Fenwick Island is a beach town with an identity uniquely its own. It has no boardwalk or “town center.” It is situated between the hustle and bustle of Ocean City, Md., and the relative quiet of a state park.
As the days count down to Memorial Day, business owners in Fenwick Island, though, are like those in other seasonal towns during a pandemic — bouncing between uncertain, cautiously optimistic and downright worried — about what the coming months will be like in a normally bustling beach town.
Reached at the Seaside Country Store, her big red landmark store on Coastal Highway, on a recent weekday afternoon, Amy Vickers said she absolutely had time to talk. She, in fact, was the only person in the store.
Normally, Vickers said, she would have opened the store — just on the weekends — a few days before. She coordinates her opening dates with Springfest, the Ocean City celebration of warming weather and the approach of the summer season. Of course, like pretty much everything else during the COVID-19 health crisis, Springfest was canceled this year.
So Vickers has been working alone in her store, trying to prepare for… what, exactly? That’s the question facing her and other resort businesses this year.
Right now, she said, she doesn’t even know if her store will be open to customers this season, much less when.
“I don’t know how to feel,” Vickers said.
In the meantime, she is trying to plan for whatever comes.
“I’m going to be ready,” she said. “I’m going to have somebody outside the door with that thermometer thing,” and she will make sure customers know they have to have masks on in order to enter the store.
She said each department will have a supply of gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes at the ready. Plexiglass shields will also probably be installed at cashier stations, and the 6-foot personal distance rule will be enforced.
Cheese samples and contact tracing
At Seaside Country Store, being able to sample the products is part of the whole experience, Vickers said, and she hasn’t figured out how, or if, she’ll be able to still do that safely.
Since she owns her building. Vickers said, she hasn’t had to worry about whether she can pay rent on her store — a difficult situation many business owners currently find themselves in.
“With nobody here, my utilities are kind of low,” she said. “I’ve been very frugal all these years. I’ve always invested everything I’ve made in merchandise.”
In that area, Vickers said she’s ready for whatever the summer brings.
“I already have most of it. If you order early, then you have it.”
Just down Coastal Highway at the Southern Exposure clothing store, owner Tim Collins is finding himself using the word “unprecedented” far more than he ever has in describing a business climate.
“If you’re in the retail business, you’re probably an optimist by nature,” Collins said. “I remain an optimist, but I’m truly concerned about how this season is going to play out.”
Collins’ experience in his business began with 10 years in Manhattan’s Garment District.
“I think I understand the market pretty well,” he said. What he is most concerned about, particularly for those who, like him, specialize in seasonal clothing, is that with what, at best, seems like it will be a shortened beach season, “We’re going to see a massive liquidation” of spring and summer clothing.
Balancing inventory, rent and a short season
“We’re all sitting on so much inventory,” Collins said, “that the name of the game is going to be ‘Just get rid of it.’” In that, he said, the smaller businesses are going to have to compete with the prices offered at the outlet stores.
“It’s going to be a slugfest,” Collins said of the competition for customers with the outlets. “They’re sitting on so much inventory, and they’re not concerned about the local environment. They’re going to be told [by their corporations], ‘This is what you’re going to do.’”
Collins said for many beach businesses that lease their shops, “The landlord issue is a big factor” in how they will fare in such an uncertain time. He said if there’s one thing he has learned through experience, as well as through listening to a number of online webinars and information sessions this year, it’s that store owners should not hesitate to reach out to vendors and landlords to see if payment arrangements can be changed.
“I’ve had two solid weeks of communication with our vendors,” Collins said. “I’ve said, ‘Let’s discuss the true definition of sharing and working together.’” He said, however, that even when vendors work with businesses on payment arrangements, they will have to be paid eventually. With such an uncertain season looming, he said, “That’s where it’s going to get tough.”
“You’ve got to try to do something, because this is not going to go away,” he said. He has come to the conclusion, he said, that “you don’t plan on making any money in the spring and summer of 2020.”
As far as his employees go, Collins said, “I’ve been able to keep two full-time employees off of unemployment,” and he feels he will be able to keep part-timers on at some level as the summer progresses.
Even though Collins remains optimist in the long run, he said he feels the anxiety of the business community in the short term, because of the overwhelming number of unknowns.
“I don’t think we can disregard this kind of unrest that’s building,” he said. “There are people… they’re up against the wall.”
“Every business is going to have its own set of issues,” Collins said. “You’re just going to have to deal with it.
“I have every anticipation of there being a Southern Exposure” when the health crisis is over,” he said. “We’ve got to get through the 2020 season as best we can.”
‘People are ready to get outside’
Another business owner who is looking at the season as one that will bring different challenges and a lot of unknowns is Mitch Mitchell, owner of Coastal Kayak.
“We’re optimistic that we’re going to be opening on Memorial Day,” Mitchell said.
Right now, he said, “We’re doing everything we would normally do to get ready for the season,” including taking in new equipment, which had been ordered last fall.
They’ve also been thinking about how to keep customers safe, which he admits is easier for an outdoor business than a typical brick-and-mortar one. There are considerations that have to be made, however, including stepped-up cleaning of equipment such as lifejackets and paddles between uses.
Other changes will be more care in keeping people separated. Tour groups will meet at the launch site instead of at Coastal Kayak.
“There will be no vans,” Mitchell said.
One advantage of a business that is frequented often by families is that they are already appropriately “socially distanced,” particularly if they come from the same household.
Mitchell said Coastal Kayak will also put up barriers at the office on Route 1, in order to keep groups separated. He is also “exploring” ways to drop off rental kayaks at customers’ homes right now without requiring any contact with the customers.
“We actually don’t know if we can drop kayaks off at people’s houses at this point or not,” Mitchell said of shifting business restrictions. “We kind of fit in a number of categories. We also do rentals at the state parks. We’re working on trying to find clarification,” he said.
Still, he said, he has had quite a few groups cancel tours this spring, because of the limitations on travel into Delaware by out-of-state residents. Coastal Kayak, meanwhile, has had many calls about booking kayak tours in August.
“People are ready to get outside and do stuff. We’re basically pretending we’re going to open,” Mitchell said. “We kind of have to do that.”