A 5,000-square-foot consignment store sits simply off of U.S. Route 301 in Starke. Merchandise spills out of its doorways and into the parking zone. “We’re open!” indicators line the street.
Few motorists cease, although. Not due to what companies alongside the four-lane roadway had feared – the opening of a freeway bypass – however what they didn’t: the coronavirus pandemic.
5 years in the past, Rebecca Griffis opened Second Hand Treasures there to benefit from the heavy site visitors. Every fall, Florida Gators followers congested the street to and from Gainesville.
“We might actually stroll as much as the vehicles and speak to individuals as a result of they had been stopped for thus lengthy in entrance of our enterprise,” mentioned Griffis, 45, a neighborhood resident.
That ended a yr in the past, when the Florida Division of Transportation opened the 7.3-mile truck route that bypasses Route 301 through Starke. By January, the bypass had diverted 65% of general site visitors from town of about 5,500 residents, mentioned FDOT spokesperson Troy Roberts.
“U.S. 301 was mainly simply bombarded with vehicles,” Roberts mentioned. “We felt all alongside that the truck route would strengthen the city of Starke.”
Enterprise homeowners had been less certain before, however their minds appeared to have been eased.
“We had so many individuals delighted,” mentioned Pam Whittle, president of the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Our locals had been like, ‘Yay! We’re rid of the truck site visitors.’ They might traverse by way of city actual fast.”
The inflow of Starke residents prepared to drive alongside Route 301 proved useful for companies. None have closed on account of the bypass, Whittle mentioned. Native gross sales tax income even elevated the primary few months after it opened.
“Issues had been trying fairly good,” she mentioned. “Then this mess hit.”
Residents crossed the street freely for about six months, till the pandemic pushed them again inside, Whittle mentioned. In accordance with FDOT, site visitors there hasn’t returned to regular since.
It has made some companies’ newfound reliance on native customers notably tough.
Take the Florida Twin Theatre. In its prime, the two-screen neighborhood staple served as many as 1,400 individuals over a weekend. The quantity is nearer to 80 due to COVID-19, in line with the theater’s proprietor, Justin Sparks, 34, of Starke. He knew change was coming in February, when a exhibiting of the faith-based movie “I Nonetheless Consider” drew considerably fewer individuals than regular.
Sparks’ father, Lee Sparks, had owned the theater till his demise in January. That thrust Sparks into a task he had not deliberate on assuming for a few years, not to mention simply earlier than a pandemic.
Neither Bradford County nor Starke officers have handed a masks mandate, so it’s as much as enterprise homeowners whether or not to implement face coverings for his or her workers or prospects. Doing so would imply ostracizing a big and outspoken section of the neighborhood, Sparks mentioned, a lot of whom consider masks mandates are an affront to non-public liberties.
“That’s simply not a battle I need a bone in,” he mentioned.
As an alternative, Sparks closed the theater indefinitely. Would his father have stored it open? Sparks thinks so. Group members who always push him to reopen agree. But the chance that it staying closed would stop even one individual from falling unwell is value it, Sparks mentioned. He doesn’t need anybody else to lose a beloved one. So for now, the Twin stays empty.
Nathan Menke, 37, of Waldo, hasn’t needed to shut 301 Tattoo & Piercing. The yr has introduced solely minor modifications to his enterprise, he mentioned, for instance, just one buyer inside at a time.
With the bypass, nonetheless, leaving work to get lunch is not a nightmare. It was maddening. He may spend an hour behind the wheel simply to drive 4 blocks to McDonald’s.
“I’ve witnessed individuals have complete meltdowns,” the tattoo artist mentioned. “Simply pull off the aspect of the street, park, get out and have manic episodes, small breakdowns.”
Maddening, however good for enterprise, Menke mentioned. He would watch from his parlor for the second that vehicles slowed to a halt. An worker would hurtle by way of the store doorways and gyrate by the curb with a yellow signal, yelling at idling drivers to return get a tattoo. Some did, Menke mentioned.
Automobiles not often idle on Route 301 anymore, however the distinction to 301 Tattoo is negligible. If something, Menke mentioned, the pandemic has made up for any revenue misplaced to the bypass. Latest prospects informed him that their tattoo purchases got here in lieu of canceled summer season holidays.
“Issues are closed,” he mentioned. “What else are they gonna do?”
Harry Patel, 37, of Starke, needs they’d cease in Enjoyable Level. His arcade, the Greenback Tree and Popeyes on Route 301, is crammed with blinking lights and sport consoles. There’s a bar within the again for adults to take pleasure in whereas their kids exhaust themselves on whack-a-mole. Households flocked to Enjoyable Level when it opened in January. The bypass made it extra accessible to native residents.
“It’s important to go all the way in which to Ocala or Jacksonville for Chuck E. Cheese,” he mentioned.
The summer season months ought to have been his busiest with kids out of college, Patel mentioned. Enterprise stopped, although, as quickly because the pandemic started. He put in hand sanitizers for kids to make use of between video games, and his workers watch like hawks to ensure that they do.
But his enterprise is making 70% of the income it was in January.
“Persons are scared now – I don’t blame them,” Patel mentioned. “As soon as that is throughout, they could simply come out and play some video games.”
One other Starke resident, Anne Gowens, 49, is doing what she will to assist. For the reason that pandemic started, she’s gone out of her strategy to store regionally so homeowners like Patel may keep in enterprise.
“I see the native eating places extra, and I’ve gotten to know who they’re and who their households are,” she mentioned. “They’re my neighborhood. I’d a lot moderately spend my cash with them.”
Gowens mentioned the bypass prompted her and her husband Keith Gowens to lastly go to outlets like Powell’s Dairy Freeze, an ice cream store on Route 301. It’s been there for years, however the site visitors stored them away. They arrive usually for chocolate dipped cones and peanut butter shakes.
Again at Florida Twin Theatre, Sparks stood on a ladder in entrance of its marquee. Down got here letters spelling “Is it 2021 but?” He changed them with a promise: “I’ll be again.”