By Ogden Newspapers
In April, Ogden Newspapers reached out to a plethora of businesses around the country to hear their stories about how they were coping with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some expressed concern over if their business could survive without knowing what the future held, while others noted frustration with their inability to receive federal aid.
As we approach the fourth month of the outbreak, we checked in with the businesses to see how they weathered the storm. We also asked about what it was like to shut down, open again, and then, in some cases, be forced to shut down again due to the continuation of the first wave of the virus, and state leaders re-implementing stay-at-home orders.
Some businesses have found sustained success, while others continue to struggle to adapt to a business model in such uncertain times. As you’ll see in West Virginia and Ohio, small businesses continue to be some the hardest hit entities across the nation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Westbrook Health Services in Parkersburg saw an average of 1,300 clients a week at its eight facilities in and around Parkersburg, W.Va. With many activities curtailed in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, that number dropped to an average of 300 in April.
As West Virginia has reopened, the number is climbing again for the provider of psychiatric care, therapy, substance abuse treatment and assistance for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across seven counties.
“We really encourage clients to receive their services at their house, but if they feel like they need to be here, then we can accommodate that as well,” Westbrook President and CEO Kevin Trippett said. “I think some of our clients are starting to miss the personal contact.”
The door count for the week of July 13-17 was about 800, he said.
While some employees are still working from home, others have come back to their offices.
“Employees have returned to work – we’re keeping our social distance at the office, and we’re wearing our face masks,” Trippett said.
Westbrook lost some employees due to attrition in recent months, he said, but their workforce wasn’t reduced because of the pandemic.
“We’re actually having a difficult time recruiting employees right now,” Trippett said, noting they have about 70 vacancies.
Many of those are in direct care positions for individuals in group home settings. Trippett said that area could be related to the enhanced unemployment benefits some people are receiving, “but we are trying to recruit therapists, case managers, even secretarial” positions as well.
Another challenge in recent months has been obtaining personal protective equipment, said Claire Berlin, public relations and marketing coordinator for Westbrook.
“Staff have been working hard to secure PPE from our normal vendors, sourcing new verified vendors to use and relying heavily on donations from other organizations,” she said. “Due to our limited supply, we are encouraging staff to wear cloth masks when they can and reserve disposable masks for clients or visitors as needed.”
Sew the Curve Flat, a network of volunteers connecting mask-makers to organizations in need, provided 200 handmade cloth masks in June. Earlier this month, the volunteer group West Virginia Mask Army donated 500 filtered face masks and the United Way Alliance of the Mid-Ohio Valley contributed 600 non-surgical disposable masks and 15 refillable bottles of hand sanitizer.
Meanwhile, Jennifer and Major Clark were worried about their small business in April, when states were shutting down.
The Charles Town couple run the company Elopers, which provides elopement and wedding services to couples in their state as well as Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything in peak wedding season, including the courts, making it impossible for couples to even get a marriage license.
In the last four months, however, the couple has been able to “make things work.” As couples have had to cancel large wedding plans, the Clarks started marketing smaller-scale wedding services.
“We’re doing a lot of things outside in parks with just the bride and groom,” Jennifer Clark said. “Of course, we’re having to wear masks, but we’re making it work.”
She said that while some couples are waiting on the big wedding ceremony for next year, they’re still coming to their company for a legal ceremony this year.
“We’re having a lot of success with that,” Jennifer said.
The story is similar in Warren, Ohio.
After months of quarantining, people are still in love, jewelry store owner Thom Duma confirmed Tuesday. Duma had to close his store, Thom Duma Fine Jewelers, in late March, but since reopening in mid-May, Duma said traffic has really picked up.
Anniversaries, engagements and birthdays are some of the celebrations from which Duma said he is making the most of his sales. He noted that because the travel industry is taking a hit, people are turning to jewelry instead spending their money.
