Local businesses feel the impact of coronavirus

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(Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 coronavirus has increased across the country, in the region and in the city, people have had to adjust to a new way of life.

Streets and grocery store shelves have emptied, schools and offices have shut down and large gatherings have been cancelled. The rapid changes have hit local business owners especially hard, with new challenges popping up every day as federal and state guidelines seemingly change by the minute.

There are four positive cases of coronavirus in Alexandria, according to the Alexandria Heath Department, and 77 positive cases statewide resulting in two deaths. Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) held a press conference on Tuesday, declaring a public health emergency in the Commonwealth.

Paper products and cleaning supplies have been in high demand since the coronavirus outbreak ramped up. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

Northam also announced that the state would follow the federal guideline of prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 customers in restaurants, fitness centers and theaters. However, Northam encouraged businesses to continue to offer carryout and delivery options for customers.

“We hadn’t seen much of a change in sales until Saturday, and Saturday and Sunday our restaurants were down – depending on the restaurant – between 30 and 40 percent,” Bill Blackburn, owner of Holy Cow and Pork Barrel BBQ, said.

Before federal guidelines further restricted public gatherings, Blackburn and his staff had spread out tables to increase the distance between customers, opened front doors to avoid contact with contaminated surfaces and removed menus.

“I think there’s a lot of different scenarios and we’re in uncharted waters. All bets are off. We don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Blackburn said.

Restaurants rise to the occasion

On Monday, Blackburn was preparing to increase his restaurants’ delivery and take out options. Since then, those options have become necessities, and Blackburn is encouraging customers to “order online, order online, order online.”

“That is how we are gonna get through this financially and that is how we are gonna get through this as a community,” Blackburn said.

Although Blackburn and many other restaurateurs are trying to push through to the other side of the pandemic, not every restaurant made that call.

In response to Northam’s press conference, Alexandria Restaurant Partners, the team behind The Majestic, Mia’s Italian Kitchen and Vola’s Dockside Grill among other concepts, closed all of its restaurants. The only exception is Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza, which is still providing curbside pickup and delivery through delivery service Uber Eats.

As restaurants across the country prepared for the worst, Uber Eats announced on Monday that it would start offering free delivery for independent restaurants and the opportunity for restaurants to receive daily payouts, as opposed to the standard weekly payout. The company also pledged to deliver more than 300,000 free meals to healthcare workers.

While many local restaurants have had to adapt to online ordering and delivery options, some chain restaurants appear to have made the shift more easily. Sweetgreen, for example, announced on Monday that all 104 of its locations, including its Old Town location, had moved to digital ordering, allowing customers to order online for delivery and pickup in stores.

Retailers face challenges

Global retail chains made similar adjustments. Anthropologie closed all of its stores worldwide on March 14; however, unlike many local businesses, the company’s custom app and website are still accepting and fulfilling online orders.

For local retailers, things were more serious. Customers continue to trickle into storefronts, but most retailers have been forced to shift to phone orders with in-store pickup or online ordering.

“We’re also providing phone orders so that if people don’t want to come into the store – they don’t feel comfortable coming in and shopping – they can just call, tell us what they want, we can run their credit card and then they can just pick it up right at the door,” Nicole White, owner of Bloomers, said.

Retail chain Anthropologie closed all of its global stores but still allows customers to order online and through its app. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

Bloomers, like many local businesses, has implemented stringent cleaning policies, with deep cleanings occurring at the end of every day and employees sanitizing surfaces and items that have been touched by customers in between transactions. Employees are no longer doing bra fittings either.

Even with those policies in place, getting customers to come out to a retailer is a hard ask at a time when social distancing is so important for containing the coronavirus. White is trying to take things in stride, as customers dwindle and sales evaporate.

“It’s just day by day at this point because I don’t know how else you could do it,” White said. “You can’t really forecast. You can go to worse case scenarios in your head a million times and it’ll drive you crazy.”

Glimmers of hope

At a time when things can seem dire for businesses, the local business community and its customers have come together to support one another as much as possible.

“It’s a great community in Old Town,” White said. “ … I think we’re all watching what everyone else is doing and kind of gauging what we do based off what everyone else is doing and kind of coming together to try to support each other and just get through this.”

Few things are as powerful as the relationship between a business and its regulars, and at a time when things are uncertain, some residents have found comfort in something as simple as their favorite coffee grinds.

Alexandria resident Eileen Wallace has been going to Misha’s Coffee for 25 years, and she wasn’t about to let a viral outbreak stop her from getting her favorite blend. After contacting the local coffee shop, Wallace got three pounds of Misha’s Route 66 blend sent to her door.

“They were really nice about it,” Wallace said. “I just didn’t want to go to a big place with people and I knew that I would want coffee over the next few weeks. So, they were very kind. I put an envelope with money on my door, they took that and left the coffee and that was that. We waved through the window.”

