GRIFTON — The streets in town were eerily quiet.
The Dollar General, the only source for groceries, had the only stream of steady of traffic — second only to the town’s two gas stations.
Across from the Dollar General, Hwy 55 Burgers Shakes & Fries is open — for takeout only.
The parking lot is empty but for two folding tables and a handful of chairs, a silent invitation to eat in the open air.
Owner Kelly Buck, 28, is adhering to a statewide order for bars and restaurants be closed to dine-in. The order is among a growing number of restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has infected hundreds in North Carolina and killed more than 400 in the United States and more than 16,000 worldwide.
Efforts may help to slow the spread of the virus but they are hurting local businesses. Buck said her evening crowd has been decent, but lunch business has taken a dive.
“That is when everybody would come in — on their lunch hour,” she said.
So far, no one has taken up the offer to eat at the tables in the parking lot.
Instead, she said many who come, sit on truck tailgates, keeping proper distance from fellow diners, allowing them to be social within the set guidelines.
Never before has she seen such a dramatic drop off.
“So far, customers have been very understanding,” Buck said.
She admits to being worried, but she remains hopeful that this will pass soon and that customers won’t soon tire of the take-out only rule.
Down the street, across from one of the gas stations, 19-year-old Zorab, sits outside, passing time on his cellular device, waiting for the phone to ring inside Greg’s Pizza.
Greg’s has been his family’s business in Grifton for 35 years — enduring floods from hurricanes Floyd and Matthew.
Even so, Zorab has never seen business this bad, he said.
A freshman at East Carolina University, he is frustrated with the whole virus situation. The campus is closed to students and he said is not a fan of doing schoolwork on the computer — the university system has closed campuses and instituted alternative classes.
He and his brother are helping with the family’s livelihood, but the phone is not ringing often enough.
Inside, this mother, Aida Galstyan, originally from Armenia, cooks the few orders that have come in.
“We need to pray,” Aida said about the spreading virus and the dwindling business.
Zorab theorizes business is slow because people have been steadily stocking up on groceries. For now, patrons seem to be staying home and cooking.
“They will [hopefully] soon get tired of cooking,” he said.
At Dollar General, two lone packages of toilet paper sit on a mostly empty shelf. The delivery truck had come earlier that morning and the two packs were all that was left of the high-demand paper product.
“People are acting like it is the end of the world,” said one of the Grifton Dollar General managers, Patrice Smith. “Some people are coming in and buying everything off the shelves and not leaving anything for other customers.”
She said they only can restock weekly.
“We only get a truck once a week,” said.
“Once it’s gone — it’s gone, until the following week. That is why we are asking people not come in and buy all their stuff at one time. You’ve got to think about other people,” she added.
She said all the Dollar Generals across the state get restocked once week.
Other items she has seen disappear as soon as they hit the shelves are hand sanitizers and disinfectant sprays.
“It’s good if people come in and get one, two, or maybe three of something — use it — then come back the following week,” she said.
Smith admits to being overwhelmed at times.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” she added.
An elderly mother and her son shopped for groceries, wearing surgical masks, because of her compromised immune system.
She is also deaf, so she depends on her son’s assistance.
Her son asked they not be identified because his mother lives alone. Her children check on her often and bring her food, her son said. He works at McDonald’s in Kinston.
“She is pretty much quarantined,” he said. “I think the U.S. has responded, maybe in an overly cautious way, but I feel like it was the right way. If everybody does what they are supposed to do – I think it will all be over soon,” he said.
A Hispanic family of six sent their young daughter into the Dollar General for a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
She came back jubilant, finding the last bottle the store had. Her parents spoke very little English but said they were worried.
“There is not a lot left in the grocery stores,” the daughter interpreted.
In Ayden, a downtown eatery and anchor, Bum’s Restaurant, sits silent. Chairs are piled on top of tables and two waitresses sit idle.
Because restaurants and bars across the state must now only serve take-out, a vital ingredient is missing from eating Bum’s barbecue — community fellowship.
Owner Larry Dennis was unavailable for comment, but it was apparent business was down. Open since 1963, much of the downtown clientele that frequents Bum’s have been sent home.
Down the street, the Skylight Inn, another legendary Ayden barbecue establishment, seemed to fare a little better.
Co-owner of the restaurant, Bruce Jones said, “I’ve seen better days.”
His father, Pete Jones established the business 73 years ago. Bruce estimates the business is down by at least half.
Even during the floods, they did not experience such a drop in business, he said.
“We were open within two days. It didn’t hurt business that much,” he added.
Will Stafford has worked at the Skylight Inn for six years.
He said he feels bad for many of the hourly workers who work in restaurants.
“Typically, (restaurant work) is a temporary job and most live paycheck to paycheck. When they don’t get that paycheck, they don’t eat,” he said.
Those in the food service business are hurting, he continued.
“This is people’s livelihood. People that go into the restaurant business invest everything they have,” he said.
He knows the ban on dining in is for the “greater good.”
“But, there will be some who will lose their cars, their house and, or their business because of the ban,” he said. “It is unfortunate. This is something affecting the whole world right now. The whole world may as well be flooded right now.”
In Winterville, the Dixie Queen has decided to close its doors for the time being. A sign on the door states that, “Due to the governor’s decision, we are forced to be closed for vacation.”
Main and Mill Oyster Bar and Tavern was offering call in service for curbside pickup.
The one place in Winterville that saw an uptick in business was the Local Oak Brewing Company.
Husband and wife owners Ben Self and Amy Amacker, have been in business for three months.
Self said they were so busy because, “We are the only ones open.”
With online ordering and payment, the risk of spreading the virus was kept to a minimum. Curbside pickup was quick and convenient at their location at 2564 Railroad St.
Self’s customers all were in favor of supporting local business.
Chris Currin, who painted the Local Oak’s sign on the side of the building, was one of the many patrons stopping by.
Currin said he has been using Uber Eats, ordering food online and having it delivered to his home.
The Local Oak does not serve food.
Dustin Allis of Winterville stopped by to pick up his favorite beer, “See These Ice Creams.”
“It is made from Bourbon barrel-aged coffee beans from Lanoca Coffee Company in Farmville,” he said.