The business had a slow start reopening in May, but revenue for June exceeded revenue for June of 2019, and Duma said that as of Tuesday morning, July’s sales were projected to also be ahead of sales for July of 2019.
Duma said he feels fortunate for where the business is currently, but worries about what the future may hold.
Throughout the stay-at-home orders, Duma and his employees called their customers to check in on them, a process they called “care calls.”
Many of the customers who received care calls have come in to thank the team, something Duma said was cool to see. The purpose of the calls was not a sales pitch, but one care call did end up getting the business some revenue.
Duma had called customer Carolyn Shaffer to check in during the pandemic, and Shaffer told Duma that her sister’s father-in-law had contracted COVID-19 and was placed in hospice care. She asked him to pray. The man died later that day, and Shaffer called her nephews to see how they were doing.
One, named Mario, shared with his aunt during the call that he was planning on proposing to his girlfriend soon. Then, he asked her if she knew Duma.
“I kind of liked stopped dead in my tracks,” she said.
Shaffer typically speaks to Duma about twice a year, so the timing was fortuitous. She called Duma back to tell him about the coincidence, and informed him that when they reopened, “we’re going to be the first ones in the door.”
On Tuesday morning, Duma said that while they weren’t the first in the door, he did sell Mario an engagement ring.
At Domestic Sewing Center in town, “it’s been a zoo,” owner Linda Fabrizio said on Thursday.
The business has been thriving throughout the pandemic, with its customers furiously making masks to send to hospitals. Now that Gov. Mike DeWine has instituted an executive order requiring everyone to wear masks in public, Fabrizio expects her business to continue to ramp up. She has been doing curbside sales and repairs since the pandemic called for her showroom to close in March.
“Everybody is making masks right now,” she said. “And now that it’s mandated by the state of Ohio, we’re getting an awful lot of people looking for machines and also repairs. It’s just been really, really crazy.”
Fabrizio is currently the only employee at the store, which she co-owns with her 91-year-old father Jake Kois, who started the business in 1956. Because of the risk for older people pertaining to COVID-19, she said her father has been staying home, although he loves interacting with customers and providing friendly, fair service. He’s been keeping busy with his gardening, she said.
Since she is the only employee right now, Fabrizio has required her customers to wear masks from the beginning of the pandemic when interacting with her for curbside sales and pickup.
She noted that if she gets sick, no one would be there for her customers, and that can’t happen because they need her to maintain and repair machines so they can keep sewing.
“It’s really quite interesting how this is working right now,” she said. “The phone doesn’t stop ringing. People keep knocking on the door bringing machines in.”
She said she sold out of the lower-priced machines but she currently offers refurbished ones at a discount.
“These trade-ins have been really a blessing, because we’re servicing those out as fast as we can, and those are flying off the shelves, too,” Fabrizio said.
When the pandemic began, she ordered new machines, but they have yet to arrive because manufacturers have not been producing them like they were before the pandemic started, and currently, there is a shortage of machines.
“Now, and I think they’re seeing this across the nation, everybody is sewing these masks, so everybody is pretty well running out of sewing machines,” Fabrizio said. “And our suppliers aren’t keeping up with the demand right now.”
Fabrizio estimated that over the course of the last four months, her customers have made and donated more than 2,000 masks, which she then has distributed to local hospitals, calling the initiative “Masks of Love.” All the masks are made from donated materials either provided by clients or taken from the store’s stock of fabric. Because of the elastic shortage, people have stepped up and brought Fabrizio elastic, including a woman who owns a lingerie company who donated elastic during the shortage.
With the statewide mandate, along with school coming up in the fall, her customers will be making even more masks for friends, family and students, she said.
While not the case for many other businesses, the pandemic has actually helped Domestic Sewing Center, so Fabrizio is grateful for that.
“I know a lot of businesses are suffering, but … thank God we’re not,” she said. “Because of the fact that everybody is really stepping up to the plate. And all we’re basically trying to do is keep everybody up and running so they can make these masks.”
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