The brave entrepreneurs who operate the shops and restaurants that make downtown Frederick such a charming and vibrant place are getting ready to reopen their businesses.
We can only hope that this is going to work well.
Gov. Larry Hogan has announced a plan to allow Maryland businesses to resume some operations, as soon as next week if COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to decline. But the first phase of activities will be strictly limited, just allowing small businesses to offer curbside pickup again.
Marlene England is co-owner of two retail gems in the historic district, Curious Iguana bookstore and Dancing Bear toy store. Her stores were doing curbside pickup up until Hogan announced the shelter-in-place order in March and forbade nonessential businesses from doing any services besides delivery and mail orders.
But while Hogan is getting ready to ease the guidelines in place, England and other business owners around Frederick recently told News-Post reporter Erika Riley that they don’t know how the public will react, or how the experience of shopping and dining out could be changed for the long term.
It is a question that bedevils many experts in the retail business. The Atlantic magazine’s website recently polled dozens of analysts and business leaders, and their conclusions about the likely future of the sector was grim. The magazine said:
“We are entering a new evolutionary stage of retail, in which big companies will get bigger, many mom-and-pop dreams will burst, chains will proliferate and flatten the idiosyncrasies of many neighborhoods, more economic activity will flow into e-commerce, and restaurants will undergo a transformation unlike anything the industry has experienced since Prohibition.”
The Atlantic reported that the U.S. Commerce Department said that retail spending in March collapsed by the largest number on record. But Amazon, Walmart, Costco and Target are all reporting strong sales.
The independent retail stores, which are one of the pillars of downtown Frederick, are the ones that are suffering.
Similarly, the independent restaurants, the other pillar of our downtown business community, have been closed for weeks except for pickup and delivery orders. Even when guidelines ease, social distancing rules are expected to continue at least into summer.
Seating will be limited to probably half of the current capacity of the eateries. Restauranteurs will be faced with the problem of keeping their businesses solvent with much less ability to serve customers.
Again from the Atlantic story:
“While mom-and-pops and department stores will close, those industries that survive and are resilient to e-commerce encroachment—such as grocers and restaurants—are more likely, in the short term, to be dominated by chains that survive the flood.”
The chains and the big e-commerce stores are the ones that have the financial reserves to weather weeks of little or no business. Few smaller restaurants or retailers do.
Helen Propheter, director of the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, told our reporter that she doesn’t know how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the county in the long term. Nobody does.
“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.”
We love shopping and eating in downtown Frederick, and we hope that these hardy souls can keep their businesses going for the long term. Certainly almost all of our merchants and restauranteurs have a track record of innovation and great customer service.
England said she is optimistic that most people will come back to downtown Frederick.
“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.”
John Fieseler, the executive director of Visit Frederick, is expecting that Frederick tourism will take a big hit this year, but that the county is well positioned to recover well. Tourism generally has been decimated, but he believes that it will come back.
He told the News-Post’s Mallory Panuska that as a regional destination not dependent on visitors arriving by air, Frederick could see an earlier revival.
We hope both of them are right, and that our beloved historic downtown and the entire region will prove more resilient than national trends might project. But we all know so little about how the pandemic will progress. At this point, hope is all we have.