Operating a local small business in the time of COVID-19 restrictions presents both challenges and opportunities for creativity and community bonding. In these days, local businesses seek to remain open and viable, while hoping to draw in customers who want to encourage and support them.
At the Golden Sands Golf Course and Bucket Bar in Mears, owner Alicia Kolenda outlines the steps that the business has taken to assure the safety of both customers and employees. Golden Sands opened the first weekend in April, and immediately made adjustments and changes to its operations. Initially a small window was installed at the cashier station as a barrier, but the final configuration is triple the size, covering the whole length of the bar. Customers place their orders and pay at the front desk and never come in direct contact with the staff and vice versa. “It’s like a giant windshield,” Kolenda said. “We know that if someone gets sick, then we all do, so we want to empower people for their own health and safety and help them understand why they are required to do certain things.”
Patrons come in and pick up their orders, and wind barriers have been installed so they can exit without touching the doors. Condiments and utensils are single-use. The bar takes on-line orders and can also provide home kits to prepare at home. Customers can take their food to their cars, or they are encouraged by staff to go out on the nature pathway around the pond. “We have 130 acres to walk,” Kolenda noted, “and that’s good for everyone.”
As for the golf course, the height of the cup has been changed so the ball doesn’t go in – if the ball touches the cup anywhere, it’s considered in the hole. The course takes online tee times and if requested will have a cart ready, though most golfers walk. On-line scoring and yardages are available, and there are no paper score cards.
“At this point, our goal is to have everything in place for full re-opening, whenever that happens,” Kolenda explained. “Our entire staff has been retrained, and the protective measures are in place.”
At Storybook Village in Pentwater, the owners Tom and Barbara Sims have found imaginative ways to accommodate the health regulations and still keep the business vital and experiential. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Sunday, the business slogan has become “Call, text or curb.” As explained by Tom Sims, “We are allowed curbside sales, so we put puzzles and games on a table in front of the store and people can drive up and look. We also have a large windowfront area along the sidewalk, and we have tables inside the store for customers to browse through the window. If someone sees something, we bring it out, since they can’t come into the store.”
Of course, Storybook Village also takes orders on-line, by text and phone call. According to Tom, a customer will call in with a request such as, “I have a two-year old with a short attention span. What would you recommend?” Tom and Barbara are then able to suggest a book and related activities such as puppets or stickers, and the items can be picked up at the store or delivered to the home.
“We’ve always been experiential,” Barbara Sims said. “We are geared toward getting children engaged in imaginative play that leads to story. So, now our website is offering opportunities to let children play and use their imaginations.” Specifically, Barbara is doing virtual storytelling and the business is offering live Facebook events. On the website, there are some packaged product offerings – “Barbara’s picks” – which might, for example, include a cookbook and a set of fry pans to stretch the story. “Every time you read a story, you should find a way to reinforce it, to make it experiential,” Barbara explained. Her goal is to help parents find ways to do this with their children. During her on-line sessions, she might do karaoke puppet stories and then choreograph a dance with a puppet, or model a chicken with Sculpey clay, do a story about the chicken dance and use the model to do the chicken dance with the child.
Storybook Village is hopeful that, as the summer provides more opportunities for businesses to open, it may be able to provide outdoor programs for children, where they can get together and read and work on projects, and have experiences in a different way than before.
“If you love what you do, you’ll find another way to do it,” she said. “The business owner has to be the one to say, ‘I’ll do it’ and then learn to extend their business in creative ways. And this community knows how to hold hands and cross the street together – it is a caring community, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else but Oceana County.”
Offering fishing charters is a challenge being faced by Chris Hixson, captain of the Pole Vaulter that sails out of Pentwater and Ludington, starting around July 15, when he fishes for chinook salmon, lake trout, steelhead, coho, brown trout and other species. Usually, he begins charters for walleye fishing on Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron in May and June, but his operations will not begin this year until the governor opens campgrounds. He is hoping to be able to begin taking customers out on June 1, but for now, as Hixson said, “They keep moving the goalpost, so it’s a wait and see thing.”
Hixson is fortunate in that he is benefitting from a government loan that is enabling him to make his boat payments during the lull in his business. He can use 25 percent of the loan amount for debt and the other 75 percent for lost wages, so he’s working closely with his accountant to maintain the necessary paperwork to receive some loan forgiveness at the end of the six-month term. But he knows he will not be as profitable as in other years, especially since many of his customers are retired people who are more vulnerable to the Corona virus. There is definitely some cause for concern, because a charter boat really does not allow for typical social distancing or sterilization. “If you spend eight hours on a boat, it’s nearly impossible not to bump into each other, and there are many surfaces that people will come in contact with,” Hixson explained. He encourages people to evaluate the risk of a fishing charter for themselves if they’re older or have health concerns and decide if they’re willing to take a chance.
The Sands Restaurant in Mears opened under new ownership during the Corona lockdown and has only been open a month at this point. Chris Irving, who owns the restaurant with his wife Theresa, indicated that they opened primarily to get their staff trained, knowing that this time would be a killer for their business. However, he said “The community has really come out and supported us.”
Although the dining room is currently closed, the business is doing take-out and delivery with hours from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. As the business slowly grows, it is bringing on more staff, and the Sands is currently hiring delivery drivers.
During this time, anyone who interacts with customers wears masks and gloves and anything touched by a customer is sanitized between customers. Staff never takes a card, and an iPad and card reader are used only by the customer. “In many ways, it’s not so terribly different than a healthy restaurant would be,” Chris Irving explained, “except that we are not operating in the dining room. For now, we’re waiting for clear guidance to come out before we change anything we’re doing.”
Irving indicated that both he and Theresa are retired military. Theresa was a dishwasher at the Sands when she was 15, and when they retired, she worked for Jeff and Norma Clark, the long-time owners, until Jeff passed away. When Norma was ready to sell, they made a deal to buy the restaurant. “We are very happy,” Chris reported. “This is a small blip in a long-term business goal. We have great people who work for us, and we enjoy providing great jobs. We offer health insurance and hope to provide retirement benefits after a year. We want to be a place where someone can work and provide for their family. It is our standard operating principal that every business should be opened in a healthy way, and when so many people come in the summer, that will be mutually beneficial to all.”
For these local businesses and others, the goal is to make patrons feel safe during this time of quarantining, and then into the gradual reopening that is to come.