A tale of two Bristols: How two states' reopening plans have one town caught in the middle

As states begin the process of reopening, the town of Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee-Virginia border, must navigate two sets of rules, causing frustration for some business owners. CNN's Natasha Chen reports.

Posted: May 11, 2020 4:21 PM
Updated: May 11, 2020 4:21 PM

In the town of Bristol that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee line, Joe Deel can see people dining in restaurants 50 yards away in Tennessee. But he can't accept customers in his Virginia restaurant yet.

"If there's a virus over there, it's over here," Deel said.

Though split across two states, Bristol is one community, with one chamber of commerce. Now, due to different schedules for reopening Tennessee and Virginia after coronavirus shutdowns, neighboring businesses are experiencing different economies.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, began reopening restaurants on April 27 at reduced capacity. That order was soon followed by another to allow the reopening of retail outlets, gyms, salons and barbershops.

But Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has not reopened any businesses yet. Northam announced on Saturday that phase one of reopening will begin no sooner than May 15, when restaurants and bars may begin opening their outdoor dining areas at 50 percent capacity.

Same street, different rules

Restaurants along State Street in Bristol had many experiences in common in the beginning. Owners told CNN about a rough start when they all transitioned to curbside pickup or delivery at about the same time.

Travis Penn, who opened Delta Blues BBQ in Tennessee last September, said his sales initially dropped 70% during the transition.

Deel, whose Burger Bar is in Virginia, said he went from $1,500 days to $90 days.

Penn and Deal are friends, and they chatted on Sunday about the high price of certain meats during this time.

But that's where the similarities end right now.

If Virginia's first phase begins as anticipated on May 15, restaurants on one side of State Street, like Delta Blues, will have had an 18-day head start on dining service, over restaurants like Burger Bar on the other side of the street.

In fact, Penn said this past weekend, Delta Blues saw some of its best business since opening day in September. He said people seem to really want to go out and have a meal.

"I really would like to see the other side open. I know there are some businesses that are competitors, but it's good for everybody. I believe if we're all open, I want to see everybody do well," Penn said.

Some businesses want regional reopenings

Deel said he wished Gov. Northam would pay Bristol a visit.

"Maybe the restrictions should be more about county, area code, region and maybe not statewide," he said. "I did hear him in one of his earlier comments say he was going to take care of the state of Virginia from Richmond to Roanoke. And I would like for him to know that the state comes for another 150 miles past that."

Northern Virginia localities including the city of Alexandria and the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, sent a letter to Northam on Sunday also urging regional targets for reopening, but for a very different reason.

The leaders said their part of the state, which represents a third of the Commonwealth, is not ready.

The officials wrote, "As you know, together our jurisdictions represent half of the Commonwealth's Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths." They continued, "the transition to Phase 1 in Northern Virginia should occur when our region has achieved the threshold metrics."

According to Beth Rhineheart, the president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, the Covid-19 case numbers in Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee are relatively low in the area.

Rhineheart said the chamber has advocated for its members in both states, particularly in recent days by asking Virginia officials about a more regional approach to reopening.

"We've been told that he's not really interested in a regional approach for a number of different reasons. But for us here, I mean when it impacts you at face value, you have a restaurant that can look out the window and 30 yards across the street, there are people walking into businesses, dining, shopping, and so that's a challenge," Rhineheart said.

Others just want what's best for the everyone

The Chen family however, is taking it in stride. They have owned the restaurant Shanghai on the Virginia side of State Street for 23 years.

Devon Chen said his parents' business has done reasonably well under the circumstances, due to the community's active support by placing to-go orders. He said he also understands Northam needs to make decisions serving the entire Commonwealth.

Looking at customers filling the restaurant across the street at 50 percent capacity, Chen said, "We're a little envious, but at the same time, what's important to us is the health of our customers. And if our state thinks that that means holding off and erring on the side of caution, we're happy to do that."

While they may be allowed to begin accepting customers on their patio starting Friday, Chen said his family hasn't made a decision about that yet.

But one thing is certain. They will not be reopening their buffet service anytime soon.

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