On Wednesday, Visit Alexandria released a new web hub called ALX at Home to encourage residents to support Alexandria’s independent businesses while staying home. The hub includes lists of restaurant offerings, alternative shopping options, virtual experiences and more. Learn more at www.visitalexandria.com/alxathome.

A hit to fitness

Another business sector taking a hit during the pandemic is fitness studios.

After Northam’s order banning gatherings of 10 or more on Tuesday, several studios announced they were temporarily suspending classes. Several others made the move even sooner, including Refresh Yoga Center, which closed its doors and shifted to online classes on Saturday.

 

Like a lot of fitness studios, Georgie’s Pilates Loft announced it would close it s doors until the end of the month. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

“We just wanted to do our part, and our responsibility is to the health of our students … We have to flatten the curve,” Refresh owner Kathryn Taron said. “I feel like the shift really happened last weekend. It was almost a palpable kind of energy shift, and as soon as we published that we were closing, we got a lot of support from the community, from our yogis.”

Refresh is only offering online courses, but the turnout for those courses has remained steady, Taron said. Students can still sign up for online courses at www.refreshyogacenter.com/classes/class-schedule.

But service-based businesses, especially fitness studios with their reliance on in-person, group activity, still face an uphill battle. Taron doesn’t expect this level of support to last forever. Some students, particularly seniors who find it difficult to adapt to the online classes, are already suspending their memberships in anticipation of financial hardships.

Taron and her co-owner Lindsey Canaley are fortunate; they have a safety fund and don’t live month to month. But Taron expects things to start getting difficult in April, when businesses begin to feel the long-term impacts of the coronavirus. Until then, Taron and her students will do what they’ve been trained to do.

“There is some anxiety around it, and what I wrote to the students was that we’re yogis, so we’ve been training for this moment,” Taron said. “We get on the mat and we breathe and we try to do everything we’ve learned as yoga students and yoga teachers, that we are very fortunate in so many ways.”

Stocking up

While restaurants and retailers have had to reckon with decreased service, grocery stores are facing quite the opposite. Entire aisles of sanitary supplies, meat and non-perishable goods are empty, as residents stock up for what could be a lengthy period of isolation.

Daniel Wolk, communications and community relations manager for Giant, said customers need to keep in mind that there isn’t a shortage of food; it’s just a matter of getting the supplies to stores.

Grocery stores have struggled to keep up with the demand, as residents have started to stockpile goods. (Photo/Denise Dunbar)

“We’re trying to supply to the best of our ability as fast as we can to get [things] back in the store, but what we ask is that our customers buy for what they need this week and maybe not what they need this entire month,” Wolk said. “Buy for what you need now, the next few days, and understand we will continue to supply. We will work as hard and as fast as possible.”

Unlike Trader Joe’s and other grocery stores, Giant will not be changing its hours of operation in order to ensure customers have the flexibility they need to buy the products that are still available, Wolk said.

Creative solutions

Crisis breeds creativity, and some business owners started to get very creative in order to bring customers out to eat and shop in the middle of a pandemic.

Chop Shop Taco started offering Chop Shop Home Meals on Tuesday, a special online order deal that includes enough food to feed four to five people, along with two rolls of toilet paper and a $25 gift card.

The city, the Chamber ALX and other local business organizations are also working to find creative solutions for business owners in the city.

On Tuesday, Mayor Justin Wilson recommended a number of measures in a memorandum to the City Manager’s Office in order to increase the city’s response and recovery during the duration of the coronavirus’ impact.

Wilson recommended the city suspend late fees on collecting the dining tax from restaurants through the end of the year, make $500,000 available in April for small business micro-loans, allow restaurateurs to provide delivery services without special use permit restrictions, operate business from their sidewalks or parking lots, temporarily expand outdoor dining areas and allow sale of alcohol off-premises.

The Chamber ALX and other other business organizations in the city are compiling comprehensive lists of what businesses have close or limited services. Businesses are encouraged to submit updates concerning service to the Chamber at lpatish@thechamberalx.com. The Del Ray Business Association has an updated list of affected retailers, restaurants, fitness studios, pet stores and other businesses on its website: www.visitdelray.com.

And with the U.S. Small Business Administration declaring an economic disaster in Alexandria on Tuesday, local businesses can start applying for Economic Injury Disaster Loans of up to $2 million. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center will advise business owners and nonprofits on the process and assist with applications for EIDLs. The interest rate for EIDLs is 3.75 percent for small businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits.

“During Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, many of us faced challenges like 4-feet of water in your office and no work for a while and no business on the boats for a while,” Charlotte Hall, advocacy chair of the Old Town Business Association, said. “Those small business loans, while they are a loan and you have to pay them back, they certainly came in handy. They got us through.”

Things are changing minute by minute for business owners, but many still have faith that things will work out in the end.

“There is another side to this. We will make out, and I can’t wait to get there,” Blackburn said.

(Read more: Little luck for Chadwicks this St. Paddy’s Day)

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