Catching up: Four months in to pandemic, businesses struggle with the new ‘normal’
By Ogden Newspapers
In April, Ogden Newspapers reached out to a plethora of businesses around the country to hear their stories about how they were coping with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some expressed concern over if their business could survive without knowing what the future held, while others noted frustration with their inability to receive federal aid.
As we approach the fourth month of the outbreak, we checked in with the businesses to see how they weathered the storm. We also asked about what it was like to shut down, open again, and then, in some cases, be forced to shut down again due to the continuation of the first wave of the virus, and state leaders re-implementing stay-at-home orders.
Some businesses have found sustained success, while others continue to struggle to adapt to a business model in such uncertain times. As you’ll see, from West Virginia to Kansas — and everywhere in between — small businesses continue to be some the hardest hit entities across the nation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Westbrook Health Services (Parkersburg, W.Va.)
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Westbrook Health Services saw an average of 1,300 clients a week at its eight facilities in and around Parkersburg, W.Va. With many activities curtailed in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, that number dropped to an average of 300 in April.
As West Virginia has reopened, the number is climbing again for the provider of psychiatric care, therapy, substance abuse treatment and assistance for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across seven counties.
“We really encourage clients to receive their services at their house, but if they feel like they need to be here, then we can accommodate that as well,” Westbrook President and CEO Kevin Trippett said. “I think some of our clients are starting to miss the personal contact.”
The door count for the week of July 13-17 was about 800, he said.
While some employees are still working from home, others have come back to their offices.
“Employees have returned to work — we’re keeping our social distance at the office, and we’re wearing our face masks,” Trippett said.
Westbrook lost some employees due to attrition in recent months, he said, but their workforce wasn’t reduced because of the pandemic.
“We’re actually having a difficult time recruiting employees right now,” Trippett said, noting they have about 70 vacancies.
Many of those are in direct care positions for individuals in group home settings. Trippett said that area could be related to the enhanced unemployment benefits some people are receiving, “but we are trying to recruit therapists, case managers, even secretarial” positions as well.
Another challenge in recent months has been obtaining personal protective equipment, said Claire Berlin, public relations and marketing coordinator for Westbrook.
“Staff have been working hard to secure PPE from our normal vendors, sourcing new verified vendors to use and relying heavily on donations from other organizations,” she said. “Due to our limited supply, we are encouraging staff to wear cloth masks when they can and reserve disposable masks for clients or visitors as needed.”
Sew the Curve Flat, a network of volunteers connecting mask-makers to organizations in need, provided 200 handmade cloth masks in June. Earlier this month, the volunteer group West Virginia Mask Army donated 500 filtered face masks and the United Way Alliance of the Mid-Ohio Valley contributed 600 non-surgical disposable masks and 15 refillable bottles of hand sanitizer.
Elopers (Charles Town, West Virginia)
Jennifer and Major Clark were worried about their small business in April, when states were shutting down.
The Charles Town, West Virginia, couple run the company Elopers, which provides elopement and wedding services to couples in their state as well as Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything in peak wedding season, including the courts, making it impossible for couples to even get a marriage license.
In the last four months, however, the couple has been able to “make things work.” As couples have had to cancel large wedding plans, the Clarks started marketing smaller-scale wedding services.
“We’re doing a lot of things outside in parks with just the bride and groom,” Jennifer Clark said. “Of course we’re having to wear masks, but we’re making it work.”
She said that while some couples are waiting on the big wedding ceremony for next year, they’re still coming to their company for a legal ceremony this year.
“We’re having a lot of success with that,” Jennifer said.
Thom Duma Fine Jewelers (Warren, OH)
After months of quarantining, people are still in love, jewelry store owner Thom Duma confirmed Tuesday.
Duma had to close his store, Thom Duma Fine Jewelers, in late March, but since reopening in mid-May, Duma said traffic has really picked up.
Anniversaries, engagements and birthdays are some of the celebrations from which Duma said he is making the most of his sales. He noted that because the travel industry is taking a hit, people are turning to jewelry instead spending their money.
The business had a slow start reopening in May, but revenue for June exceeded revenue for June of 2019, and Duma said that as of Tuesday morning, July’s sales were projected to also be ahead of sales for July of 2019.
Duma said he feels fortunate for where the business is currently, but worries about what the future may hold.
Throughout the stay-at-home orders, Duma and his employees called their customers to check in on them, a process they called “care calls.”
