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Hypatia McLellan, sales associate at Wildflower Boutique, stood ready to receive customers. (Photo by Reilly Dixon)

Retail reopening nears

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Starting on May 12, retail shops in the State of Ohio can reopen if they take certain safety precautions.

But in Yellow Springs, not all stores are ready to fling open their doors to customers.

After having to shutter their shops for nearly two months to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, some local business owners are eyeing a return of sales. Expenses like rent and utilities have continued to mount, while federal small business loans failed to materialize due to overwhelming demand and delays.

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At the same time, many local business owners worry about how an influx of visitors to their shops might put their employees, and the greater Yellow Springs community, at risk of contracting COVID-19. They aren’t sure if spaces can be made safe. Plus, with uncertainty about sales, employers wonder if it makes sense to bring back employees currently on unemployment.

Those are some of the reasons why, come May 12, Marcia Wallgren, owner of Ohio Silver, will not be opening her longtime local jewelry store.

“I’m not operating until I know I can operate safely for our staff,” Wallgren said this week. “As a villager, I don’t know if it’s safe to bring in a lot of people from out of town.”

Ohio Silver, which she has owned since 1974, employs three regular staff. Although it is mostly villagers and visitors from nearby who patronize her shop, she worries that tourist shoppers might bring the virus into the community, which is more at-risk than surrounding areas due to its aging population.

The small space and the way jewelry stores usually operate were also factors in her decision to stay closed, Wallgren said.

“Our store is up close and personal,” she said. “Customers try things on, they want the chain hooked, they want to try on 35 rings. I don’t know how we can stay six feet away.”

At the same time, Wallgren feels the financial pain of remaining closed. Her rent was reduced by half, but she is still accumulating thousands in expenses with no income. And she’s hesitant to take on loans she may not be able to repay. It’s the same reason why she’s wary of selling gift certificates.

“No one knows what’s coming later. We might get shut down again this fall,” she said.

The calculation is similar for Molly Lunde and Lee Kibblewhite, owners of Asanda Imports, a clothing, accessory and home decor shop that has operated downtown for 12 years. Lunde said they’re nervous about large numbers of visitors coming to town, despite the fact that their business relies heavily on visitors to purchase their wares.

“I could probably pay one month of rent with all of my village support,” Lunde said.

At the same time, Lunde said she is “super sensitive” to villagers concerned about tourism’s impact on the community right now. As a result, the couple have not decided whether they will open on May 12, or later in the summer. The uncertainty about the disease’s spread, and whether another spike in cases may come later, is difficult to navigate, Lunde explained.

Meanwhile, the financial burden is growing. In addition to regular rent payments, she, as an employee of the company, hasn’t been able to successfully navigate the unemployment process, despite calling the responsible state agency every day for three weeks.

Lunde has forecast a drop in Asanda’s annual revenue by one-third if they don’t see any sales until the end of June. As a result, they’ve decided not to bring back their other two employees until sales have rebounded.

Like Wallgren, they have also not opted for online sales. Both noted how difficult online sales are for their products, which many customers want to see, touch and try on.

Another decision is exceptionally clear: When the shop does open, masks will be required for a customer to enter Asanda.

Other local businesses are also requiring masks. After initially announcing that both employees and customers will have to wear masks starting on May 1, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine changed the order to only require masks for employees. Store owners can then decide whether or not to enforce a mask requirement for customers.

Stores, however, must limit the number of customers in their shops to 50% of pre-pandemic capacity and ensure six-foot social distancing by marking floors to show patrons where to stand.

A ‘mixed bag’

This week, as she compiled a list of planned shop openings, Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Wintrow reflected that each business is making its own choices about when, and how, to open.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Wintrow said. “I’ve got a few merchants who are chomping at the bit. There are certainly some who are anxious to open. And there are some who are saying they’re not going to open.”

Wintrow sees the opening of retail shops as “a rolling thing,” over the next few weeks. In the meantime, to address safety concerns, the Chamber is promoting the wearing of masks all throughout Yellow Springs, even if some retailers don’t require them. This week, they rolled out a campaign with signage featuring the messages, “Wear It YS” and “Mask On YS” and asking visitors, “When you visit Yellow Springs: wear a mask.”

Many retailers are committing to mask requirements, while others will encourage them, but won’t remove patrons for not wearing them. Dark Star Books will be requiring customers to wear masks when they reopen on May 12, announcing on their Facebook page this week, “May 12th. Mask up, shop Dark Star, see the kitties again.” The shop also plans on selling masks. Toxic Beauty Records, which is opening by appointment only on May 12, is another shop that will be requiring masks.

Masks are encouraged, but not required, at Wildflower Boutique, which has already opened by appointment only due to a state order allowing retailers who do so to open early. According to owner Danyel Mershon, once she opens to a limited number of customers on May 12, it would be “impossible to enforce and could hurt business long term” if she were to require them. She is however, selling masks for $5.

Another business choosing an appointment-only model is Village Herb Shoppe, a 20-year-old business which sells teas, tinctures and personal care products. After being closed for five weeks, the shop opened this week. Although owner Owa Mandelkern said they could have continued to operate as an essential business because they sell herbal medicine, he decided to close to avoid contracting the virus and spreading it to his elderly neighbors.

Now, because Village Herb Shoppe, located in Kings Yard, is so small, Mandelkern decided it wouldn’t make sense to open it to foot traffic.

“We’re not letting anyone in the shop, because the most we could have is three or four people,” he said.

Those wishing to shop there must call ahead to make an appointment for a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Masks will be required. Mandelkern is looking forward to continuing to serve those who have come to rely on his products for their health and wellbeing.

