Georgia’s 2020 football season will be unlike any other. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited Sanford Stadium’s capacity and prohibited on-campus tailgating. It’s still uncertain if the Bulldogs will make it through their schedule or if the season will be cut short before the last regular-season game scheduled for Dec. 5.
With the University of Georgia’s first home football game scheduled for Oct. 3, the way retailers downtown prepare for the season varies.
The Red Zone, a Georgia merchandise store owned by husband and wife duo Scott and Mindy Towe, has been through 17 football seasons since it opened in downtown Athens, but preparing for this one has been difficult. COVID-19 and the uncertainty surrounding the season have put the Towes in a tough spot.
“The current situation is different than anything that we have ever experienced,” Scott Towe said in an email. “We will know a lot more after the first home game.”
The Georgia merchandise store is staffed mostly by University of Georgia students, and some have decided not to work this season, Towe said. This would normally concern him, but due to the pandemic and reduced store capacity, having a smaller number of employees in-store will give customers more room to shop on gameday, he said. The store cut back on spending because of the uncertainty of the future.
When The Red Zone first opened up after being closed from mid-March to mid-May, the store used a curbside pickup model, Towe said. Now, customers are required to wear masks and use the hand sanitizer provided before entering the store. The store also installed plexiglass shields in front of the registers to mitigate the spread of the virus and placed decals on the floor to promote social distancing.
Bear Hug Honey Company, located off of Clayton Street, is newer to the Athens retail scene; it opened in August 2017. CEO Sam Johnson, a UGA alumnus, said the store is limiting the number of customers in-store to 10 and using hand sanitizer stations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Customers must wear masks to shop at Bear Hug Honey. The store’s customers have been understanding of the store’s guidelines, Sam Johnson said.
“We haven't had to tell anybody to put on a mask, everybody already has been wearing one so that's been awesome,” he said.
During previous football seasons, Sam Johnson said Bear Hug Honey hasn’t been as busy as some might imagine. On game days, most people are “meeting friends and tailgating instead of shopping and carrying around bags,” he said. Similarly, Loretta Paluck, owner of Dynamite Clothing, said because Dynamite Clothing is a vintage clothing store, as opposed to a UGA merchandise store, they don’t typically attract “football clientele.” The potential cancelation of UGA’s football season would likely impact restaurants, bars and UGA apparel stores more than his shop, Sam Johnson said.
Dynamite Clothing, which has operated since 2001, also requires masks and encourages shoppers to use hand sanitizer as they enter the store, Paluck said.
“We’re taking [COVID-19] very seriously,” Paluck said. “As a small business owner who has owned a store downtown for almost 20 years, the last thing I want to see is the negligence of others closing down my shop.”
Cloud 9 Smoke and Vape Co. store manager Brandon Johnson said he hopes the football season will bring in more customers to the store. Johnson has been ordering more inventory to prepare for the season, he said.
The store has tape on the floor to promote social distancing and provides masks for customers, Brandon Johnson said. He wants customers to know the shop is open, and the staff is there to help them shop as safely as possible.
Brandon Johnson said football boosts morale and brings a lot of positive energy downtown.
“With football, [there are] a lot more people walking down the street,” Brandon Johnson said, “[There are] more smiling faces.”
As Athens heads into the upcoming football season, retailers are trying to find the balance between keeping customers safe and keeping their businesses afloat. If the university were to cancel the football season, it would slow down the foot traffic downtown and sales would go down “a good percentage,” Brandon Johnson said.
Missing out on the annual G-Day spring game in April and commencement in May hurt Athens businesses “a great deal,” Towe said, and if football season were to be canceled altogether, it would continue to present challenges.
Business owners and customers are heading into a season of uncertainties, for both shopping and football. Towe said he hopes respecting others will be everyone’s “top priority.”