Retail businesses weigh options as COVID-19 restrictions lift

Dean Peterson at Tops for Shoes
PRECAUTIONS IN PLACE: Dean Peterson, the general manager at Tops for Shoes in downtown Asheville, makes disposable face masks available for customers. The store, which reopened on May 9, has also installed plexiglass in front of its counters and displayed signage to alert shoppers of new safety policies. Photo by Molly Horak

On May 9, as North Carolina lifted restrictions on some retail businesses implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19, local store owners were left to decide if they felt comfortable reopening — or if opening to customers also opened the door to unacceptable risk. For some, the highly anticipated date was a signal that an end to their financial woes might be in sight. Others felt the move came too soon and remained closed to protect the safety of their staff and customers.

Under Phase 1 of the state’s three-phase reopening plan, retail businesses previously designated as nonessential, including bookstores, clothing boutiques and sporting goods shops, are allowed to operate at 50% capacity. Stores are required to keep shoppers 6 feet apart, screen all employees for COVID-19 symptoms and provide hand sanitizer; they are also being asked to display signage reminding customers of the new safety precautions. In Buncombe County, customers are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.

Kit Cramer, president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, says her team has joined with Buncombe County, the city of Asheville and other strategic partners to assemble resources and host virtual town halls that help businesses navigate the phased reopening process. In the coming weeks, the chamber plans to release industry-specific information guides and a comprehensive list of businesses selling personal protective equipment.

But as the situation rapidly changes, it’s difficult to collect raw data that accurately reflects who’s open and who’s not, Cramer says. This uncertainty has many business owners questioning if their decision is on track with that of their peers.

“We just don’t know,” says Sarah Evers, one of the family owners of Dancing Bear Toys in East Asheville, which remains closed for in-person customers.

Store by store

A steady stream of shoppers flowed through the downtown Asheville Tops for Shoes on May 9, the first day the store could officially reopen. The shop advertised discounts on its social media accounts, including 20% off kids spring footwear and a “buy one get one for a penny” sale.

Prior to reopening, the Tops management team individually emailed all employees asking about their existing health concerns and any reservations they had about reopening, says Dean Peterson, the store’s general manager. Citing employee privacy, Peterson did not comment on their responses, but he noted that the leadership team “supports their employees 100%.”

Mast General Store is taking a different approach. The Valle Crucis-based chain’s leadership team announced that its stores would reopen in phases, with the Asheville location expected to open on Monday, May 25.

Carmen Cabrera, the general manager of Mast’s Asheville store, said she plans to install plexiglass guards at the cash registers, add hand-washing and sanitizing stations and place tape and signage around the store reminding shoppers to keep a 6-foot distance.

In Weaverville, store owner Jennifer Jenkins wasn’t gung-ho about reopening Miya Gallery, but after weighing the options, she ultimately decided to open May 9. To help make her decision, she consulted with other local business owners, including a friend who owns a jewelry store on Biltmore Avenue in Asheville.

“We weren’t really anxious to reopen, but like everyone else, expenses haven’t changed,” Jenkins says. “And the other small shops on [Main Street in Weaverville] are doing the same thing we’re doing with a quiet opening.”

Normally, a large portion of the gallery’s foot traffic comes from tourists, so Jenkins isn’t too worried about large crowds visiting the store. Only five customers are allowed in the shop at a given time, and she’s installed plexiglass sneeze guards in front of every jewelry case. Customers will be permitted to handle jewelry, but items will be sanitized before and after. Masks, made by a local artist, are also on sale.

Hendo goes local

If the first day of Phase 1 reopening was any indication, Caroline Gunther, owner of Wag! A Unique Pet Boutique in Hendersonville, thinks business could be returning to prepandemic levels. Hendersonville’s Main Street was busy — she thinks the majority of businesses were open in some capacity for customers.

“I felt like people were trying to buy from local businesses,” Gunther said. “My average ticket was higher; instead of people buying one small treat, they were buying multiple higher-priced items. I definitely got the feeling that some people were coming in for the first time and they were just finding whatever to buy to support, which was great.”

Because pet food is considered an essential item, Gunther’s store has been open for curbside pickup and delivery since mid-March. With the retail space closed, she worked to finalize the store’s website, update appliances and review policies prior to the May 9 reopening for in-person shopping.

Hendersonville businesses and restaurants can opt into the “#SafeHendo Pledge,” a list of safety precautions and guidelines such as limiting customer numbers, encouraging facial coverings and educating employees on safety protocols. Gunther, who serves on the Hendersonville Downtown Advisory Board and the Henderson County COVID-19 Task Force, has signed on to the pledge.

“My thing is to meet people where they are, try to respect all different viewpoints of it and do your best to make it work,” Gunther said. “That’s all you can do.”

No-touch and go

Evers with Dancing Bear Toys says COVID-19 is going to fundamentally change her store’s business model. The shop has been operating a curbside pickup service since the pandemic’s onset, largely because its primary customers are children and grandparents — the latter of which, due to age, are particularly vulnerable to severe symptoms from the disease.

“Our store is just so touchy-feely. That was a reason why we closed pretty early on, because it was just irresponsible for us to say that we could keep it cleaned,” Evers says. “With kids, they go everywhere.”

Evers is working to update the store’s website, but Dancing Bear’s large and varied inventory makes it difficult to move everything online. Customers have nonetheless appreciated the online options, she says, especially grandparents and other caretakers who didn’t have toys on hand when stay-at-home orders went into place.

No date is set for when Dancing Bear’s shop floor will officially open. Evers says she and her family will make the decision when they, and their customers, feel safe returning.

The Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity ReStore is tentatively set to reopen on Tuesday, May 26, says Ariane Kjellquist, a spokesperson for the nonprofit. Before the pandemic, the store operated with the help of roughly 140 volunteers, many of whom are over the age of 65 and at higher risk for contracting severe COVID-19.

Kjellquist’s team is in conversation with reopened Habitat ReStores in South Carolina and other nearby states to learn best practices and troubleshoot potential challenges, she explains. When the store does open, it will be run by Habitat for Humanity staff. All suggested safety measures, including masks, sanitizer and 6-foot distancing, will be in place.

“The safety of our donors and volunteers and customers and staff is at the forefront of all of our decision-making,” Kjellquist said. “It may look like we’re slow to reopen or not jumping on the bandwagon like everyone else who’s reopening, but we really want to wait because we think it’s the right thing to do to keep everyone safe.”

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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