MIDDLESBORO, Ky. and TAZEWELL — If you can keep up with Chris Turnage, you’ll see the hustle that’s kept his business alive through the pandemic.
“A little bit before this time last year, we were doing about 15 to 25 to go orders a day. Now, we’re doing more than 200 every day,” said Turnage, the manager of Shades, a restaurant and bar in Middlesboro, Kentucky.
Here at Shades, Turnage and his team embraced this new way of serving. They’ve also embraced social distancing inside and on their patio. But with all the to-go orders, this restaurant made a profit in 2020.
“We’re actually looking to do better this time this year than we were last year,” said Turnage.
He thinks that’s because people in Middlesboro see following COVID-19 restrictions as a way to move forward. It’s why Mayor Rick Nelson said his town has seen lower case numbers than surrounding areas.
“You don’t get it until you got it,” said Nelson. “You don’t understand it until somebody’s actually got COVID and has passed away or got very sick, so it’s been somewhat of a struggle. But I’m very well pleased because in Bell County, Kentucky, in Middlesboro, I think most people get it, and I think it’s helped save lives."
But this city is unique. It’s the only city in America built inside a meteor crater, and it’s also the only city in its area with mask and social distance restrictions.
“It was weird last year working here, and then going over to Tennessee, and here, every building you go in everyone has a mask on, there you’d stop at the gas station and maybe one or two people would have a mask on,” said Turnage. “Just the awareness level was different.”
Across the entire state of Kentucky, you’re going to need a mask wherever you go, because the governor just extended the mask mandate until July at least, but all you have to do is drive a few miles down the road to Tennessee where each county makes their own rules.
There’s no statewide mask mandate, and in Claiborne County, the county bordering Middlesboro, there are no masks required.
This was a welcome change for salon owner Monica Poore.
“I tell people if you want me to wear a mask, I will. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to, but I’ve left it up to the people,” said the long-time salon owner, who specializes in massage therapy.
From pedicures to haircuts, Poore wanted her clients to come into her Tazewell, Tennessee shop for relaxation, not restriction.
“Just to have it on just because they tell us we have to. No, not gonna do it,” said Poore.
“It should be an individual choice, and older people if you’re that scared and you’re just starting to come out, then yes wear your mask, but if you’re that afraid, then stay home,” she said.
Poore has lived through COVID-19 and knows it can be serious.
“I’ve had COVID, I’ve had both vaccines, and I don’t feel like the mask helped—I still got it COVID,” she said.
Overall, she said capacity restrictions have badly hurt her business, and she believes restrictions are holding her back.
“This is our livelihood,” she said. “This is how we make a living. If you don’t let us work, we don’t have PTO, we don’t have sick days, we have to be on the job to make money, to keep this economy going.”
For her neighbors just a few miles up the road, she understands they’re keeping their economy going in a different way.
“I think each mayor in each county is doing the best they can to keep people happy,” said Poore.
“I think most people are smart enough to realize that this COVID is real. It’s taken lives of our friends and family and they want to be protected. They want to do everything they can to live a long and healthy life,” said Mayor Nelson. “This is not about politics. This is about saving people’s lives.”
“To let people do what they want to do, I just feel like that’s what it’s all about,” said Poore.
But despite their differences, both communities are looking the same thing: that moment when “normal” returns, even if they’re taking different paths to get there.