Many of the customers who received care calls have come in to thank the team, something Duma said was cool to see. The purpose of the calls was not a sales pitch, but one care call did end up getting the business some revenue.
Duma had called customer Carolyn Shaffer to check in during the pandemic, and Shaffer told Duma that her sister’s father-in-law had contracted COVID-19 and was placed in hospice care. She asked him to pray. The man died later that day, and Shaffer called her nephews to see how they were doing.
One, named Mario, shared with his aunt during the call that he was planning on proposing to his girlfriend soon. Then, he asked her if she knew Duma.
“I kind of liked stopped dead in my tracks,” she said.
Shaffer typically speaks to Duma about twice a year, so the timing was fortuitous. She called Duma back to tell him about the coincidence, and informed him that when they reopened, “we’re going to be the first ones in the door.”
On Tuesday morning, Duma said that while they weren’t the first in the door, he did sell Mario an engagement ring.
Domestic Sewing Center (Warren, OH)
At Domestic Sewing Center in Warren, Ohio, “it’s been a zoo,” owner Linda Fabrizio said on Thursday.
The business has been thriving throughout the pandemic, with its customers furiously making masks to send to hospitals. Now that Gov. Mike DeWine has instituted an executive order requiring everyone to wear masks in public, Fabrizio expects her business to continue to ramp up. She has been doing curbside sales and repairs since the pandemic called for her showroom to close in March.
“Everybody is making masks right now,” she said. “And now that it’s mandated by the state of Ohio, we’re getting an awful lot of people looking for machines and also repairs. It’s just been really, really crazy.”
Fabrizio is currently the only employee at the store, which she co-owns with her 91-year-old father Jake Kois, who started the business in 1956. Because of the risk for older people pertaining to COVID-19, she said her father has been staying home, although he loves interacting with customers and providing friendly, fair service. He’s been keeping busy with his gardening, she said.
Since she is the only employee right now, Fabrizio has required her customers to wear masks from the beginning of the pandemic when interacting with her for curbside sales and pickup. She noted that if she gets sick, no one would be there for her customers, and that can’t happen because they need her to maintain and repair machines so they can keep sewing.
“It’s really quite interesting how this is working right now,” she said. “The phone doesn’t stop ringing. People keep knocking on the door bringing machines in.”
She said she sold out of the lower-priced machines but she currently offers refurbished ones at a discount.
“These trade-ins have been really a blessing, because we’re servicing those out as fast as we can, and those are flying off the shelves, too,” Fabrizio said.
When the pandemic began, she ordered new machines, but they have yet to arrive because manufacturers have not been producing them like they were before the pandemic started, and currently, there is a shortage of machines.
“Now, and I think they’re seeing this across the nation, everybody is sewing these masks, so everybody is pretty well running out of sewing machines,” Fabrizio said. “And our suppliers aren’t keeping up with the demand right now.”
Fabrizio estimated that over the course of the last four months, her customers have made and donated more than 2,000 masks, which she then has distributed to local hospitals, calling the initiative “Masks of Love.” All the masks are made from donated materials either provided by clients or taken from the store’s stock of fabric. Because of the elastic shortage, people have stepped up and brought Fabrizio elastic, including a woman who owns a lingerie company who donated elastic during the shortage.
With the statewide mandate, along with school coming up in the fall, her customers will be making even more masks for friends, family and students, she said.
While not the case for many other businesses, the pandemic has actually helped Domestic Sewing Center, so Fabrizio is grateful for that.
“I know a lot of businesses are suffering, but … thank God we’re not,” she said. “Because of the fact that everybody is really stepping up to the plate. And all we’re basically trying to do is keep everybody up and running so they can make these masks.”
SPCA (Winchester, Virginia)
The SPCA of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke counties in Virginia has served its community since 1907 and strives to safeguard animals in transition. In addition to strengthening the human-animal bond, it also serves as a public shelter for the city of Winchester and a private shelter for Frederick and Clarke counties.
The organization has endured enormous changes since the COVID-19 pandemic began, most notably cutting its staff from 25 to 12. Recently, however, the staff has returned to full staffing, to the delight of the shelter’s Executive Director, Lavenda Denney.
She said when the changes first started coming, she knew it would get worse, but after being closed for eight weeks, the shelter has opened again with new hours.
“We are open during the week when we’re not quite as busy, and on the weekends, by appointment only because we get so much foot traffic,” Denney said. “With our facility, there’s no way to control spacing. In the beginning, we strongly encouraged masks, but now it’s mandatory.”
