It’s been a difficult month for Lowell businesses. A statewide, stay-at-home order seeking to stymie the spread of COVID-19 has forced many to close their doors or restrict their activities. The order went into effect on March 23 and requires residents to remain home except for essential purposes and shutters businesses deemed non-essential.
“This is a time that’s very scary for all of us,” says Martha Davis, owner of clothing store Tap House Bo.
Originally scheduled to expire on April 13, the stay-at-home order was extended last week by Governor Gretchen Whitmer and now runs through April 30. The extension, contained in Executive Order 2020-42, includes new restrictions on large stores greater than 50,000 square feet. These include occupancy limits, advertising restrictions and the closure of areas in big box stores containing items deemed non-essential, such as paint and carpeting.
The stay-at-home order has affected Lowell businesses in different ways. Some non-essential businesses, such as restaurants and retailers, have moved to takeout and online orders to stay afloat, but the situation doesn’t provide many options for other companies. Local manufacturers such as Optec, fitness centers, lawn maintenance companies and the Ada Lowell 5 movie theater are a few of the Lowell businesses that are stuck waiting until the stay-at-home order lifts before they and their employees can go back to work.
Still, business owners remain optimistic. “We have been in business for 36 years [and] this too shall pass,” says Kitty Bek, co-owner of Arctic Heating and Cooling.
Here’s a closer look at how area business owners are trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Retail Stores Move to Online Sales
Since being forced to close their storefronts, some local business owners have been working on creative solutions to keep their customers. North Star Antiques is selling its wares online while Tap House Bo is hosting daily live events on Facebook to show off new styles.
“We want to remind people that there are still a lot of us who have online businesses,” Davis says.
As of right now, though, online sales are only replacing a fraction of the income normally generated in-store. Davis says sales at Tap House Bo are only a third of what they would be under regular circumstances. It’s a similar situation at North Star Antiques, where owner Tonia North says sales have dropped by 70%.
“We started taking phone orders with porch pickup, and we even delivered some items locally with no contact,” North says. She also started selling Country Chic Paint which seems to be a perfect product for those working on home décor projects during the shutdown. At this point, North says she isn’t trying to make a profit. She is simply trying to generate enough cash flow to help cover her overhead costs of $1,500 a month.
While North wants to be optimistic about the future, she is also realistic. “Lowell is a fantastic community that I believe will come out and take care of our downtown,” she says, “but I would be lying if I didn’t say this could absolutely shut my business down permanently.”
Even if residents don’t need specific items from stores at this time, buying a gift card can provide much needed cash to allow businesses to pay bills and remain open.
In addition to North Star Antiques and Tap House Bo, stores such as Lavender & Lace Boutique, Chimera Design, Rookies and Ability Weavers are selling their goods either online or via their Facebook pages.
Some Service Industries Open but Limited
Businesses operating in service industries face a different set of challenges. Although many are not shut down completely, they are limited in what they can provide. “Our company is not able to do any work except emergency calls,” Bek says.
Since Arctic Heating and Cooling workers go into people’s homes to complete that work, Bek says her business has made changes to their protocols. Technicians wear masks and gloves and maintain a safe distance from customers. Rather than taking payment in person, customers call in payments and invoices are sent via email. “If there is anyone that needs help financially when they have a problem with heating or cooling, we are offering easy payments if needed,” Bek says.
She hopes residents will keep Arctic in mind for non-emergency services after restrictions are listed. The company sent out postcards earlier this spring with coupons that were set to expire at the end of June, but the company is now extending those offers through the end of September.
Hooper Printing is another business that has been deemed essential and can keep its doors open. However, co-owner Tina Hooper says sales have dropped off considerable, and the company made the decision to lay off workers. “We felt this was the best option to weather the crisis,” she says.
While employees have been laid off, Hooper and her husband continue production and are available to fill any printing needs. For instance, they are currently offering yard signs for families who want to celebrate their 2020 graduates. Since their office is closed, orders are being shipped or some limited delivery options are available as well.
“We learned some hard lessons during the recession some years back that helped us be more prepared for this crisis,” Hooper says. She hopes the company is well-positioned to ride out the current difficult times although she worries about her employees and other community members. She notes, “A crisis such as COVID-19 will have a permanent impact on everyone.”
Real Estate Sales Still Possible
Although real estate professionals are considered non-essential and may not travel to their offices or other people’s homes, brokers are still finding ways to connect with clients.
“Through FaceTime, Zoom and the like I can still virtually meet with sellers to see their home or property, offer suggestions on what could be done to improve its value and coach them through the process of what it would look like to list their home now,” says Amanda Rogers, a Realtor with the Rogers Real Estate Group. It’s even possible for buyers to make an offer contingent upon walking through a house after restrictions are lifted.
For those who are comfortable with a property and want to close now, lenders and title companies are considered essential and closings can occur even with the stay-at-home order in place.
In his most recent Real Estate Corner column, Rick Seese notes there were 158 closings in the Grand Rapids regional area from March 10-April 10, 2020. Seese, who is an associate broker with Greenridge Realty Inc., writes that people listing their homes now could be in position for a quicker sale once the stay-at-home order ends.
“The advantage to moving forward now would be if you want buyers to know that your home is available to see the minute the showing restriction is lifted,” he explains.
Restaurants Offer Takeout, Curbside Pick-Up
Restaurants were some of the first businesses to see a dramatic impact as a result of the spread of COVID-19. On March 16, dine-in service was prohibited, and since then, local eateries have taken different approaches.
Larkin’s, Main Street BBQ, Flat River Grill and Keiser’s are among the establishments that have decided to close temporarily while the shutdown order is in effect.
Meanwhile, others are working to keep their doors open through takeout and curbside pickup. Big Boiler Brewing, Sneaker’s, Mynt Fusion, Hong Kong Buffet and Sweet Seasons are among those still serving up food in this way.
Fast food and pizza restaurant are also still open for takeout or delivery in Lowell.
Impact at Lowell’s First Look
As for us here at Lowell’s First Look, we already operate on a shoestring, and no one draws an income from the site. That means the stay-at-home order hasn’t impacted us financially.
More challenging has been trying to find time to write while working our regular jobs from home, overseeing online school activities and managing family affairs 24/7. You never really appreciate the value of being able to head to the library or Sweet Seasons to work in peace until you lose that option.
Beyond that, many of the topics we would normally cover, such as business news and community events, have been cancelled. Fortunately, we have some excellent guest contributors to help fill in the gaps. These include Rick Seese on real estate, Joe Martino on mental health, Daniel Van Noord on cybersecurity, Jilisa Ghareeb on health and wellness and Emma Wikstrom on dog training.
As always, we remain committed to keeping you updated on the latest Lowell happenings and news. If you have a story you think we should cover, please don’t hesitate to send your idea to [email protected]