A Small-Business Owner Struggles to Decide Whether to Reopen

A person in a face mask walks below the sign of the Plaza Theatre
A person is seen outside the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta on April 21.
Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo/Reuters

The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta has been around since 1939. Christopher Escobar, its current owner, has been operating it for about a decade. When the coronavirus ravaged small businesses, Escobar made the tough decision to close his theater for now, seek online sources of revenue, and apply for aid from foundations and the government. The Plaza has now been shut down for more than a month, but Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp recently passed an order allowing small businesses to open back up. And Escobar is struggling with what he should do next.

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Escobar about the big decisions he’s had to make, the dilemma he’s tussling with now, and what opening the state back up again really means in Georgia. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: When you heard about Kemp’s reopening order, you were conflicted. On the one hand, you’re thinking about the safety of customers and employees, but on the other, you’re bleeding money.

Christopher Escobar: I do believe Kemp’s trying to do what is, in his mind, the best thing for Georgia, even though I think he’s going about the wrong way. He’s hearing from tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in the state who are unemployed right now. Keep in mind, during the Great Recession, Georgia had some of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the whole country. We’ve had pain. Recent pain.

Kemp’s hearing from people who are saying, “I was told by the federal government that, if I lose my job because I’m an independent contractor or a freelancer, I’d be taken care of.” That’s not been the case, and they’re rightly furious. And small-business owners who’ve been told, You’ve got to shut down and do the right thing, but don’t worry, we’ll figure it out, we’ll make it work, we’ll keep you alive—they feel lied to because maybe 1 in 10 has actually gotten federal support.

As this all started going down, I was not willing to do what all the other movie theaters did, which is cut staff, put them on unpaid leave, and wish them good luck. So I told my staff, before they went on unemployment, that I wanted them to start drawing from the paid time off. And for some of them, even though they didn’t come into work for three weeks, their paychecks didn’t change.

Hearing you talk, it’s really clear you value your staff and want to do right by them. When did you start thinking you would have to cut people’s hours?

I started giving these updates to everybody and telling them, look, here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know, here’s what I’m working on. If we start doing A-B-C-D to save money, to start to generate money in other ways, our time can be extended. I’m working on all these efforts that might bring in funding. And I kept giving updates every week on our financial situation. We also got a major donation, which helped.

Did you have a moment where you made a list? Like, here is everything you could pay?

I’m always updating the lists. Like, what’s due when? When do I normally pay this? What can I do to start bringing in revenue? One of the things we did was start selling Plaza passes and vouchers so you could go ahead and buy a ticket to a future screening of your choosing. People started buying those and we probably sold $2,000 worth of tickets at $13 apiece. That was awesome.

So what do you pay, and what do you not pay right now?

So for one, I look at my local vendors, like the guy who supplies the bulbs for a projector or the electrician who occasionally has to deal with the mess of an 80-year-old building’s electricity. I’m looking at them the same as my employees. These are local people, local business owners. I’m not going to make them wait for their money. That being said, when there’s a megacorporation that I always pay early anyway, it can wait for its money. It’s going to get its money one way or another. But I’m going to prioritize paying my people who may not eat if they don’t get this paycheck.

Unlike the chains that told their property owners they’re not going to pay rent, well, I can’t do that. I don’t have the ability to tell people that we’re not paying you until TBD. I have no leverage.

Because you have a mortgage?

I have a very expensive, constantly skyrocketing lease that is already double what it was two years ago.

How many grants or relief packages do you estimate you’ve applied for?

I’ve lost count, but at least 10.

I was curious if you had applied for the small-business stimulus funding.

Yes. I’ve heard nothing. Even though you’re allowed to use a portion of it toward things like rent and utilities, the amount you get is not based on that at all. So if you have skyrocketing rent like I do, I can’t use it for that. By design, it’s a Band-Aid. It’s not going to be like, OK, well, I was able to make up at least a sizable amount of the money I would have made to cover all my lighting. No, not even close. It’s just such a mess.

You’re not open now. When do you plan to open?

The weird thing is we’ve been closed for 40 days, but I haven’t worked this hard ever. I’m working seven days a week.

With any luck, should all things go well, we’re going to start a Plaza pop-up drive-in right here in the back of the theater. We have a 20-foot-wide screen. We’re figuring out all the angles of the projection, all the logistics. How do I make it so no one ever has to come in contact with anyone whom they’re not sheltering in place with? What are the sightlines? We’re encouraging people to bring food, ideally from a neighboring restaurant. We’re going to be providing links of those places nearby that are doing carry-out and need the business. We’re going to offer our concessions, but you have to order it online and you’ll enter your card number and we’ll bring it out to your car. We’ll encourage people to use the bathrooms before they come in.

I hope people are going to contribute. I’m hoping that any one of these applications or some or a number of them is going to come through. For me to panic and give up or get overwhelmed isn’t going to do anybody any good. There’s too much on the line, between the people whose livelihoods are depending on this place and what the theater means to the community culturally. There’s too much on the line in terms of all the people who have either owned this place or have contributed their blood, sweat, and tears to keeping this place open.

Tell us what you are seeing out there in quarantine. What’s keeping you calm? What do you still have questions about? Let us know: We’re at 202-888-2588. Your voicemail could become part of the show.

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