On Saturday, many retail businesses in Virginia City and across the state opened for the first time since Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak closed nonessential businesses in response to the novel coronavirus on March 17. The closure could not have come at a worse time for Virginia City, a community almost exclusively dependent on warm-season tourist traffic.
As many as 25,000 people lived in Virginia City in 1875, a boom town based on one of the largest silver deposits ever discovered in the continental United States, the Comstock Lode. Today, there are roughly 1,000 year-around residents. A mile-long boardwalk runs along either side of C Street, a decidedly unique tourist mall and historical district.
Liza McIlwee was the tourism assistant in the Virginia City Visitor’s Center on Saturday. The Center is inside what was the Crystal Bar on C Street.
“The mood in town I think is very optimistic. I myself have mixed feelings,” McIlwee said through her mask, an odd accessory when contrasted with her late 19th Century-period dress. “Our numbers (of COVID-19 cases) are relatively low in the Quad County, and here in Storey County we’re still at zero for a number of cases. I’m hopeful that people coming up here isn’t going to spike an outbreak up here, because everyone has been doing what they’re supposed to be doing to keep it from entering into the town.”
On Friday, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat from Las Vegas, announced that the state would enter Phase One of the reopening plan on Saturday, which enabled retail outlets to operate within strict social distancing protocols. The Governor asked citizens to wear masks in public and stay farther than six feet from each other. He also encouraged the frequent washing of hands.
“Stay safe to stay open,” the Governor said.
Saturday, packs of motor cycles once again rattled the glass in old windows on C Street. Roughly two-thirds of the shops in town were open. Almost every store owner or worker I observed wore a mask, but most customers meandering along the boardwalks did not.
Restaurants have been able to sell food through curbside service and now can accommodate 50 percent of their rated capacity for table service. Bars in town remain closed during Phase One but can operate with curbside service for alcohol.
On Saturday, a bar crowd of 25 people gathered on the boardwalk outside Virginia City Cigar and Bar. When I observed the business on Saturday, none of the people on the boardwalk wore a mask and few maintained a 6 foot social distancing margin.
Dave Wright is the owner of the Virginia City Antique Mall. Wright had a plan to open this weekend whether the Governor opened retail outlets or not. If he sold food, he could open his store.
“I was going to open this weekend anyway because I bought some food to sell because all you have to do is have food and you’re able to open, so we bought some crackers and stuff and we were going to do it anyway, but they let us open,” Wright said.
Dave Wright and his wife have operated an antique store in the mall for 20 years and rent space to a few other collectible dealers. How long the businesses can endure being closed is an important question with a painfully hazy answer.
“This is a community shop where everybody pays their own amount of rent and it depends on how long they want to do it with not selling anything,” Wright said. “Two months is a long time. Everybody in here is retired, 60 years old and over. They’re paying out of their social security or whatever. Some don’t get stimulus. Some do. So it’s … it’s probably a couple months.”
Wright said he applied for a Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection loan but had not been awarded any relief to date.
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is an emergency loan through the US Small Business Administration (SBA) intended to help keep workers on the payroll. The SBA will forgive loans if all employees stay on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.
Tim Ward owns and operates Grandma’s Fudge. Ward says he is committed to being a biologically responsible business owner. For Ward, remaining open is contingent on preventing the spread of the virus.
“We’re happy as heck to be open again, but we don’t want to get anybody sick,” Ward said. “We’re all about doing it carefully, see how things go and see if we can get through this.”
Ward applied for an SBA loan but has not heard back from the agency while Congress debates further relief spending with a federal deficit approaching $4 trillion dollars. How long can Grandma’s Fudge stay in business without being open?
“I don’t have any answers,” Ward said shaking his head. “I don’t have any answers for anything. The information we get changes every day. We’re just kind of trying to get by and see what’s up. I really have no idea how long we can do this.”
Politics is as evident on C Street as fudge and candy.
Roughly 1,000 people live in Virginia City, a quarter of Storey County’s population. On Saturday, Trump 2020 signs were nearly as frequent as flags along main street. The VFW sold raffle tickets for a pistol and a lever action repeating rifle from a table on the boardwalk. Republicans outnumber Democrats by better than a 2-to-1 margin in Storey County.
The largest Trump 2020 sign on C Street hangs below the sign for the Virginia City Mercantile.
Tom Quigley owns the Virginia City Mercantile, an impressive collection of wide-ranging memorabilia and candy. As he has for years, Tom stood on the boardwalk in front of his store and handed out root beer barrel candies and worked the crowd. He did not wear a mask.
