The hair stylist afraid to return to the salon.

The fitness center franchise owner who’s willing to open the doors — three weeks from now, if it seems safe after others go first.

They’re just two of the thousands of employees, owners and managers trying to calculate their odds under Gov. Brian Kemp’s controversial order allowing their pandemic-shuttered businesses to reopen on Friday, April 24.

Kemp’s order has been widely questioned by medical experts and has become so politically charged that its critics include President Donald Trump and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. But for those locals, the reality is they are now pressed to find the compromise between livelihoods and lifesaving.

‘It shouldn’t be open’

Marla Whitmer, a stylist of 10 years’ experience who lives in Sandy Springs, will head back to work on Friday at a Salon Lofts location in Roswell. Not because she feels protected against the coronavirus. It’s that the salon is going to resume charging her and the other stylists rent on their spaces.

Does she feel safe? “No. I don’t,” she said. “I think it’s too early.”

Marla Whitmer, a hair stylist. (Special)

For Whitmer, it’s not the first time the financial pressures of the pandemic crisis have forced her to compromise on safety since the salon closed a month ago. She said she recently began quietly making house calls for select clients “because I thought the unemployment would kick in a little bit quicker than it did. So I kind of had no other choice, really.”

“I felt OK,” she said of the risks of going to clients’ homes. “I would pick and choose a few that I would allow” and made sure there weren’t “multiple people in a small room,” she said.

Returning to the salon is a different story, she said, especially as Georgia’s COVID-19 reports continue to rise. She said she wishes the salon would wait two more weeks to reopen.

Many of her clients have no such qualms. “Surprisingly, my phone, the day that Gov. Kemp announced that [reopening order], I was getting calls, texts, emails about scheduling immediately,” Whitmer said with a low laugh.

The clients will find it is not business as usual under new rules from both the salon and individual stylists. “They’re trying the best they can, too,” Whitmer said of the salon.

The doors will be locked to prevent walk-ins, and the waiting room will be closed: “You have to wait in your car, let the stylist know you’re there,” Whitmer said. Her own rules are that she will only take two or three clients per day; children and companions are prohibited; and “everybody has to wear masks before even entering the building.”

Whitmer said she believes the salon is providing masks for stylists, while she also bought two face shields from a friend who was making them.

Some of those precautions follow elaborate rules and guidelines issued by the State Board of Cosmetology and Barbers. They call for various forms of social distancing, disinfecting, screening of customers, and use of protective gear.

Whitmer questioned whether some of the required items will be available in the pandemic market demands. And she said she thinks it’s “a little crazy that they don’t provide certain things if that’s what they want us to do. Because how do you go a month without pay and then have to invest in infrared thermometers and products and all that stuff?”

Whitmer suggested a different way to read the state rules.

“If they’re giving that many guidelines,” she said, “it shouldn’t be open.”

‘Err on the side of people’

As places where people huff and puff in close quarters, gyms and fitness centers are among the businesses that cause special concern in a pandemic involving a respiratory virus that appears to be spread by saliva droplets. They were among the businesses targeted in the early closure orders among local cities, and then by Kemp in the April 3 statewide shutdown order that he is now reversing. But they’re also in Trump’s “phase one” business reopening strategy, reportedly after lobbying by some big-box gym companies.

For fitness center owner Jamie Weeks, Kemp’s move is an opportunity, not for an immediate reopening, but for time to make more informed decisions amid shifting disease-peak models, scant COVID-19 testing and the unpredictable public mood. He says he’s trying to “err on the side of people.”

Jamie Weeks, president and CEO of Honors Holdings. (Special)

“I wanted two or three weeks to see what happens as he opens things,” said Weeks. “I want to be able to go to a restaurant next week and see how it looks and how it feels.”

Weeks is president and CEO of Cobb County-based Honors Holdings, which owns more than 120 Orangetheory Fitness boutiques in the Southeast, the Pacific Northwest, New England and the U.K. They include studios in Brookhaven, Buckhead and Dunwoody.

Weeks said he’s certainly not reopening his Georgia Orangetheory studios on Friday. He’s willing to follow Kemp’s lead later — but only after three weeks of seeing other businesses go first, only in less-populated cities, and only if it seems safe. May 11 would be the earliest opening date for any of his locations in the state, and reopenings elsewhere would similarly lag official decisions.

“I have to respect the governor as much as I respect that waiter or waitress or bartender who doesn’t feel comfortable working,” said Weeks of his attempt to balance the economic and public-safety frameworks. “And so that’s why I’ve elected to kind of wait three weeks and go from there.”

For Honor Holdings and its Orangetheory studios, the shutdowns have bitten with increasing pressure. The company committed to paying its employees fully for the duration of the closures, partly by having executives defer most of their salaries. Even so, on April 10, the company laid off about 20% of its part-time workforce. It continues to pay the remaining employees — more than 600 — at full levels, according to a spokesperson.

Weeks expressed frustration with the low levels of COVID-19 testing, the resulting uncertainty in the pandemic’s spread, and the widely varying takes between liberal and conservative media.

“Everyone’s stupid. No one knows what’s going on,” he said he concluded. “The reality is, we’ve got to have a balance here.”

“There’s no playbook. No one knows what to do,” Weeks continued. “So for me not to have respect for Gov. Kemp and his order, it’s not fair to him because listen, he’s making decisions, these tough decisions. No one’s ever done it. Is he right? Is he wrong? We don’t know. I don’t know if there even is a right or wrong.”

Amid such confusion, Weeks said, he chose a lens to view the information through.

“We made the decision early on, and I made the decision, that I was going to err on the side of people,” said Weeks. That means a focus on “the safety of my staff and members” and thinking of “the member mentality first — if I were a member, how would I want to do this?”

“So when [Kemp] announced this [order], ‘Hey, we’re going to open Friday,’ I said, ‘If I’m a member, what do I think?’ If I’m a member, I’m saying, ‘There’s no way I’m going to a gym on Friday.’”

Bigger chains may see it another way. Weeks said he was not involved in the reported White House lobbying. But, he said, he did join an April 22 conference call among about 20 global owners of fitness centers to share pandemic strategies. “I think the big boxes are going to go first,” with at least one major chain choosing to open right away in Georgia, he said.

Weeks said some of his company’s Orangetheory studios in smaller cities like Valdosta, Macon and Augusta probably could operate Friday under Kemp’s guidelines for social distancing. But Weeks is setting a tentative date of May 11 to start opening those, followed by studios in denser areas later. That allows time to see how other businesses operate and what COVID-19 numbers look like in early May.

“I reserve the right to change that at any time based on what we see,” he added. And in lieu of better testing data, that means experimenting.

“I want more information,” Weeks said, “…and the only way I’m going to get more information is let people open first and let’s see how things go and let’s see the sentiment of everybody, of all of us.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.