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Reopen or not? Main street America, hit hard by the virus, clings to life | US news

JJ Floyd is struggling to see beyond a horizon looming closer by the day.

Her restaurant, JJ’s Down Home Cafe, in the heart of tiny Odessa, Missouri, is clinging to life after coronavirus forced the closure of everything but take away orders. But it can’t go on much longer.

“We’re doing about $300 of business a day, where we were doing 17 or 1800 before,” said Floyd. “It’s hard work to pay my workers when you don’t have the income.”

So far Floyd has kept on her eight employees, although she’s losing money and has almost no income for herself. She is clinging on, in the hope that Missouri’s governor, Mike Parson, will make good on his promise to let restaurants and other businesses open back up when the state’s stay-at-home order expires on 3 May – a shutdown she had doubts about in the first place.

“I don’t know how it’s any different from the flu. Closing down was too far. People are losing their jobs. And the dollar stores, they’re all open. How do we know it’s not spreading in there? If they were going to shut down, they should have closed everything down, otherwise there’s no point,” she said.

Owner JJ Floyd stands outside JJ’s Down Home Cafe in downtown Odessa.

Owner JJ Floyd stands outside JJ’s Down Home Cafe in downtown Odessa. Photograph: Barrett Emke/The Guardian

Floyd doubts she will be able to stay in business if the restrictions continue beyond the start of May. “I don’t want to lose my place. I’ve only been here four years,” she said.

There is plenty of sympathy for Floyd’s plight in Odessa, a town of about 5,300 people named after the port city in Ukraine. But there is also division over the way forward, as some residents clamour for the city to get back to work, and others fear that Parson, backed by Donald Trump, will risk lives by opening up the state again too soon.

That divide is seen across the country in a YouGov poll showing that 60% of Americans oppose the recent spate of protests demanding the closures be lifted, including a majority of Republicans. More than two-thirds of Americans fear that lifting restrictions too soon could result in a surge of Covid-19 infections.

The same disagreement is playing out in Odessa, although in a far less confrontational way, and not necessarily along political lines. Some of the president’s supporters in Odessa want to see the shutdown continue, but critics are among the most vocal in claiming the closures have been unnecessary and damaging.

Tiffany Watkins, who owns the Black Box Coffee shop across the road from Floyd’s restaurant, has also struggled with loss of business, which is now conducted across a table outside her door. She has laid off four part-time workers and now runs the cafe alone. Sales have halved, although that is better than she expected thanks to a campaign to support local businesses.

Watkins said ,she is against Parson’s plan to open up shops again. “I’m on the side of ‘I’d rather be safe than sorry’. If I have to stay operating like this for months, I’ll do my best to stay open. I’d much prefer to be on the side of caution,” she said.

The historic downtown area in Odessa.

The historic downtown area in Odessa. Photograph: Barrett Emke/The Guardian

Is that view widely shared in Odessa? “No. I’ve heard rumblings. I really don’t understand the protesters, because if they open up too soon, everybody’s going to be sick and everybody’s going to stay hurt. It’s not going to make it any better. So I’m totally on board with a slow reopening,” she said. “I can’t believe they opened the beaches in Florida and everybody ran out to them. I can’t understand that mentality.”

Still, Watkins is concerned about the long-term damage if the shutdown continues.

Like many small midwestern cities and towns, Odessa went into decline in recent decades. For years, the heart of the old town was dotted with abandoned stores as shoppers drove to malls and large supermarkets. But recently it has revived ,and is now lined with shops including a bakery, a creamery, a spa, and a clutch of antique stores that bring shoppers from Kansas City.

For many residents, it felt like the city was back. Now they fear all of that is at risk. “I’m nervous if some of the smaller businesses can withstand it. I hope that they can, because we don’t want a ghost town,” said Watkins.

Cynthia Gross was picking up coffee at Watkins’ cafe, wearing a “Save the small town” T-shirt. She thinks the shutdown was an overreaction. “I think it’s been a little extreme. If we protect the vulnerable better, like our nursing homes, I think we can open up,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of questioning if it’s wise to jeopardise our economy and our jobs. It’s a delicate balance between protecting the community and not ruining the economy. There has been very few cases around here.”

Odessa is in Lafayette county, which has had 30 confirmed coronavirus infections and one death. But it is less than an hour’s drive from Kansas City, which has seen at least 103 deaths across its metro area. Missouri had more than 6,100 confirmed Covid-19 infections and more than 235 deaths by Thursday.

Odessa Chiropractic Center owner Tim Kesemann. ‘It was an overreaction to shut everything down.’

Odessa Chiropractic Center owner Tim Kesemann. ‘It was an overreaction to shut everything down.’ Photograph: Barrett Emke/The Guardian

One state representative, Mike Moon, said that was not enough to warrant the shutdown, and introduced a resolution in the legislature calling for the “immediate termination” of the state of emergency in Missouri on the grounds that “no natural or man-made disaster of major proportions has actually occurred”.

Gross, like many people in Odessa, acknowledges it is difficult to know the extent to which the distancing measures have kept the infection rate down. But others agree with Moon, in questioning whether there was ever any real danger at all.

Tim Kesemann, a chiropractor with a practice in the middle of town, is one of those residents who is firmly opposed to Trump on almost every issue. But he thinks the president’s right about opening up businesses again.

“I despise the man. Really, really despise Trump. However, I agree with him that the country needs to be reopened,” said Kesemann. “It was an overreaction to shut everything down. That wasn’t necessary. They’re killing jobs. It should have been more where nursing homes and the like were quarantined.”

Kesemann questions the underlying claims about the danger Covid-19 poses, and how many lives have been lost to coronavirus – or if it’s just a contributory factor in deaths that would have happened anyway from heart disease and other conditions. But even taking the numbers at face value, Kesemann said the shutdown was an overreaction.

Bill Cook: ‘I think it was a good thing. I don’t know if it’s the right time to open up or not.’

Bill Cook: ‘I think it was a good thing. I don’t know if it’s the right time to open up or not.’ Photograph: Barrett Emke/The Guardian

“We’re not at the level of a pandemic. We shut down the entire country for 40,000 deaths? I think that view is 50-50 around here,” he said.

But it’s not shared at the local gun shop – one of the few businesses in town that is not only fully open but has seen sales surge.

“It just went crazy,” said Bill Cook, a salesman. “We’re selling all kinds of guns. You can’t get gunpowder now. People are loading their own bullets.”

Sympathy for Trump is not in short supply at the Lafayette Trading Post, where liberals and their attempts to intrude on gun rights are openly scorned. But Cook is behind the shutdown, and is not in a hurry to see it lifted.

“I think it was a good thing. I don’t know if it’s the right time to open up or not. It’s just tossing a coin,” he said. “They’re saying the peak is yet to come.”

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