“You can hear the anxiety.”
Lauren Weaver sat in her office on the outskirts of Fenwick Island on a rainy morning, reflecting on all the ways the COVID-19 virus is affecting the business community she serves as director of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.
Lately, she’s been hearing the voices of that community on a daily basis. They have concerns, as new challenges pop up daily that could affect their livelihoods far beyond the current health crisis.
Weaver’s own voice, for the record, was steady and cheerful. She talked about keeping the business community informed as the days of “the shutdown” roll into weeks. She talked about moving forward in uncertain times. She talked about evolving.
The Chamber’s communications manager, Melissa O’Brien, has been dealing with “a firehose of information” daily as state and federal directives change and broaden. Each change affects the business community in ways their owners probably had never considered before the COVID-19 virus made its way to Delaware, Weaver said.
Her own job, she said, is being a resource and a sounding board for members of a business community that was just getting ready to start opening its doors for springtime visitors. Early spring, she said, is the most challenging time for them financially, because it’s the end of the time when many have been dormant for months and reserves are just about tapped out.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” Weaver said. “They’re cash-hungry right now.”
The Small Business Association is offering loans for small businesses to help them get through the uncertain times ahead. Such loans could be the difference between a business being able to open for the summer or closing its doors, perhaps for good, Weaver said.
The fact that the fixed-rate, 30-year loans can be paid back with no penalty, Weaver said, is extremely helpful to businesses. The application process, she said, allows businesses to “project for the worst, over the next nine months, with no penalty. The ability to repay without penalty is huge.”
The SBA loans, she said, have a seven- to 21-day turn-around time, which is helpful for businesses trying to look ahead and determine not what kind of hit their revenues will take but “whether they’ll be able to open their doors” when the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
“We’re encouraging our members to get their applications in early,” Weaver said, because there will likely be a backlog on processing the loan applications very soon.
Many businesses — particularly those farther inland — are struggling with how to continue to serve customers during a time when even those considered “essential,” according to the list compiled by state officials, are closing their doors to customers but offering such alternatives as curbside pickup.
One such business is Banks Wines & Spirits in Millville. Co-owner Kami Banks said the store moved to curbside pickup earlier this week amid concerns that close contact was inevitable in the store and not safe for customers or staff.
“It allows us to still keep people working” while also serving customers, Banks said. The store’s system has “evolved” over the past few days, with staffers implementing a numbered parking-space system so customers can pull up and call inside, letting the staff know which parking space they’re in.
That’s the kind of innovation on the fly that businesses have been practicing since Gov. John Carney first announced the extensive stay-at-home and business operation orders on Sunday, March 22.
Banks said the store was closed on Monday to allow staff to regroup — a much-needed “personal day,” she said, after the frenetic pace of the days before the state-mandated restrictions.
“It’s a pretty challenging time,” Banks said. “We have employees that are taking care of young kids, taking care of elderly parents,” while still trying to work.
She said the curbside ordering presents challenges, such as when customers can’t remember names of products, or when they forget to bring their cell phones with them when they come to pick up their orders.
It also presents some scenarios that allow the staff’s creativity and product knowledge to shine, she said.
“Sometimes it’s really fun, like when someone says, ‘Hey, can you mix me a case of wine?’”
Like many businesses in the resort area, Banks usually hires international “J-1” student-workers. (The name refers to the type of visa the student-workers receive. But that process is currently on hold as the virus impacts countries all over the world and travel restrictions are rapidly changing.)
“We’re doing our best to weather the storm,” Banks said. “We’re still taking it day by day.”
While many stores have closed either out of concern for staff and customers or because the state requires them to, some considered “essential” are continuing to keep their doors open to customers — at least for now.
Steve Lehukey, manager of Fenwick Hardware on Route 54, said his business has been steady throughout the crisis. The store remains open every day, he said, but has scaled back its hours, going from being open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., to new hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“We wanted to give our employees some space,” he said, to deal with family situations and to keep themselves safe during the health crisis.
Lehukey said he met with each of his employees one-on-one to make sure they were comfortable with continuing to work in the store. He gave everyone a letter on the store’s letterhead stating that they are working for an essential business, which they can carry with them in case they are questioned while traveling back and forth between home and work.
“We are busier than ever,” Lehukey said, noting that many residents who are now stuck in their homes are using the time to tackle home projects. He said customers are also stocking up on essential home products during the shutdown.
“They want backups for things.” Propane tanks, he said, have been a popular item.
So far, Lehukey said, the store has been getting the shipments it has ordered, without delays.
“The supply chain is fine,” he said. “That hasn’t been slowed.”
He added, though, that he and his staff are “watching the numbers” of COVID-19 cases in the area, and that they will decide whether to stay open according to those numbers.
Weaver said that the Chamber building is still open by appointment, including use of a meeting room if members need it.
She said a silver lining in the current crisis may be that businesses find new ways to operate that they can use even after the current crisis — ways to better use online resources, for example, such as online payment systems, or to provide other online services to reach more customers than possible in a brick-and-mortar store.
“It gets you to think outside the box,” she said. “Everyone’s taking a real hard look at their business and getting creative.”
The Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce website, at www.thequietresorts.com, is an information hub for area businesses, including links regarding applications for small business loans, as well as other helpful links and information.