Making it work
Warren County business owners discuss re-opening
When Allegheny Outfitters re-opened on May 9, owner Piper VanOrd admitted both she and her team had their reservations about how best to proceed.
With patrons from approximately 48 states visiting her outdoors store and planning summer excursions through her kayak and canoe livery each summer, she knows the potential for business, while good, could pose a problem for COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
“We’re within a day’s drive from a quarter of the nation’s population and we’re right in the heart of Pennsylvania’s only national forest,” she said. “We’re a magnet for people from out of town to come here.”
But, VanOrd has attempted to meet customers where they are.
“We’ve had people reach out and ask to set up a time to come in and make an appointment to be able to shop,” she said as an example of different ways her business has tried to be accommodating.
“We just want people to be comfortable … any way we can do that, we’re good,” she added. “If they’re not comfortable coming in, they don’t need to come in. We can still help them find what they need and get it to them either through mail or dropping it off on their porch as we zoom through.”
Those accommodations have become, for many vigilant small businesses in Warren County, the “new normal,” according to John Papalia, director of chamber operations and tourism for the county’s Chamber of Business and Industry, with the region still in the Yellow Phase of Governor Tom Wolf’s plan to re-open the state with plans to transition to the Green Phase starting May 29.
“These are still very challenging times, but what I will say is that our businesses in Warren County, many of them, although difficult, are making this work,” he said. “They’re doing whatever they can to follow all guidelines, keep things sanitary and clean and as safe as possible for the patrons visiting their businesses.”
To aid in that transition, VanOrd noted that the chamber provided small businesses a “starter kit” of resources necessary to keep their shops sanitary.
“They actually brought each of the businesses a kit filled with hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, a bucket and some cleanser,” she said. “It’s just nice to have a community of small businesses check in on each other and to feel that support is a really big deal to me.”
Businesses that have resumed operations include retail and car dealerships as well as hardware and lawn and garden centers.
“Our greenhouses have been very busy since re-opening on May 4,” said Antoinetta Lindell, owner of Ekey Florist and Greenhouse. “Our greenhouses are open all throughout the year, but that’s when we would typically start getting busy.”
Lindell also said that the business has seen visitors from across the state line.
“There has been a lot of people who have come in and they’ve never been here before,” she said. “Whether they’re from New York State or other surrounding areas, they come in as well.”
VanOrd has also seen some visitors from Chautauqua County, N.Y., which began Phase I of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s re-opening plan on Tuesday.
“It hasn’t be so skewed that it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, clearly we’re chewing up all of New York’s business,'” she said. “We’ve had a couple.”
She added, “We did have one couple from Jamestown walk in real slow, just looking around, stop just inside the door and say, ‘We’ve never been here in particular, but we haven’t been in a store in two months, are we allowed to just look?’ and we’re to just welcome them in. It’s just a weird time.”
Still, there are businesses that have yet to re-open as the region remains in the Yellow Phase despite having only two confirmed cases of COVID-19.
“Hair salons and barbershops, they still are closed so that’s a very difficult time for them as well as some other businesses that have had to remain closed or have restrictions,” Papalia said, noting that the reaction from restaurants has been mixed.
“Restaurants are doing well with takeout and their numbers are looking pretty good, but it’s still a challenge,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily replace the people sitting down in your restaurant and the waiters and waitresses who would normally be serving. But, they’re making it work. One thing I’ve heard is that the takeout orders have gone up as people are more comfortable moving around in the Yellow Phase. That’s a good thing.”
Lindell noted that Ekey has yet to receive wholesale flower orders, thus affecting their flower shop operation for the time being.
“They have no idea when they’ll return to getting deliveries,” she said. “That’s more because we’re in such a small area. They’ve started making deliveries again to outlying areas, but we’re just not on their delivery list yet because our area is so small.”
“We’re all nervous,” VanOrd added. “Small business owners are all nervous. We want to re-open, we want to help people. We’re not unique. We’re like any restaurant and any other store that’s out there. We want to get back to doing what we do. It’s our world. This isn’t normal and it’s uncharted territory and we want to be safe.”
And, as the county prepares to enter the Green Phase later next week, Papalia said businesses are confident that they will be able to resume safely.
“Most of our businesses are very confident that they can offer their services right now and do it safely, following the guidelines with masks and hand sanitizer, so as they’ve come open, I know they’ve followed the guidelines to the best of their abilities to try and keep everyone safe,” he said. “From that end, things are positive and the people who were previously shut and now open are obviously very happy because they get some business.”
“Luckily our cases are low,” he said. “And for now, things are going OK, but are still a challenge. For some businesses, it’s a really tough challenge. They’re hoping to survive through this process.”