Small businesses have different COVID-19 experiences

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By Correne Martin


While some small businesses have flourished  more than expected during the coronavirus pandemic, others aren’t sure when, or if, they’ll get back to pre-COVID-19 operating capacity. 

In Prairie du Chien, restaurants and grocery stores appear to be weathering the storm, while retail and service-based shops are fighting to adjust quickly to the curveballs thrown at them.

“People have been at home looking up recipes to make. They’re spending more time at home, so the grocery industry is doing well,” shared Shelly Zinkle, owner of Zinkle’s Piggly Wiggly recently. 

A number of the store’s employees were off from work in the initial weeks of the coronavirus scare. Now, the Zinkles have discussed their return. If any choose not to get back into the swing of things, hiring will be needed because business is faring well. 

Over at Culver’s Restaurant, franchise owner Jason Cathman said none of his employees needed to go on unemployment throughout this. Dining in was, of course, not an option, but drive-through sales seemed successful, despite all the new health and safety measures they had to implement.

Culver’s drive-through lines were frequently 15-20 cars deep during Wisconsin’s statewide Safer At Home situation. 

Cathman was thankful for his customer’s patience. 

He said he gave all his employees the opportunity to take time off also. 

“We were unsure what to expect. The first few weeks, it was really scary,” he said.

In his opinion, local unemployment hasn’t quite matched up to the levels of unemployment nationwide however. 

“Look around. People are surviving,” he stated. 

At the longtime downtown anchor business, Sports World, operations are just starting to pick up the last couple of weeks. 

“We have some tourists coming in,” owner Todd Yeomans noted. “That’s been a bright spot for us.”

Otherwise, as a company heavily reliant on sports, schools and other local businesses, Sports World is currently operating at only 20 percent. 

They’re hoping places will open up more and the demand for product bounces back soon. 

“I hate to be all doom and gloom, but there’s just not enough work. When your fixed costs remain the same and your sales go in the tank, what do you do?” Yeomans stated. 

Normally, between Sports World and its sports uniform factory Dyesport in the North Gateway Business Park, the family business employs 47 full-time and three part-time. As of last week, they were down to five full-time and 12 part-time. 

In addition to retail sales seeing a boost, specialty services such as screenprinting, signs and awards have been popping up as other small businesses get back on their feet. Dyesport has also printed custom masks and they’re hopeful that some area hospitals or assisted living facilities could enlist them for making custom medical gowns as well.

“I think bringing employees back will be dictated by demand,” Yeomans said. 

Financially, he added that Sports World obtained a low-interest Paycheck Protection Program loan to help with payroll and for spring inventory—such as track shoes, baseball bats, gloves and spikes, etc.—while it sits until next year.

With supply chains being interrupted across the globe, some of their products haven’t arrived on schedule. This resulted in postponing their annual Crazy Days tent sale from mid-July to Aug. 12-16.

Down the street at Panka Shoe Store, though the shop is open, customers are stopped by several door signs requiring masks and a squirt of hand sanitizer before entering. Owner Teresa Mezera was also closed, essentially from St. Patrick’s Day through Memorial Day during the Safer At Home orders, and she has been very cautious in reopening. 

“I was afraid of what might be coming in my doors, and what I might come into contact with, even on my inventory when I processed it,” Mezera said. 

During the shutdown, she operated solely by getting people what they needed, but not letting just anyone wander about the store. 

“People have to be waited on and I have to be closer than 6 feet to do it,” she commented. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Now open six days a week again, Mezera said business is slowly increasing. 

“People aren’t getting ready for anything, so what do they need,” she wondered. “I see a few more people. It seems they really have to want something to come in.”

Baking hot, fresh and essential bread a few doors down, The Local Oven also has butter, eggs and toilet paper (albeit camouflage), so they were able to remain open throughout the waves of COVID-19. Not without worry though. 

Owners Greg and Rhonda Cerven are in the higher risk age bracket, and they have a handicapped man and young child who live with them. 

“We weren’t allowed to let customers dine in, it had to be grab and go stuff, which a lot of our products are,” said their son and co-owner Joe Cerven. “We already serve our customers; it’s not self-serve, and we wear gloves most of the time anyway, so it was all  normal for us.”

Joe said he dealt with the customers face-to-face—in a mask—and Greg basically spent four hours a day reading emails and trying to understand the many regulations surrounding COVID-19. 

The mere changes The Local Oven made have been to add Plexiglass at the cash register, observe social distance with their random customers when possible, and ask shoppers to use sanitizer before browsing the giftware side of the store. 

Joe mentioned that puzzles and cooking utensils started to sell more often when people were home. 

Along Marquette Road, Mist-ified and Revitalize Salon, a pair of businesses that provide skin care and cosmetology services are finally began welcoming guests back the last few days of May. 

Neither Mist-ified Owner Ashley Christensen nor Revitalize Owner Andrea Gilberts has quantified the financial loss they sustained while being closed for over two months. No governmental assistance was supplied for their loss of income. 

“Luckily, my amazing clients purchased retail during the shutdown, and that helped a lot,” Christensen noted. 

“Small businesses suffer big time with something like this, and financial help doesn’t always come easy” Gilberts added. 

After properly cleaning and sanitizing, and gathering the new necessary personal protective equipment, both chose to reopen.

“We are a very clean and professional place,” Gilberts said. “We already had laws in place to help keep us all safe. We have always sanitized and disinfected.”

The key difference post-COVID-19 is getting used to wearing a mask all day, every day. Though it’s certainly something to get used to, both Gilberts and Christensen are simply happy they can be safely back at work providing for their families. 

Looking ahead, Gilberts is one of likely many who fear another coronavirus surge causing a possible second shutdown. 

In the beauty industry, fall is a popular time for weddings and anniversaries in particular. What can they do this year, other than be prepared as best as possible. 

As Gilberts said, “We’ll just take it day by day and follow the CDC guidelines.” 

All agreed that the rise in community members shopping local can only help. 

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