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Just in time: Pre-summer reopening a relief for many small businesses

Courtesy Photo Erica Smith stands near a “We Are Open” sign in front of her gift shop, The Gathered Earth, in downtown Marquette.

The timing of states reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was just soon enough that many businesses did not have to shut down for good. Even so, small business owners remain very cautious as they open doors to be sure to try and avoid a second shutdown. We spoke with business owners in three states to get their take on what’s next.

UPPER PENINSULA

Erica Smith owns The Gathered Earth retail store in downtown Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The store features items made by local artists, fair trade items made in the U.S., and items by “give back” companies who donate to organizations or causes.

Smith said her business is down 30 percent from this time last year, but that the two-and-a-half months she was closed due to the pandemic are typically the slowest time of the year for her anyway. Reopening right before summer was a huge relief for her as a small business owner.

“It certainly was a gift,” Smith said of the timing. “We opened the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. That was the soonest we could open, so we took that opportunity to do it.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed the Upper Peninsula and parts of Northern Lower Michigan to reopen before downstate businesses could because of the lower number of COVID-19 cases in the northern parts of the state.

Opening any later might have spelled disaster for Smith and other small businesses.

“The truth of it is, in the U.P., we didn’t have an outbreak like what happened downstate,” Smith said. “But, because we’re part of the state, everybody had to close here. And what we have here — we don’t have small businesses, we have micro businesses — the businesses that are here, for the most part, are owners and they have a few employees that help them run the space.”

Smith said since her business reopened, she has taken every precaution to follow safety protocols, including wearing masks and requiring customers to wear them, keeping the door wide open when the weather permits to reduce touching of door handles, having a barrier at the counter and disinfecting the checkout area after every customer. She and her staff use hand sanitizer after every transaction.

“We’re a small town here, and we can’t afford to have everything shut down again like we did before, so we’re doing everything that we can,” Smith said.

She said businesses have been doing a great job of communicating the importance of social distancing, wearing masks and abiding by the precautions to prevent another shutdown due to the coronavirus.

“People are getting better about it now,” Smith said. “I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the businesses have been very clear [communicating] that every place you go into here, you’re going to be asked to wear a mask.”

She said she hasn’t had to limit the amount of people coming into her store yet, but that may change as tourism ramps up in the summer months.

“We’ve had a steady flow, but we never felt overwhelmed,” she said.

Smith said she and other business owners are looking forward to what they hope is a profitable summer, but the threat of having to shut back down if another outbreak occurs is still looming.

“I think there’s a lot of people that are hopeful as we head into the tourist season, that they’ll be able to recoup,” Smith said. “We’re hoping to be able to get back on pace. But the idea of a possible shutdown happening again if they see any kind of a spike up here, that’s, I think, what people are most concerned about. Because if they were to have to close again, I think there would be more businesses that would say, ‘I can’t do it again.'”

She said in talking to other business owners, the timing of the reopening could not have been better, considering the circumstances.

“Being able to open up right as we head into June was — I mean, if we wouldn’t have been able to do that, I think that would have really affected a lot of other people’s decisions as to whether or not they were going to keep on keepin’ on.”

She said state and local small business grants have been a huge help during this time.

“The loan part is just too uncertain, I think, especially for the super small businesses,” she said.

She added that with colleges set to start up Aug. 17, the summer business may be cut short this year, and so the uncertainty continues.

“Our business, I can see dropping off sooner than it would have in other years, because a lot of kids are going back to school earlier,” Smith said. “We’re going to see a bit of a drop instead of getting through Labor Day. So that’s where there’s some uncertainty, too, as far as what those numbers are going to look like going forward.”

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Regina Lang owns SNAP It’s Vintage in downtown Nashua, New Hampshire. She’s been in business for four years now, but almost had to call it quits because of shutdown during the pandemic. She said the executive order to shut down came amid a successful, busy time, so that was unfortunate for her to have to close her doors.

“We were doing really well when everything hit,” Lang said. “So it was terrible timing.”

She had to work with her landlord to extend some deadlines so she could keep her business open.

“I almost lost it,” she said of her store. “Luckily for me, my landlord worked with me. I do know people who have vintage shops, antique shops, that didn’t make it, so I was fortunate.”

If the shutdown had lasted any longer she said she might have closed, she said, and the threat of a second shutdown is not even something Lang wants to consider.

“I don’t know if I’d make it again,” she said.

Lang applied for some grants but was not awarded any, so she has struggled through without any financial assistance.

“I tried three times,” she said of applying for grants. “The first two times I tried I was told that there was no money left. And then, the third time I never got a response.”

SNAP It’s Vintage reopened two weeks ago, with the same full business hours as they had prior to the shutdown. Lang operates the store with help from her husband and one part-time employee.

Since reopening, Lang and her staff wear masks and require customers to wear them as well. All surfaces are disinfected daily. She said social distancing is practiced, but she rarely has more than a handful of customers in her store at the same time, so crowding has not been an issue.

“Every day, we’re constantly wiping things down, keeping things clean,” Lang said. “I have masks out, and gloves. My place, luckily, is not ever full of people, so I never really have to worry about a whole bunch of people in here at once breathing on me or each other.”

She said the community support has been encouraging since reopening.

“People have been really supportive about coming in,” Lang said. “I have some wonderful customers that were just thrilled to see me open again, and they were happy that I survived … It makes me happy, makes me feel good, and makes it worth the struggle.”

MINNESOTA

In New Ulm, Minnesota, all of the businesses that are members of the New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce are remaining open, according to Chamber President and CEO Michael Looft.

Looft said he was not worried about them not reopening, but he was concerned with how long Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders were going to go on.

“We have a really strong business community here,” Looft said, adding that grant funding that the businesses did not have to pay back was a plus, “just to keep them afloat for the last couple of months. So, we had a real strong sense that they were going to open.”

He said the timing was a crucial factor in whether or not businesses would remain solvent.

“I think it was a turning point for most businesses,” Looft said. “You know, if they hadn’t been able to open, I don’t know if some of them would have opened. They would’ve just put it up for sale and moved on. Because without revenue coming in, it’s really difficult to operate.”

He said the vibe is positive and hopeful right now in New Ulm.

“The community has been extremely supportive,” Looft added. “The business owners have been welcomed back, and I think there’s been a lot of commerce activity within the city of New Ulm.”

MICHIGAN

In Alpena, Michigan, the situation is similar, as none of the members of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce have closed down, Chamber President and CEO Adam Poll said.

Up in Marquette, Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Rebecca Salmon said that to her knowledge, none of the downtown businesses are closing.

“It’s a very good thing,” she said. “I think we’re seeing more people coming downtown … Just generally speaking, I think there’s a feeling of a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Things have turned a corner, and we are making some positive progress to reopening and rebuilding downtown.”

As more summer tourists come in from out of town and out of state, it will be crucial to continue social distancing and mask wearing to prevent a second shutdown, Salmon noted.

“Typically, we have a lot of tourism, and around this time, we start to see levels of visitors from other areas, both statewide and throughout the Midwest or beyond,” Salmon said. “This year, it’s kind of tough to say.

“I think obviously,” she concluded, “we are going to have an impact on tourism with the COVID-19.”

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