BRISTOL, Tenn./Virginia State Line — Joe Deel is behind the chrome-trimmed turquoise counter of his legendary diner, the Burger Bar in Virginia, working with his wife, Kayla; daughter Emily; and sous chef, Corey Young. They can see people going to lunch at the State Line Bar and Grill in Tennessee, just across the street and less than 50 yards away. But their round, black-topped stools remain as empty as they were nearly two months ago when the coronavirus first shut down the country.
“When they talked about opening Tennessee and not Virginia, I knew this was going to be a problem,” Deel said. “I love the other businesses downtown. We all have a great relationship and help each other. It’s nothing directly toward them. If people haven’t been able to go out and sit down and eat and have a drink, and all of a sudden it opens, that’s the priority where they’re going to eat.”
He explained: “It’s just not a very fair battle or fight. And I’m glad for the guys that get to open up, but I sure wish it was us, too.”
A lot of cities and towns in our country border neighboring states, but few are quite like this city that sits in two states but has one name and one traditionally vibrant business district along State Street.
Thanks to very different approaches to reopening states, the businesses on the Tennessee side were open Saturday, while the Virginia-side businesses, with the exception of curbside pickup operations at the Burger Bar and the legendary Blakey-Mitchel men’s clothing store a few blocks away, are nearly all closed. The Virginia stay-at-home order remains in place at least through June 10.
“I try to keep a smile on my face. Sometimes, it’s real hard,” Deel said. “Last week, there was a day I made $90 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.”
He does indeed have a broad smile on his face, but the pain of the effect of this pandemic is real for his family.
The fact that his governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, has yet to consider that a southwestern Virginia region deep in the heart of Appalachia might be having a completely different experience than densely populated northern Virginia frustrates him.
“Typically, on a Saturday morning, the only day we serve breakfast, we run out of food, and this place is just packed to the rafters inside and out,” he explained, pointing to the tables and chairs that line the sidewalk.
Hugh Testerman stood outside Blakley-Mitchell Clothing Company in a polo shirt and shorts. He immediately apologized for not having a suit on. You see, around these parts, he is known for his dapper attire.
“Had a regular customer call me from Atlanta yesterday and asked if I’d be open. I told him I’d be here for him,” Testerman said.
“Not being able to work every day after a 40-year streak of work is awful,” the 60-year-old clothier said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s testing for the coronavirus has been robust. It has consistently ranked at the top of the Johns Hopkins University mapping of coronavirus state testing, while Northam’s testing has consistently, abysmally lagged toward the bottom.
Today, the Burger Bar, which opened in 1942 and is best known for being the last place Hank Williams Sr. was seen alive, is not serving breakfast; no sausage gravy-smothered biscuits are overflowing on plates; and no customers sit inside at its iconic counter. The State Line Bar and Grill, on the other hand, is serving a brisk business across the street.
“I would like to cordially invite Gov. Northam down and treat him and his staff to a burger anytime if he could come down and just see where we’re at and our situation,” Deel said. “If you sat on my front porch in my restaurant and looked over across the street and watched the parking lot fill up, maybe he would feel a little bit different, but I’m not sure if he would or not.”
Ninety-three summers ago, record producer Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company began making music history in this dual city in the middle of Appalachia when he began recording sessions of both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Now referred to as the Bristol Sessions, that moment became known as the big bang of modern country music and is how this city earned its moniker “The Birthplace of Country Music.”
Johnny Cash called those sessions “the most important event in the history of country music.”
It is noon on Saturday. The sky is a calming blue. The sun is brilliant. And down the street from the Burger Bar, the temperature has climbed to a balmy 71 degrees. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which honors that significant contribution to Americana, is closed.
Lots of milkshakes are ordered and picked up from Deel, including a peanut butter and jelly one.
Bristol is a microcosm of the chasm between open and closed states that will define the debate in the country for the next few months.
“We’ll be OK. We’ve got to be,” Deel says. Then he takes another order by phone.
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