Like most small business owners, Rebekah McCracken had no idea her popular Hamilton Creek ladies clothing store in downtown Lindsay would be closed for so long to the general public.
Yet closed her store remains, since March 17 when the province declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19.
At first, she took it as a great opportunity to do a few renovation projects around the store that she had been putting off – even getting her kids involved.
“With that out of the way,” she tells the Advocate, “I turned my focus on brainstorming new ways of connecting with my customers.”
Social media platforms were the obvious choice for her – except that she didn’t have any kind of online store to steer people toward.
“Because of the volume of inventory that we carry and size selection options, I decided it would be worth a try to instead post daily outfits or promotions. If someone sees an item they like, they can message or call and we work out the details,” says McCracken.
She offers non-contact payment and free delivery in the Lindsay area or curbside pickup and has even shipped a few things.
“I have been extremely appreciative of any support we have received from our local community during this time. I feel like people are really concerned for local businesses that have been temporarily closed due to this pandemic – it has made me so proud to be a resident of Kawartha Lakes,” say McCracken.
Melissa McFarland is general manager of Lindsay’s downtown business improvement association (BIA), an area that runs roughly Kent Street from Lindsay Street to Victoria Street, and portions of the side streets.
Those streets aren’t seeing a lot of activity right now, other than the downtown reconstruction that continues.
She says the mood is understandably quiet. The people making a go of it – like McCracken – are “doing a fantastic job of providing curbside pickup and porch delivery for their products,” says McFarland.
Some retailers are doing this with a fully operational online store, says the BIA GM, while other businesses like Hamilton Creek are using their social media.
“Customers are experiencing an additional level of service with this model, and the social media feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly positive,” says McFarland.
Not all downtown businesses in Lindsay have fared as well. Castle Keep, a personal support worker-focused business, closed down April 17, its 33 team members out of work with the decade-old health care business.
Tourism remains challenging
Marylee Boston, manager of the Fenelon Falls & District Chamber of Commerce, agrees that the customer service model is being changed for some businesses.
“The pandemic has affected businesses in a variety of ways,” Boston tells the Advocate. “Some small businesses have seen a slow down while others have adapted how they offer their services, and some are using the closure to make business improvements.”
Boston says businesses in the tourism accommodation sector are facing particular challenges “due to the uncertainty of the summer season and when they will be allowed to open.”
“The retail and restaurant sectors were forced to close but some are connecting with their customers in new ways,” she says, although Fenelon Falls recently lost Dolce due to financial pressures from the pandemic, a bakery that was located on Francis Street in the village near CIBC.
McFarland agrees with that assessment.
“Many restaurants are doing a significant amount of business in take-out and delivery sales, and while the volume isn’t near where it would be in usual times, it’s enough to keep them running and afloat,” says the Lindsay BIA GM.
“They’re finding that there is still very much a market for these types of sales, especially on weekends, as I believe that the general population may be growing weary of quarantine and cooking and looking for other options.”
Some food services, especially those that weren’t known for take-out previously, struggled with the switch, and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it, says McFarland, “or that they weren’t comfortable with the associated risks for their staff, and closed completely.”
That’s what Lisa Miller, owner of The Cat and Fiddle in Lindsay for 14 years, decided. It was just too much risk for her staff and the community.
While Miller believes the government is taking all necessary precautions, she says “some people during lockdown are not abiding by the rules,” which didn’t make her feel safe for her staff and patrons.
“I feel confident that once we reopen, we have a strong customer base and a supportive community,” to be able to bounce back, says Miller, who says she has incurred thousands of dollars in food and beer waste that won’t be recouped.
Miller is looking at a June 1 reopening for The Cat and Fiddle but will also keep an eye on what the province is suggesting.
From a tourism perspective, no one is more affected by this than the hotel industry. Lindsay’s Days Inn & Suites’ general manager, Candace Buckley, says her 73-bed hotel is down “about 75 per cent in occupancy and then of course 100 per cent in meetings and events and swimmers.”
“We have remained open and have learned how to operate in a new way that allows for reduced contact with our guests,” says Buckley.
“It seems we are tweaking things daily to accommodate the new mandates and updates from the government and are treating a lot of new processes with a trial and error perspective. The change has brought about a lot of new ideas and has really forced us to think outside the box,” the hotel GM says.
Now, all rooms are treated with a Pur Ayr machine after someone checks out. This is a special machine that uses oxidative gases to kill bacteria. Then the rooms are cleaned by housekeeping. The room is treated for four hours before it sits empty for 12-24 hours.
The rooms, after patrons check out, do not get cleaned until the next day or potentially the following day.
“It makes it hard as the housekeeper only cleans the treated rooms the day prior, making for a shorter shift but it is what needs to be done to ensure their safety,” says Buckley.
Days Inn has also had to close their popular breakfast buffet. Instead, they offer “grab and go” bags for guests instead.
“We just started writing some happy messages on them all to start everyone’s day on a brighter note,” says Buckley.
As for the Lindsay BIA leader, McFarland, she says “public support of our businesses has been phenomenal.”
“I believe that at the time our businesses are able to open their doors again, there will be a return of the patronage from many business’ regular customers.”
But will it be in time?
Boston says the summer tourism season “is important to Fenelon Falls, so there is a desire to know when and how the reopening will occur.”
The chamber leader says that businesses will need to prepare staff, implement new health measures “and welcome visitors in a safe manner.”
Buckley, at the Days Inn, says all of this is making for some very long days.
“The atmosphere has changed with less people in the building. Before we used to have a buzzing place with housekeepers singing in the halls, three to four people at the front desk and our pool full of kids and adults getting some exercise.”
Now, Buckley says, there’s just their event coordinator and Buckley herself covering front desk shifts and an average of one housekeeper working alone.
“While it is a great time for our one maintenance employee to get work done, the quietness and limited contact with people makes the day long and can be tough on the mind and body for everyone.”
The Ontario government has released a framework to reopen the province in stages, but there are no firm dates attached to it as the amount of viral spread continues to be monitored. Phase one might involve opening select workplaces that can modify their operations, such as providing curbside pickup or delivery; opening parks; and allowing for more people at events like funerals. It could also include some elective surgeries.
Stage two could include opening more businesses, like service, retail or office workplaces.
Stage three would include having all workplaces open, and allowing larger gatherings.
McCracken, too, can’t wait to open, “but I want it to happen in a way that’s safe for everyone,” she says.
Once the restrictions are lifted, says McCracken, she will be excited to see friendly faces again.
“I am missing the face-to-face interaction with our customers, many whom are now friends. It’s definitely been a challenging time, but I am an optimistic person by nature and can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” the Hamilton Creek owner says.
With two full time and five part time employees, McCracken says she is also not used to running the store alone.
“I’ve realized how much I appreciate their contributions and really do value their help.”