HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Downtown merchants in Hot Springs are holding a "Love Local Weekend" as shops try to send a message that almost everyone is back open after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the economy.

The goal is to clear up confusion over what's open and what's not, while driving back through newly opened doors to help them recover.

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"We probably lost about 85% of our business in April," said Jess Elder, owner of Buffalo Clothing Co., a boutique across from the famed Arlington Hotel. "We never fully closed our doors. We were open at least a few hours every day, so I know a lot of businesses lost a lot more than we did."

Elder rallied her fellow shopkeepers and Friday helped place balloons and message boards on the sidewalks up and down Central Ave. along Bathhouse Row. 

"We want people to know that it is a safe place to come out, get some fresh air, go shopping, and just visit some of these local stores that you never knew existed," Elder said.

This is not a call to tourists, though out-of-town travel is slowly coming back to the resort city. Business leaders don't expect the Black Friday-type crowds that showed up at big box stores last weekend, the first since Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted restrictions that placed the state in "phase one" of reopening. Similar crowds would actually be a setback for business here, according to city leaders.

Instead, the event is a push for some festive foot traffic, knowing many are still leery of co-mingling with neighbors.

"We are taking all of the necessary precautions," Elder said. "We have had a few concerned that we're not requiring masks, but we wanted to leave it up to the individual store owners."

That's a sign merchants don't want to turn anyone away during this delicate phase, but still hope to project strength as they pin business survival on a big summer.

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"We want people to know that we're open. That we're strong. That we're going to come back even stronger from this," Elder said.