that are extreme," he said, including employee health insurance, general liability insurance, utilities, taxes and the costs of a commercial kitchen with large freezers.
Concerts were not canceled, but just postponed. When Stubb's reopens, "the concert industry and the touring acts are going to be aggressive in getting on stage and performing again," said Garrett. He will welcome them back and make room on the calendar.
Up and down Red River, the taverns and nightclubs are dark, but Garrett said the spirit will prevail. "We are a tight-knit community down on Red River when it comes to authenticity and camaraderie. We are a unique entertainment district like nowhere else in the world. We want to reopen. We are aware that precautions need to be taken."
He added, "We are the epicenter of the live music center of the world."
Back at the DAA, Peart is also optimistic, but guarded. Every Monday, he speaks with downtown development executives around the nation, from New York to Seattle. Some are further along in recovery, and they tell Peart that not all mom and pop storefronts are coming back.
Peart will be watching several things: Will the tourists and conventions come back? Will Austin get congressional funding, taxpayer and feepayer support for improvements to I-35, light rail and airport expansions? "We need to keep those projects on track," he said.
And will Congress Avenue's foot traffic return?
"If you're a retail business anywhere downtown, your lifeblood is really that pedestrian traffic. Without that, it will be challenging for many of these [storefront] businesses to continue," says Peart.
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