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8.11.21 – Sarah Haselhorst. Mississippi Clarion Ledger.

The past year-and-a-half has been a blur for Malcolm White.

He can’t put his finger on the number of weeks he had to shutter his downtown Jackson restaurant Hal & Mal’s when the coronavirus ripped through the city the first time in March 2020. When the doors reopened at the proclaimed “most talked-about upscale honky-tonk in all of Mississippi”he’d presided over for over three decades everything had to change. 

Hal & Mal’s wasn’t equipped for drive-thru or delivery service. It’s a dining space. A venue. A gathering place for trivia nights and concerts, not expeditious meals wrapped up in plastic takeout bags.

White had no choice. The pandemic was calling the shots. He’d lost a handful of staff, whittled down service hours and worked to navigate curbside service. For a while, there were no lively reunions or jazz nights. 

Restrictions at Hal & Mal's in downtown Jackson, as with other businesses, have ebbed and flowed amid the pandemic.

For the past 18 months, the decisions of White and other Mississippi business owners have been predicated on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and those of their cities and state.

Restrictions have ebbed and flowed. Masks had to be worn indoors. There were capacity restrictions. Six feet of space was required to separate dining tables and customers in checkout lines. 

Spring 2021 was a breath of fresh air for businesses surviving the earlier waves of COVID-19.

“We had a real burst of optimism after the CDC came out and said ‘if you’ve been vaccinated you could go back to your life,’ ” White said of the CDC rolling back mask requirements for fully vaccinated people in mid-May.

Business picked up. White booked musicians again. He was rebuilding momentum.

But the delta variant of the coronavirus, particularly pernicious among the state’s largely unvaccinated population, sent some businesses for a tailspin about three weeks ago. Daily COVID-19 cases within the past two weeks have climbed into the thousands. Deaths have increased. And the state’s fully vaccinated rate is stagnant at 33%. 

The resurgence is again threatening businesses that felt like they’d just got their footing.

Business was horrible last week, White said, maybe due to a combination of back-to- school and the coronavirus’ surge. Hal & Mal’s customer base thinned out and the restaurant’s Facebook page noted it was postponing jazz night until COVID-19 cases decline and vaccinations increase.

Hal & Mal’s vaccinated staff are masked again. White said he hasn’t yet had to upend the dining room like he did before to make considerable room for social distancing.

There’s no telling what the next few weeks ahead will look like, he said. He takes it week-by-week.

“I’m not interested in politics (of the vaccine), I’m interested in whether people care about each other and their community,” White said. “We’re going to struggle if this is the best we can do. If people want to lockdown again, we’re on the right track.”

Customers wait in line at  T-Bone's Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg, Miss., on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021.

Mask-wearing up again

At T-Bone’s Records & Cafe on Hardy St. in Hattiesburg, masks are optional for employees and customers. However, a mask requirement isn’t out of the question if cases continue to go up, owner Harry Crumpler said.

“This week in particular, we’re kind of watching things to see first if another mandate is going to be coming down from the federal, state or local level and then seeing what the case count is doing throughout this week to see if we need to change our tactics.”

Crumpler’s seen an increase in customers wearing masks in the past eight to nine days.

Owner of GrateFull Soul, Southern-style restaurant in downtown Hattiesburg, said she is paying attention to any developments with masks.

“We’ll follow the rules. … Hopefully this thing will all just go away — which it’s not,” Ford said.

A restaurateur’s vaccination mission

March 18, 2020 was a sobering day for Jeff Good.

Co-owner of BRAVO! Italian Restaurant, Sal & Mookie’s and Broad Street Bakery Co. in Jackson, Good let go of 182 employees. Only two were left to wade through the pandemic’s murky waters. 

“It was the complete unknown,” Good said. “Our restaurants were mandated to close, we had no source of revenue.”

Eighteen months later, he has 200 employees.

Jeff Good, co-owner of BRAVO! Italian Restaurant, Sal & Mookie's and Broad Street Bakery Co. in Jackson, is watching the delta variant's spread closely.

Good’s quick to say he knows he’s blessed to be busy, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t watching the delta variant’s spread closely. As COVID-19 cases resurged in Jackson, fueled by the unvaccinated, Good looked at his staff and did the math. 

His staff represents a microcosm of the general public: women who are terrified of the vaccination, thinking it will affect their fertility, African American employees with a distrust of health care systems that comes from decades of unequal and inequitable care, young people who are certain they’re bulletproof and those vehemently against the COVID-19 vaccine.

If around one-third of Mississippians are vaccinated, that means, optimistically, about 60-70 of his employees are fully inoculated. That wasn’t enough for Good so he launched a vaccination campaign on June 15.

He offered plane tickets and trips as an incentive to employees to get the shot. Money for going out on the town. He printed science-based brochures about vaccination and brought in experts to talk about the safety of the vaccine. In less than a month, more than two dozen additional employees got the shot.

Good’s employees have never removed their masks. Despite Good’s best efforts, unknowns still exist, especially if the pandemic continues to spiral.

“I need to keep my businesses open, I need to keep the cash registers ringing or else almost everything I’ve worked for in the past three decades goes away,” he said. “I did that a year and a half ago, I do not want to do it again.”

Hattiesburg American reporter Laurel Thrailkill contributed to this report