“Almost everything I’m selling is either for immune enhancement, germ protection, or stress relief,” he said.

Next door, Sam & Eddie’s Open Books will not be reopening in its current location. In fact, earlier this week, proprietor Sam Eckenrode packed up the remaining books and gifts and finished moving out of the downtown storefront.

Sam & Eddie’s, however, is not going out of business. It will still operate, primarily as an online business, once the site goes live. The shop may also open for appointments at its new location in the Professional Building at 716 Xenia Ave., pending approval from the Village zoning office.

“I’m not closing the business,” Eckenrode said this week. “I’m very much continuing as a locally owned and family-operated business.”

Eckenrode closed her store a few days before the state required it, on March 12, out of safety concerns for her four employees and her customers. Her shop, like many others in town, is small and “high touch,” she said, adding to her worries.

“Yellow Springs has a high-touch, very small ‘boutique downtown,’” she said. “That’s what makes it attractive but it’s also potentially dangerous.”

And while Eckenrode was initially planning on reopening the bookstore she and her late husband, Eddie, started 25 years ago, she couldn’t continue to pay the rent and so decided to take the store online — at least for the foreseeable future.

“The central business district is very important to me, and I hate not being right in the heart of it,” Eckenrode said. “I’ll go back if it becomes possible to go back.”

Another shop currently selling online is Yellow Springs Toy Company. Owner Jamie Sharp temporarily switched to the model after closing in mid-March, ahead of the shutdown, out of safety concerns. However, only 10% of her merchandise is online, and while her rent is being deferred, she’ll eventually have to pay. Meanwhile, margins were already tight before the crisis.

“The truth of the matter is that we are operating on very narrow margins, we’re not getting rich,” Sharp said of the experience of many local merchants. “I’m two years old and barely profitable.”

Despite her financial concerns, Sharp won’t reopen on May 12, in part due to the logistics of her small space. Limiting the patrons in her store, which is necessary for safety, would cut into her sales. As a result, she’s not yet bringing back her employee because she doesn’t know if she would make enough to pay her wages.

“We make our money by packing people in,” she said.

Health & safety complications

Don Beard and Christine Monroe-Beard, meanwhile, will not reopen Import House on Dayton Street until at least June 1. They are opting for a later date out of concerns that reopening too quickly could spread the virus locally. Their employees, too, are worried.

“We’re going to take a breath,” Don Beard said this week.

After a flood of visitors to town on a recent sunny Saturday, many of whom were not wearing masks, the couple doesn’t feel retailers are prepared. As a result, they encouraged Village leaders to push for a later reopening date among local shops.

The logistics for reopening their shop, which sells clothing, jewelry, tobacco pipes and more, are a challenge, the Beards explained. For instance, to limit their occupancy, they will likely have to have an employee manage the door to count patrons and enforce their mask requirement. Meanwhile, a queue down the sidewalk would also have to be properly socially distanced. Inside the store, employees would have to make sure customers don’t get too close to one another and don’t touch merchandise.

“We’re not set up for this,” Don Beard said of businesses moving forward. “Everyone is sort of caught unprepared.”

Over the last few weeks, Miami Township Fire Chief Colin Altman has been visiting local shops to help owners strategize about setting a maximum capacity, creating a “flow through their store” and establishing hand washing protocols, he said at the Village Council meeting on Monday. It’s a “free service,” the fire department is offering to help local shops comply with the new rules, he explained.

Enforcement of social distancing and other requirements at retail shops falls to Greene County Public Health. According to Rick Schairbaum, the program manager who oversees enforcement, the process is complaint-driven, after which an inspector will visit the site to “find out what happened.”

“We try to gain voluntary compliance with operators and business people. That’s our first goal,” Schairbaum said. If stores don’t comply, they will be ordered to close.

Schairbaum confirmed that retail stores must enforce the six-feet social distancing for all customers on site.

“If the customers are on their premises they are responsible for maintaining that six-foot distance,” he said. “A lot of businesses use duct tape or Xs to mark it; if you have a line that generates outside, then you are required to have those six-foot distances marked,” he added.

The health department can also enforce state rules requiring employees to wear masks, according to Greene County Public Health spokesperson Laurie Fox. However, store policies requiring customers to wear them must be enforced by the stores themselves, she confirmed.

“The governor has asked businesses to police themselves,” Fox said.

According to Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson this week, local police have the authority to break up large gatherings, including lines that are not socially distanced. And they can remove a patron from a shop if they are not wearing a mask, if the business requires it. Ideally, rather than having to “enforce,” Carlson hopes local police merely have to “remind” people about the orders.

Village Council addressed the pending reopening of businesses at its meeting this week by discussing parking, restrooms and sanitizer stations. On May 12, Village officials will reopen some parking spaces at the Corry Street and Railroad Street lots to accommodate an increase in visitors, according to Village Manager Josué Salmerón. However, per the recommendations of Greene County Public Health, the Village’s public restrooms at the Train Station will remain closed. The Village will not purchase portable restrooms, also due to health department recommendations. The Village plans to add more hand sanitizer stations around town, and may add a handwashing station as well, and will be promoting the wearing of masks, officials added.

Despite a comment from one citizen that “there should be zero tourism until this is over,” Village officials reiterated that visitors can’t be kept away from town entirely.

Salmerón said the Village has a “tough challenge ahead of us” with reopening of businesses, noting that some villagers are on the side of “limiting all business” while some business owners and employees “are struggling to put food on the table” and want to get back to work.

“There are no easy answers to this,” he said.

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