PA Wilds businesses learning to adapt amid COVID-19, finding support in community
Across the state, businesses have been forced to change the way they’re doing business — or close temporarily — as a result of the spread of COVID-19 across the entire country. The state-wide change in how business is done came after an order from Governor Tom Wolf on March 19 that all non-life-sustaining businesses must close to stop the spread of the highly contagious virus.
Across The Pennsylvania Wilds, businesses are still figuring out how to adapt. “Can we sell our product or service online?” “Are we eligible for a closure waiver?” These are the questions that small businesses are asking.
The driving forces answering those questions, in many communities, are local leaders like those working for Main Street organizations, Chambers of Commerce, and other economic development-driven entities.
“Generally, businesses are concerned,” said Stephanie Desaulniers, Director of Operations at the Covation Center in Williamsport. “Our traditional ways of operating have ground to a halt, and businesses are being challenged to innovate and adapt, if possible. Even so, with increased social distancing, people are out spending less money in general, which can be challenging.”
In Williamsport, she says, the community is making a huge effort to patronize the shops that are still open.
“We are constantly seeing and sharing lists of businesses that are either shifting to e-commerce, or doing delivery/pick-up services. We’re also seeing the community come together to provide grants to businesses that have no way of pivoting during this time.”
Making a Pivot
The ways that businesses across the Wilds have adapted in such a short amount of time are too many to count. In Cameron County alone, Tina Johns Solak, Executive Director of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce, says that two restaurants in the area are practicing social distancing by requiring all purchases be made by phone or online using a credit or debit card, to decrease the amount of contact between the business and patrons.
Others, she said, chose to close completely despite being on the governor’s list of life-sustaining businesses, out of fear for employees that have to interact with customers.
Despite efforts to urge businesses to set up online commerce solutions prior to COVID-19, Solak says that only one business in their community is set up for online ordering — a Fox’s Pizza in Emporium.
Gina Thompson, Main Street Manager of Downtown Bellefonte Inc., shared that many retail businesses in Bellefonte are non-operational right now for the same reason, with some businesses finding it difficult to offer online sales. But businesses are finding other ways to do business, she says.
“We have a few businesses that are looking for other opportunities,” Thompson said. “For instance, our local cake and sweets shop, The Cakery, teamed up with a local seafood market that is still open to provide their cupcakes and other gourmet treats in their store. Another business, The Great Mish Mosh, is looking to put more of their inventory on eBay.”
Desaulniers and the staff at the Covation Center, like many other leaders across the state, are taking steps to make sure business owners can be heard, virtually. Utilizing tools like Zoom for video conferencing, she says that they’re able to “let (businesses) share frustrations, or successes, and how this is impacting them, both positively and negatively.”
“We’ve started hosting daily business roundtable calls, where any business can hop onto Zoom and talk with us, or other business owners, as a way to help combat the challenges of isolation,” she said.
In Bellefonte, Thompson and her team are working towards holding their monthly Community Coffee Chat virtually in the coming weeks, in an effort to keep important conversations going town-wide. Normally, about 25 community members gather in Bellefonte’s Studio 1795 to have the chats.
In addition, Thompson has offered the opportunity for business owners to connect with her via Zoom to chat about the resources available to them, or just to talk with a friendly community face.
One constant across the entire region: The support being shown to small businesses by community members.
“There is a definite feeling of solidarity,” said Julie Stewart, Executive Director of Downtown DuBois, Inc. “I believe the general public is hesitant to spend a lot when they don’t know what their own status will be. I think that will change as things come into focus.”
Social media support is being shown across all communities.
“The community is rallying behind the restaurants by sharing Facebook posts,” Solak said of Cameron County. In addition, the Chamber of Commerce has teamed up with the local radio station to provide video coverage of the businesses that remain open.
“One video was seen by 6,000 people in 12 hours,” Solak said. Viewing and engaging with the video came with some incentive to win a gift card to a business being featured. “The catch is that the gift card expires when the governor lifts his order,” she said. “This ensures that businesses that are open see customers.”
There’s a similar sentiment in Bellefonte.
“The community response to supporting our local businesses has been fantastic,” Thompson, of Downtown Bellefonte Inc., said. “Many have taken to social media to publicly show their support, either through the purchase of gift cards, through publicly tagging businesses in their purchase, or supporting local restaurants by ordering takeout or delivery.”
Thompson said that some business owners have reported that property owners have allowed deferment of rent payments temporarily while businesses assess their financial damage.
There’s also an effort to just lend a helping hand.
“Some of our businesses haven’t necessarily pivoted, but rather started initiatives to support our entire local community, not just their individual business,” Thompson said. “Big Spring Spirits, a local distillery, has made hand sanitizer and donated that to our EMS and other first responders.”
(Photo at right was posted on Facebook by Logan Fire Company in Bellefonte, after a sanitizer delivery was made by Big Spring Spirits.)
In addition, she noted that local agencies 3Twenty9 Design and Hello Social Co. teamed up with Lightning Bug Gift Co. of Hollidaysburg to design two shirts as part of a “Printing Love Local” initiative, with partial proceeds being donated towards downtown efforts.
Communities all over are looking to what the future holds, too. In DuBois, Stewart said that plans are already in the works to hold a town-wide block party “once the smoke clears.”
How you can help
Across the web, graphics and ideas have circulated sharing ideas for how to support local businesses during this widespread crisis.
- Purchase gift cards from businesses for later use (this helps their cash flow now!).
- Order takeout for curbside pickup from local restaurants.
- Fill growlers to go from your favorite breweries and bars, if offered.
- Leave reviews. Google has temporarily suspended reviews on its platform, but there are still opportunities on Yelp, Tripadvisor and other sites.
- Post social media shout-outs to your favorite businesses to broaden the number of users who know about them.
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