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Sumter businesses find hope in increased traffic, as COVID-19 restrictions loosen

As the state begins a slow return, many businesses continue to feel the effects of COVID-19, including Willie Sue’s Restaurant on Patriot Parkway.
Credit: Kayland Hagwood
Willie Sue's Restaurant in Sumter

SUMTER, S.C. — It was a cloudy day in Sumter Wednesday and the sound of cars whipping by could be heard along many of the main streets.

It was a welcomed tone for many businesses owners in town after months in limited operation due to the coronavirus.

RELATED: DHEC: 577 new virus cases, 10 new deaths in South Carolina

“We lost a lot,” Kevyn Hyer said. “The virus has affected everything.”

He’s a manager at Willie Sue’s Restaurant on Patriot Parkway. They’re nearing their six-year anniversary in operation, according to Hyer, and what a year it’s been.

In March, they shut their doors along with hundreds of other businesses following state and federal moves to curb the spread of the virus. At that time, an empty parking lot and uncertain future brought one of their managers to tears.

RELATED: Local restaurants suffer as dine-in ban takes effect to curb COVID-19

Now, as restrictions loosen and customers can return, there’s still a distance to go before things return to a sense of normalcy.

“The public is still a little bit skeptical or hesitant about dining out the way they used to,” Hyer said. “We’re still running really high numbers on to-go’s.”

Like many businesses, they’ve had to get creative to stay afloat, ramping up to-go orders and readjusting their seating space to allow for more customers outdoors.

“The sales are starting to pick-up now,” Hyer said. “We’re at about, probably 75 percent of our numbers.”

However, now, a new concern has surfaced. Last week, the state saw a spike in new coronavirus cases and, just like the numbers, Hyer said he’s “very much uncertain” about what the future holds.  

“Still a little tense, especially with the spike in the numbers here recently, not knowing quite what to expect,” Hyer said.

RELATED: Recent spike in coronavirus cases in South Carolina 'concerning' expert says

Consumer response is seemingly unpredictable as the virus persists. A key concern for businesses, according to Chris Hardy who leads Sumter’s Chamber of Commerce.

“The primary issue right now is not necessarily on the business opening side, or their operating side, it’s the consumer side,” Hardy said. “The consumer side as far as where they’re at in willingly going to things they used to do before.”

One market that seems to keep the crowds coming despite the virus is home goods.

Hines Furniture was allowed to remain open when many businesses were shuttered, offering items considered essential like motor scooters and lift chairs.

“It was slow for about a two to three week time frame, not a lot of people coming through the door,” Donny Hines, who owns the store, said, “but at the same time I think a lot of people, as they were staying home, they realized how old their sofa was and how uncomfortable their mattress was, so, business has been extremely strong over the last month, month and a half.”

Others have seen less success, but, through the clouds, more traffic means a glimmer of hope for businesses like Willie Sues waiting for people to feel comfortable to come in.

 “The numbers have been steadily increasing from previous weeks. We’re getting closer to the numbers that we’ve seen over the past 5 years being open, as far as sales trends,” Hyer said. “We’re a pretty big family here. Everybody just does the best we can to get by day-to-day.”

Taking small steps toward an uncertain future.