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COVID-19 shutdowns prompted much innovation from local businesses

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Jeff Kristola, owner of the Hideaway Tavern north of Alpena, sanitizes a bottle of ketchup on March 31 at the bar.

ALPENA — Northeast Michiganders still deal with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, one year after the region’s first infection was reported by local health department officials.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s original stay-at-home orders last spring forced schools to move classes online, canceled community events, and caused businesses and restaurants to adapt and innovate to continue serving customers.

Gyms like Bay Athletic Club were closed more than they were open last year. Bay Athletic owner Trina Gray said her leadership team had to innovate to remain a part of club members’ lives.

“I felt like I had a very narrow window to make decisions, because people were making decisions about their life — like kids are getting sent home from school, people are trying to work remotely, people are changing their budgets, people are getting out of routine — and, if I didn’t keep fitness in their routine, it’s really hard to bring people back,” she said.

To keep the gym going, Gray said she had to continue offering group fitness classes, for which the majority of members come to the club. After 14 years in business, the club offered its first virtual group fitness class on March 16, 2020.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Bay Athletic Club Chief Financial Officer Kelly Lake instructs a hybrid pilates class on March 31 at the club in Alpena.

Gray said one good thing to come from the pandemic was that the club’s leadership team learned how to effectively teach fitness classes virtually to people at home.

“We had to upgrade our technology and the camera and the soundsystem and the lighting,” she said. “We had to be really good at being online personalities and teaching over a computer screen.”

Mike Mahler, director of economic development at the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce, had only about two months on the job when the pandemic hit. Mahler said his job shifted when the Michigan Economic Development Corp. offered COVID-19 relief money to small businesses.

Mahler said he shifted from economic development work to helping small businesses survive.

“So, what we did in our Chamber offices, I focused on the grants,” he said. “(President and CEO) Adam (Poll) took the lead on learning as much as you could about the loan programs that the (Small Business Administration) had in place in the government, so that we could divide and conquer and make sure we gave adequate time and attention to these programs.”

Jeff Kristola, owner of the Hideaway Tavern north of Alpena, received COVID-19 relief money.

He sums up the past year in one word: “Challenging.”

Kristola said shutting down his dining room after state rules limited him to offering curbside service challenged him most in the past year. He couldn’t offer things the bar typically offered when fully open, such as beer and cocktails, pull tabs, and Keno.

He said he started using Facebook a lot more to advertise his specials. He also put the specials on a road sign in front of his business for passersby to see.

Kristola said he has always been conservative with money, and cut bills where he could when in-person service stopped, but other bills and taxes still came due, and he estimates his business lost 28% of its revenue last year.

He said the COVID-19 relief money was “a lifesaver.”

With coronavirus vaccines rolling out, and the state mostly open again, both Kristola and Gray are encouraged by their customer response.

Moving forward, Gray said the club will continue to offer classes online. Though the club is open again and people can work out in the studio, Gray said about 50% of her members still work out at home.

“When we ask them why, it’s not necessarily a fear of COVID, anymore,” she said. “Many people are vaccinated. They’re comfortable getting out more. It’s just, honestly, convenience. A lot of them have gotten used to walking into their living room and taking classes with us.”

Kristola said customers have come in again, though the restaurant can only allow 50% capacity at this time.

Sandwiched in between Long Lake and Grand Lake, Kristola said he looks forward to when vehicles towing boats arrive, signs his summertime customers have returned.

“I’m being very optimistic that the summer will get better,” he said.

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