With summer 2020 in the rear-view mirror, the director of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce says the business community serving local resort towns, in general, fared well in the face of a season that threw all sorts of obstacles onto the roadway in front of them.
“There are certain industries that did great,” said Lauren Weaver, executive director of the local Chamber, which is based in Fenwick Island. “There are some people who did not feel the impact” of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
Realtors, for one, “do not have enough hours in the day right now,” Weaver said. “Homes are flying off the market.” Weaver said it makes her proud that “people want to come to our area” to live and to vacation, in the midst of the health crisis.
Outdoor businesses, which provided opportunities for people to gather for fun activities while maintaining social distancing, also did well — including kayaking and boating business, as well as golf and other outdoor activities, Weaver said.
Other businesses that “pivoted” in order to meet consumers’ changing needs and shopping habits, she said, found success, and “some ended up not too far off the mark” of whatever might be the benchmark for that particular business that indicates a successful summer, Weaver said.
For some, that pivot meant beefing up their online presence, which not only gave them a new way to interact with customers during the pandemic but will also be helpful looking forward. Those types of innovations — different ways of providing goods and services — proved to actually improve some businesses’ efficiency so much that they will become permanent ways of doing business, Weaver said.
Many restaurants were able to make the summer at least partially successful through expanding ways for customers to dine, including adding or enlarging outdoor dining spaces or adding curbside pick-up and takeout options.
For some businesses, including grocery stores and other retail shops, just getting the inventory they know they need to meet customer demand was a challenge, Weaver said, as was being able to properly staff their businesses.
“It was just a matter of figuring it out,” sometimes on a daily basis, when rules changed as Gov. John Carney’s emergency directives shifted. Restaurants, which typically are packed during the summer months with lines out the door during peak season, had to adjust their seating when they were limited to various percentages of their capacity — currently 60 percent under the governor’s directives under Phase 2 of the state’s COVID-19 recovery strategy.
Restaurants with bars were required to close them down earlier in the summer as spikes in COVID-19 cases were linked to overcrowded bars. Those restrictions were eased just as the Labor Day weekend began.
“That was a big thing this past week,” Weaver said. She added that some restaurants were able to mitigate the impact of the bar restrictions somewhat by adding alcoholic drinks to their takeout menus — something she called “a big perk” for hospitality businesses.
Weaver said some of the new ways of doing business may actually help local shops in the long run.
“Some people really like curbside” pick-up, she said as one example. “It opens up a whole new market of people that maybe wouldn’t have walked into your store otherwise,” Weaver said.
As the business community heads into the “second season,” Weaver said she is cautiously optimistic. She said that, although the many fall festivals that typically entice visitors to the beach after Labor Day have been canceled, the fact that remote work and schooling gives people more travel flexibility may bring them to the beach anyway.
Another boost, she said, is coming in the form of Delaware Relief Grants. Starting Sept. 8, grants of up to $100,000 are available to small businesses and nonprofit organizations impacted by COVID-19. Weaver said that an hour after the grant program went online, 500 businesses had applied for the grants. She said the State will cap the grant awards at about 2,000 for September, but will open more grant availability in subsequent months.
More information about Delaware Relief Grants is available online at delbiz.com/relief.
Weaver said the Chamber has polled its members throughout the summer to gauge how they were faring under the COVID-19 restrictions.
“We did a survey at the beginning of August,” she said. “We definitely know that our coastal towns were impacted greater than our inland towns. … We are grateful,” she said, “that about 60 percent said, ‘We think we can keep going like this for another year.’
“That was actually comforting,” she said of the survey, which was answered by about 10 percent of the Chamber’s members. On the other hand, Weaver said, “Some said, ‘We’re not going to make it to October.’
“This grant program is coming at a good time,” she said. Weaver also lauded the state initiative to provide retraining for employees of industries impacted most severely by the virus, such as restaurants and hospitality.
Meanwhile, the Chamber, Weaver said, is working with businesses to come up with collaborations to benefit different types of businesses.
“We’re looking at new ways of supporting the business community,” she said.