New screens at Westlake Cinema

Thomas Althoff, Westlake Cinema general manager, peels back the wrapping on the new plexiglass screens now in place at the theater’s concessions.

Virginia moved into Phase 3 of reopening businesses Wednesday, easing restrictions once again and bringing the lake community a bit closer to a sense of normalcy.

Westlake Cinema is preparing to open its doors for the first time in nearly three months. The theater closed March 17 to comply with restrictions put in place due to COVD-19.

The theater is currently scheduled to reopen July 10, just over a week after Phase 3 was started. Current restrictions will limit patrons to 50% of the theater’s capacity. Masks must be worn in the theater and lobby.

Thomas Althoff, Westlake Cinema general manager, said the extra week before opening is necessary to put new safeguards in place, train employees on safety guidelines and ensure all concession machines are operational. The time is also needed to determine what movies the theater will show. Because of the pandemic, movies scheduled to open this summer have been pushed into the fall.

The theater, Althoff said, will likely show movies released earlier this year such as “Trolls World Tour” and possibly older movies like “Jaws” or “Jurassic Park” until new ones are released later.

Just down the road, Hot Shots Bar & Grille near Westlake Corner is grateful for the easing of restrictions. Owner Jeff Schott said business is near normal after barely being able to hang on a few months ago.

Schott closed the business for more than a month in March when customers were no longer allowed to eat in the restaurant or allowed on the miniature golf course.

“We were almost at a point of no return,” Schott said of the business after it closed.

It was only through a Paycheck Protection Program loan provided by their bank that it was able to keep going, Schott said. The loan is provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration to help businesses during COVID-19.

Hot Shots reopened at the start of Phase 1 in May and business has been picking up with the start of each new phase. “At Phase 3, we should be pretty close to normal,” Schott said.

Phase 3 comes just days before July 4, usually one of the biggest holidays for Smith Mountain Lake that traditionally brings visitors to the area. Chris Finley, Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the lake’s visitor center has seen a uptick in traffic since Memorial Day and expects a busy Independence Day weekend.

Finley said several chamber members have reported an increase in business such as watercraft rentals, real estate activity and vacation reservations.

The chamber has provided multiple resources for businesses to come together and share input on what to do while restrictions are in place. Virtual meetings were organized for businesses staring in March.

“The SMLRCC continues utilizing video conferencing to facilitate virtual meetings for its members focused reopening responsibly, business continuity, SBA disaster relief lending resources, wellness, technology, maximizing social media during the pandemic,” Finley said. In-person meetings were also added at the start of Phase 2.

While Finley said it is too early to speculate on the estimated total of the economic fallout from COVID-19, there are encouraging signs pointing to a gradual road to recovery for the lake community.