Our Town

Posted on
April 16, 2020
By Tracy Matthew Melton ‘85 - Library Board Member


The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic stormed into Williamsburg the middle weeks of March. When W&M students left campus for spring break on Friday, March 6, normal prevailed. A week later, profound changes were underway.

W&M shut down, students gone; tourists increasingly staying home; locals diligently sheltering in place and social distancing . . . all of these developments were financially catastrophic for local restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and retail shops, and also for vendors at the Saturday Williamsburg Farmers Market who were just returning to Duke of Gloucester {DoG) Street after winter’s chill. Local merchants were suddenly and stunningly cut off from much of their well-diversified customer base.

COVID-19 is a financial catastrophe for these merchants and their investors, suppliers, and employees. Their businesses are primarily local ones, and these folks are also our friends and neighbors and family.

One of the starkest images for me was a woman who resembled my mother-in-law walking away from nonexistent vendor tents and tables with empty canvas bags as I drove down Henry Street, past DoG Street, on a beautiful mid-March Saturday morning.

Of course, COVID-19’s impact on our health is foremost in our minds, but the economic impact is also consequential. I see that in my own family where our son, a college student, living independently and working as a server in a Greek restaurant in Bellingham, WA, lost his job, and then shortly after his girlfriend lost hers, leaving them with monthly rent, car and student loan payments, and unemployed in a shutdown economy. They are working hard, doing well, and suddenly in difficult financial straits. The same is certainly true around DoG Street.

We live near downtown Williamsburg, and I walk there almost daily. I sometimes work with the Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library. How could I capture what I was seeing and feeling in our town during this pandemic? I decided to photograph downtown businesses and the COVID-19 notices that many have posted on their doors. These photos will form a digital collection at Swem.

A photograph of a piece of paper with small unreadable text but a large title that states "A Coronavirus Update"

What do these Williamsburg notices illustrate?

There’s the speed of the outbreak. That casually comes across in the DoG Street Pub notice, “Like all of you, we are watching events unfold—both in our community and around the country—at a rather breakneck pace.” And Berret’s Seafood Restaurant, wishing everyone “health and safety during this unprecedented and rapidly changing time.”

The impact extended well beyond initial expectations. We did not initially grasp what would be necessary to “flatten the curve.” Williamsburg Home closed on March 16 for an anticipated two weeks. J. Fenton Gallery closed until “about March 29 (The date is subject to change).” Luck Kee Hair at MLK Triangle announced a closure “until end of this month. (3/31/20).“ Most striking, I think, is the notice at A Chef’s Kitchen, “Because of Recommendations for Social Distancing we have closed until March 31.” The “March 31” is simply scratched through with a pen. A full-scale reopening of these businesses is not imminent on April 14, as I write, and normalcy feels far away.

Yet there’s a lot that’s inspiring in these notices. Concern for employees, who have often long worked at these businesses, and are integral to their operation, seems genuine. I love that Berret’s addresses its notice partially to its “Resilient Employees” and continues, “Additionally, we hope to keep our employees safe, support them during this turmoil, and do everything we can to ensure they have a place to return to work when this crisis is over.” The Amber Ox Public House pledges, “5% of all sales and all gratuity will go to a Relief Fund to assist our Hourly Employees.” The DoG Street Pub notice, “We hope that all of you at home realize that what makes coming downtown for dinner so much fun is that we have fantastic staff.”

And there’s humor and fun. Aromas Coffeehouse is “Now offering Mimosa Kits Curbside,” and its sidewalk chalkboard requests the public “Support Your Local Caffeine Dealers.” The Hound’s Tale jokes about adjusted pandemic hours, “Some days or afternoons we aren’t here at all and lately I’ve been here just about all the time, except when I’m someplace else.”

Importantly, as indicated in several of these notices, many of these businesses remain open with modified operations. Several restaurants andOishii paper notice of a temporary shut down coffee shops are offering carryout, delivery, and curbside service. Their notices often provide directions regarding payment and pickup, and instructions on hand washing, social distancing, and face coverings. They sometimes offer private appointments and more often point customers to their websites and Facebook and Instagram pages. Online operations often continue. They show how we are all struggling to maintain as much normal as possible, to get by in hard times. I wish them the full support of our community, and those beyond it.

These downtown Williamsburg notices tell these businesses’ stories, and they tell our story. We are all trying to meet this crisis with prudence, with diligence, with our chins up and our sense of humor intact, with concern for those in our lives who are grappling with perilous forces beyond our control.

Perhaps most inspiring to me are the Oishii Japanese Ramen & Hibachi Grill notices. Community comes across from the self-described “mom & pop restaurant,” “For those who are worried, our family and coworkers are all safe and well.” Welcome news! And there is optimism, “We will use this time to improve the Oishii experience to better serve you again, very soon.” That’s a great attitude today.

(Capitalization is modified to suit this essay format, and there are minor punctuation changes.)