Denney said she’s used the time during the pandemic to write grants.
“We did get very fortunate in the first round of loans that helped with all the COVID-related expenses and overhead and payroll,” she said. “We had a stay at home fundraiser which did really well for us. We spent some time and regrouped, and a lot of grants popped up, so I’ve spent a lot of time writing grants.”
She said all events the SPCA had planned are canceled for now, but the shelter has reopened with a new program.
“We fast-tracked a pet retention program, Pets for Life, that we had planned to launch next year,” she said. “We’ve started financially helping people keep their pets instead of having to surrender them. Because of people losing their jobs in the community, it had to become a priority.”
In the first 10 weeks of the program, Pets for Life, 69 families have been helped, representing 249 pets that had a financial need. Over 2,000 of dog and cat food were provided and the shelter helped provide more than $25,000 of emergency veterinary care. The shelter also distributed 150 gift cards for pet needs to those in the program.
“It’s helped us keep animals out of the shelter during the crisis which is really priceless, Denney said. “It’s the best thing we can do. Nobody wants to have to give up their pets because of financial need.”
She said they were unsure how the community would react to opening such a program, but the support has been fantastic.
“You’ve had people send in donations for the program, wanting to help people keep their pets,” she said. “It says something about our community and our values. I’m just really happy.”
Another new thing the SPCA has experienced throughout the pandemic is the creation of a new position, a community services coordinator, which is currently held by Stacy Leach.
“It’s something we’ve had in the works for the while, but we had to streamline it a little bit because of people in the community in need of assistance,” Leach said. “I meet with people who come in and need assistance and see how we’re able to help them and their pets, whether they need pet food or care that they can’t afford, and we get them that help.”
She said coordinating Pets for Life has been “very busy” — in fact, busier than what they imagined it would be.
“It’s been very successful,” Leach said. “It’s very rewarding to help the people in our community that are in need.”
Henry T’s Bar & Grill (Lawrence, Kansas)
Henry T’s reopened for in-person dining three days a week last month, a setup that lasted just two weeks.
“The response was OK, but we could still only seat half the restaurant,” co-owner Sean Gerrity said.
The decision to revert to carryout, pickup and delivery was the result of “kind of the nexus of the anxiety of my staff and the anxiety of my customers.”
Both Douglas County, where Lawrence is, and Shawnee County, where there’s a Henry T’s in Topeka, require masks and face coverings to be worn indoors. But while employees in Topeka are as hesitant as their Lawrence counterparts, the mask mandate and Kansas’s rising COVID case numbers haven’t dissuaded as many customers, Gerrity said.
The Topeka location even remains open.
“I think there’s more awareness” in Lawrence, he said, calling the college town unique in the state. “It’s the customers that are a little less anxious” in Topeka.
With restaurants and bars reopened, demand for kegs of beer from the Yankee Tank Brewing Company that Gerrity and business partner, Dave Heinz, owns is up again.
Employing 80 people in March, Henry T’s dropped to approximately 20 positions between its locations in April and is back around 40 now, Gerrity said. Getting a Paycheck Protection Plan loan helped make that possible.
“It made it easier to open up, knowing that we wouldn’t make any money for a little while,” Gerrity said.
They’re actually looking to hire more people, but between college students going home and former workers earning more on enhanced unemployment, it’s a challenge, Gerrity said.
“It’s hard to compete with that right now,” he said.
D & K’s Studio of Dance (Hughesville, Pa.)
After COVID-19 forced D & K’s Studio of Dance to go virtual, the day they were allowed to have in-person classes again was the day they ended their membership with Zoom.
Owners Duane Gordner and Kellie Shaner-Gordner had offered free dance lessons via Zoom throughout the stay-at-home orders, but it just wasn’t the same, they said. The energy wasn’t there.
“They were just so happy when they were able to come back,” Shaner-Gordner said of the students who returned in June.
The couple said they have seen about a 90 percent return in students since reopening at their Hughesville location. They also have a studio in Lewisburg, but the couple said only about 40 percent of students there have returned. That studio has not reopened, so some of the Lewisburg students travel to Hughesville for classes.
The summer session is “condensed and limited,” Shaner-Gordner said. Each class has a smaller number of students and each class is also shortened to allow for cleaning time between classes.
The couple is back to charging for their services. Although they are concerned for what may happen come the fall, they said that as of now, they believe their business will survive.
“We’re still here and our plan is to still be here,” Shaner-Gordner said.