Evan Chismark thinks Monday will be something like the annual Groundhog Day holiday, as retailers slowly, cautiously open their doors.
“I think it’ll be like Punxsutawney Phil poking his head out of the hole and seeing if it’s safe to come out or not,” he said.
Chismark co-owns Ranch Camp in Stowe, the Mountain Road hybrid burrito joint/bike shop that has been able to keep peddling its food and merchandise via takeout and curbside methods. He’s eager to get fully back in business, but not so eager that he and his staff are going to immediately switch into high gear.
“It’s incumbent on us as business owners to take those precautionary steps,” he said. “First and foremost, we protect our staff.”
Gov. Phil Scott on Monday approved a “gradual reopening” of retail stores starting Monday, May 18.
Scott said all employees at retail outlets will need to wear face masks and stay at least 6 feet from other people. Stores won’t be allowed to exceed 25 percent of their maximum legal capacity at one time, and will have to complete health and safety training on state guidelines if they have more than 10 employees.
Customers will also be encouraged to wear masks, but the state will not require it.
“While I know many are eager to shop for clothing and other supplies,” Scott said Monday, “waiting a week gives these businesses time to develop a safety plan, do their training, modify their store chores and work with ease, understand all the steps needed to reopen and operate safely.”
Devon Williams, owner of the Mountain Road clothing store In Company, has — like business owners all over the state — been poring over frequent updates to reopening rules from the Vermont Department of Labor.
Williams is getting creative with her reopening plans, too. The store will have a hand-sanitizing station at the front door and masks if customers don’t have them. Williams will have her steamer on at all times, so if a customer tries on a piece of clothing and opts not to buy it, she can steam the garment and set it aside on a “quarantine” rack for 24 hours.
In Company will also offer special hours or private appointments for immunocompromised customers or those who just feel more comfortable shopping alone right now.
“It's an ongoing conversation I'm having with myself and others,” she said, referring to re-opening strategies. “My main goal is to make everyone feel/stay healthy and comfortable.”
Chismark thinks people who have been homebound during the pandemic are going to be just as cautious going shopping as businesses are going to be letting them in — this isn’t going to be Best Buy the morning after Thanksgiving.
He’s already seeing people on their best behavior on the Cady Hill mountain bike trails, riding in the right direction, wary about congregating in the parking lot. It’s as if there’s a newfound sense of freedom and they don’t want to lose their privileges.
“It’s trite and cliché, but people are all in it together, and wanting to do it right,” Chismark said.
Marc Sherman, owner of Stowe Mercantile and a board member for the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association — he’s the vice chair for government relations — said there will be a “learning and trust process” over the next few months, as employees and customers alike get reacquainted with being around each other in the real world.
Like Chismark, Sherman believes there’s a sense of patience, even as people feel stir-crazy and get cabin fever, because nobody wants to mess up the reopening.
“Hopefully, regionally and statewide, we don’t take a step backwards,” he said. “It would be horrendous if we had to shut down again.”
For Main Street businesses that rely heavily on foot traffic, a dearth of feet walking the sidewalks — even as the weather finally shakes loose from the 40s and 50s — might act as a built-in check against an onslaught of crowds. If there’s any such thing as a silver lining to this COVID cloud, it’s that the slowdown happened largely during Vermont’s mud season, a relatively slow time for businesses in resort towns.
“Totally, one thousand percent,” Cristina Mink, owner of Country Store on Main, said Tuesday. “If this had happened in July…”
Mink said the mere presence of sunshine after a freak Monday night snowstorm brought people out.
“On a day like today, it’s sunny and beautiful and there’s a ton of people walking along and peeking in the windows,” she said.
Chismark said Ranch Camp was able to “take the takeout and delivery model for food and apply it to bikes,” so the pain hasn’t been as acute as some businesses have felt during the business shutdown over the past two months. It’s been a boom season for bikes, with a winter that ended early — albeit also with a spring that won’t let go of the cold.
Those sunshiny feelings come with some apprehension for business owners, though.
On the one hand, Sherman said, a slow restart of retail operations should allow for fewer hiccups along the way. On the other hand, companies have been bleeding red ink for two months, and it will take a long time to recoup those losses at only 25 percent capacity.
Sherman thinks Gov. Scott is doing a good job with the cautious steps, and the congressional delegation has been effective in pressing for more federal support. However, he said the Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses were well-intentioned but came with so many restrictions they were “all but unusable” for some businesses.
Mink worries that people have become so accustomed to buying things online during the pandemic that that might become their new normal. At the same time, she said, people switched to online purchases from Country Store on Main during this time, too, and came to town and picked up their goods outside.
“Some days I’m super optimistic and think we live in a bubble and people are going to come here no matter what, and other days I worry that people are getting used to shopping online,” Mink said. “But we also like to think that we’re all going to come out of hiding when this is all over.”