“Everything is a gamble,” Quigley said. “It’s a calculated risk. You made a gamble coming up the hill today on that windy road. You made a risk. You decided it was worth the risk to come up here, didn’t you?” Tom asked me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well there you go. Same thing. We cannot all sit at home huddled in the dark waiting on our government checks to show up. It ain’t gonna work. All of the money is coming from the businesses. That’s what’s producing – free market capitalism is what keeps our country going right now.
“For emergency situations, the government can issue checks to ease the burden on people, but it can’t be a way of life. It can’t last. We all know that. It’s like getting credit cards in the mail with unlimited credit. It ain’t gonna work. Maybe for a little while it makes people feel good, but it’s not going to work. It’s critical that the businesses get up and running again. It’s the lifeblood of our whole country, small business,” Quigley said.
The Virginia City Mercantile received a PPP loan.
“I had money saved up,” Quigley said. “I would tap into my savings if I had to in order to keep my employees busy. But it’s nice that the government comes up with this money. It’s nice to get some money to help cover the payroll.
“I can’t have all these people, can’t have 8 or 12 people thrown out on the street out of work all of a sudden. That’s going to make it even worse. The smartest thing Donald Trump did was take that money and send it directly to the business owners themselves because they already have a process set up in order to pay everybody on a regular basis rather than creating another bureaucracy to pass out the money, which will be inefficient anyways,” said Quigley.
Summer months are critical for Virginia City businesses.
There is no easy way to get to Virginia City. It is where it is because that was where the silver mines were located. It’s location was not chosen for ease of access. Winter months can make for difficult travel up and down steep, winding roads, so the warmer months are when Virginia City tourist-dependent businesses need to make money. Closing in mid-March effectively ripped the rug out from under the tourist town’s feet.
The Memorial Day parade has been downgraded to an automobile cruise. A number of events in Virginia City from the Outhouse Races to the 61st annual Camel and Ostrich races and many Hot August Nights and Street Vibrations associated events are all now up in the air.
This Saturday on the boardwalk, many dressed in period outfits and offered interpretive and other information to visitors as they always do during the warmer months. They are known as the Red Riders and wear red ribbons to distinguish themselves. Teach and her husband Plank, as they are known, said they live in Fallon and enjoy spending weekends in Virginia City in costume. Teach says if businesses do not begin to see a positive cash flow soon, they will fail.
“We’re used to a bustling town, people, the parades, all of the different events Virginia City hosts,” Teach said. “During the close down, this town was literally a ghost town. I mean, even the spirits I think were getting anxious for people to come back.
“But now that people are walking around and starting to get into the businesses that are reopening, our friends who are business owners here can start returning to their life.”
The political climate in the nation and in Virginia City was raw before the pandemic. The debate over closing businesses and when and how to reopen them has further divided residents and business owners.
“I feel the town is extremely divided,” Eliza McIlwee said. “We have many people who feel like despite that it is a deadly virus that it isn’t. They feel it’s no worse than the flu, and they’re like, ‘well, we never had to shut for the flu. So why are we shutting now?’
“So we’ve got those people, and then we have the other half of town who are just terrified that it’s gonna come through and wipe out a large majority of our residents or seniors, and those are the ones who are more susceptible to this virus. So it’s definitely a lot of butting heads on that,” McIllwee said.
Stinky and his Donkey Bernadine were out mingling with visitors. Stinky says he steers clear of political topics.
“I do love this town,” Stinky said. “It’s got a lot of good history. It’s got a lot of good people,” and then he suddenly broke off as a man wearing a kilt and walking a Vietnamese Potbellied pig named Pepper approached.
“Hey, talking about people, we’ve got one right here.” Stinky said pointing at Pepper the pig. “We’re alive again,” Stinky said to Pepper’s owner Aengus.
“Just a bit,” Aengus said through a mask. “Just a bit.”
Tom Quigley, owner of the Virginia City Mercantile said the customers he had on Saturday made generous purchases, larger than average per person. He believes people are eager to help businesses succeed and get back on track. Is he hopeful?
“Of course I’m hopeful. I’m an American man. We’re all hopeful,” Tom said. “We don’t cower. We don’t pout or stare at the ground. We get up and we do something. We take over. We adapt. People adapt.”
Listen to an audio report of this story produced in conjunction with KUNR Reno Public Radio
Brian Bahouth has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.