Marlene England is trying her best to prepare for the future reopening of her two stores in downtown Frederick. The problem is, she has no idea what that’s going to look like.
“Our main concern is certainly keeping our staff safe and our customers safe and at the same time being able to get our businesses open and running as close to normal as possible,” said England, co-owner of Curious Iguana and Dancing Bear.
According to Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to reopen, the first step, which can be taken when hospitalizations have been on the decline for 14 consecutive days, would allow small businesses to offer curbside pickup again.
That’s something concrete she can deal with. Curious Iguana and Dancing Bear were doing curbside pickup up until Hogan announced the shelter-in-place order and forbade nonessential businesses from doing any services besides delivery and mail orders.
But while Hogan’s plan has guidelines in place, she and other business owners around Frederick don’t know how the public will react, or how the experience of shopping, dining out and exercising could be changed for the long term.
“It’s not just the guidelines, you know,” said Brett Kraimer, owner of the Frederick cycling studio CycleFit. “It’s one thing to open, it’s another thing if people want to come in.”
Helen Propheter, director of the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, doesn’t know how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the county in the long term. Nobody does.
“I think when we’ve gone into recessions because of economic issues [before], our economists can look at what put us into that recession and what needs to happen to come out,” Propheter said. “But the economy wasn’t hurt because of economic issues, it was hurt because of a health pandemic.”
While businesses are still looking to expand to Frederick or lay down roots in the county, Propheter is more concerned with keeping the county’s existing businesses open.
“Frederick County has amazing businesses with lots of creativity and passion and grit. And that’s what we’re going to need to get through this,” Propheter said. “Unfortunately there’s going to be some businesses that aren’t going to bounce back.”
Gerry Hicks, co-owner of The Trail House, an outdoor supplies store on Market Street, attends webinars and reads advice from retail experts to try to get a handle on what to expect. Hicks, who owns the store with her husband, said they’ve considered adding hand sanitizing stations and limiting the number of people who can shop inside the store at a time, or setting up appointments for people to come in and shop.
“Social distancing isn’t going to go anywhere in the next couple of months,” Hicks said. “We might lay our store out differently so people feel comfortable staying further apart.”
The Hickses were getting ready to pass on the business to their son and retire when the pandemic hit. Now it looks like those plans have been pushed off indefinitely as they try to make sure the store is stable.
Their son set the store up for online ordering, something they didn’t have prior to the pandemic. And while the circumstances for needing it were severe, Hicks said that it will definitely be sticking around after the store is allowed to be open again.
“We have been a brick and mortar store for 35 years, that’s what we’ve built our business on,” Hicks said. “Here in a matter of weeks we’ve really had to switch gears and go online, which … it’s been working.”
People seem to be more interested in purchasing outdoor equipment than before.
“The outdoor industry has fared very well during a recession because people hunker down a little more, stay close, find new adventures nearby,” Hicks said. “That’s kind of the upside, if there is one.”
Hogan’s first phase will allow gyms to hold outdoor workout classes and his second phase will allow them to reopen with limited numbers of people in the building at a time.
Kraimer is less concerned about the guidelines and more concerned about his entire industry changing in the course of a few weeks.
He’s had to adapt.
When gyms closed and people had to start working out at home, instead of going to gyms, they were looking up any kind of workout they could follow online. That’s a much larger pool to compete with.
“Everybody’s able to enjoy their favorite instructors and their favorite fitness facilities, everybody can do that at home now … and a lot of people really enjoy it and they enjoy the flexibility and variety,” Kraimer said.
He doesn’t think business as usual will ever be usual again for gyms. Instead of figuring out how to survive until he can reopen his doors, he’s focused on making sure he can deliver his product — workout classes — to people in a digital way, that doesn’t require human contact.
CycleFit has been broadcasting 25 workout classes per week on its website for free. They won’t always be free, Kraimer said, and he already has paid content on the app ImagineBC. But he knows he has to get into the digital fitness game to keep his business going.
“Whether it’s your own capital, it’s PPP (the Paycheck Protection Program), it’s economic disaster, if you’re using all that just to stay afloat so you can reopen your doors, you won’t be in business by the end of the year. No way. Period,” Kraimer said. “You have to find other sources of revenue, other ways to deliver your product or your service. And you can’t wait. You’ve got to be ahead of it.”
Hicks and England both said they’re going to keep their online ordering platforms going long after the state reopens. Neither store had an online ordering system beforehand, but being able to ship to customers anywhere or giving customers another option never hurts.
England does think, though, that most people will come back to downtown Frederick like they used to.
“I feel like when the time is right and it’s safe to shop downtown, that folks will continue to be very supportive of the downtown businesses,” England said. “That means so much to us.”