The recent closure of One Line Coffee, which operates a trio of Downtown-adjacent shops, highlights the difficulty some business owners have had in navigating the current coronavirus landscape, torn between the need to protect public health and a desire to provide for employees.

In late March, as the coronavirus continued to spread, more businesses closed and daily warnings emanated from Gov. Mike DeWine, who reminded Ohioans in daily press conferences of the need to maintain a safe social distance and to remain at home unless venturing out was an absolute necessity, Ben Willis was still schlepping to a job at One Line Coffee, though the work was beginning to take a toll.

“I was like, ‘If we’re going to be open during a pandemic, can we set up our shifts in certain ways where we’re not putting our people at risk?’” said Willis, a senior barista and trainer for retail operations, adding that ownership gradually filtered in staff requests such as hand sanitation stations and a blockade to prevent customers from congregating in the shop. “And then I went to work on Friday (March 27), and there were just so many people coming into the coffee shop. Granted, I know we were one of the only ones open, but there were so many people that it started to become like, ‘You don’t need this.’

"It comes down to a philosophical thing. Are we essential? Is your latte, your coffee, essential to your day? To your survival? To making sure public spaces are safe? And I, personally, did not think so.”

As a result, following that Friday shift, Willis returned home and posted a series of images inlaid with text on Instagram stories. One slide read that the best thing customers could do to support One Line through this time was to stay at home because your coffee is “not worth the potential spread of this disease.” Others included the type of filters and equipment used to brew in-shop, along with a note to feel free to reach out with any home brewing questions. There was also an image linking to a digital “tip jar” where people could donate via the Cash app to a general fund created to assist those One Line baristas who had opted to give up their shifts until it was safe to resume business.

Within days of making the post, Willis, who had been with the company since 2017, was terminated from his job at One Line — a dismissal he initially traced to his pleas, but that was ultimately rooted in a combination of corporate policy and miscommunication stemming from the creation of the virtual tip jar. (Willis has since been reinstated to his position, writing in a follow-up email, “At the end of the day, I really like what One Line does as a company. We disagree on things, but we generally get to talk about them.”)

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

But the dustup highlights the larger confusion some businesses have had with aspects of DeWine’s “stay at home” order, which was accompanied by a list of “essential businesses” that could remain open during the shutdown. The designation became a stressor for local companies such as One Line, which qualified to continue operations under the wide parameters set by the government, but whose ownership struggled with the idea that its services could be considered necessary.

“It’s been tough, and, honestly, for Mick [Evans] and Mark [Forman] and myself, our stomachs have been in knots over the last two weeks just trying to figure out if we’re doing the right thing, and what the right thing to do actually is,” One Line director of coffee Dave Forman said by phone in the days after the company decided to close its doors on Sunday, March 29. “One of our biggest frustrations, in a lot of ways, was that we never really got a coordinated response from any level of government as to what should we do. What are we supposed to do? The second frustrating thing, and maybe this is just semantics, but they had this list of ‘essential’ businesses, and I think that was a terrible term to use, because, from a life-sustaining perspective, is coffee essential? I mean, no. We don’t need it. But for our employees, [the income] was essential.”

“We heard from some people, for sure, customers telling us, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be open.’ And it’s hard to explain to someone that we do need to be open, at least until we can figure out how to pay our employees.”

Forman said the delayed decision to close the chain’s three shops stemmed from a desire to make sure that it could preserve a stream of income for its employees, and that the recent passage of the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act, which established a $349 billion lending program for small businesses and left the company feeling comfortable that it could continue to extend salary and benefits to its staff members for at least the next eight weeks during this shutdown.

“The CARES Act was passed on Friday (March 27), and we started talking with our bankers, seeing how this was going to work and what we might be eligible for, and by Sunday we felt like there was going to be a solution that would let everyone keep 100 percent of their income,” Forman said. “So we felt comfortable at that point closing the shops and moving forward. I mean, it’s still a little up in the air, and the loan process hasn’t even started taking applications yet … but we’re hopeful.”

Although similar uncertainty surrounds an eventual reopening date — “We’re not going to be the leaders on that one; we’ll wait and see what everyone else does and then work our way back,” Forman said — the businessman offered assurances that the coffee purveyors, who also operate an East Coast sister chain, River Road Coffeehouse, would eventually resume operations.

“I don’t want to say anything with a 100 percent guarantee, but we’re not going to shut anything down,” he said. “We’ll reopen when we can, and we’re going to work to bring [every employee] back.”