by CHRIS ROGERS
Like many small business owners, Laura Slavey and her husband had enough cash in the bank to last The Playground for a couple months. But when would their indoor playground business would be allowed reopen? It was anyone’s best guess. Equally unclear: When would customers return in enough numbers to cover expenses? Could the staff-less business responsibly reopen without employees to disinfect toys and monkey bars?
“This is one of the hardest posts I have ever had to write, and one I desperately hoped would never be needed,” Slavey wrote on April 29, informing families and customers that The Playground was going out of business. Hundreds of parents commented — an outpouring of condolences and appreciation, as well as pleas to accept donations to save the business. “Thank you for the great memories. You will be missed,” one mother wrote.
It is a situation Winona business leaders warned of early on in the shutdowns to save to lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Some local businesses would not survive.
“This is impacting some businesses more than others, and it’s very possible that some won’t see the light at the other side,” Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom said. “It’s a mix,” she added of how local businesses are faring. “We’ve heard from some that are really struggling and they’re weeks if not days from closing, and others that they’ll be OK for a while and still others who are doing better than they did pre-pandemic.”
Like many, The Playground saw its revenue drop off a cliff while expenses continued. Slavey said she tried working with her landlord and applying for government assistance, but the rent would be due someday and a $1,000 loan was not enough to make a difference. Some businesses are less adaptable to the pandemic than others. The Playground couldn’t exactly offer curbside pickup. Even if it could reopen, the indoor park had lost out on spring sales needed to cover the slow summer months, and its profit margin was narrow enough in good times that if even a quarter of customers stayed away because of health concerns, The Playground would be in the red, Slavey explained.
“It was very painful,” Slavey said of the decision to close for good. What weighed mostly heavily on her mind was the feeling she had disappointed families that had come to rely on The Playground. “I feel like I let a lot of people down by not being able to stay open,” she stated. It was beyond her control, Slavey acknowledged, but it still felt terrible.
When the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders came, Winonan Kayla Jannsen lost much of her work, including shifts at her parents’ business: the antique store Treasures Under Sugar Loaf. Roughly 60 different antique dealers sold their wares through the shop; so when it closed, Jannsen saw the ripple effect on those local dealers, too. “You think, ‘Well, it’s just the one store,’ but it’s not,” she stated. “I was seeing firsthand, ‘Man, this sucks. Not only do I not have a job, but I’m seeing all these other people affected,’” Jannsen recalled.
That newfound appreciation for the interconnectedness of the small-business economy inspired Jannsen to volunteer to help run a Facebook page another woman had started: “Helping Winona businesses stay afloat.” It raffles off gift certificates to local businesses. Participants buy a virtual raffle slot for a few dollars. They get a chance at winning the gift certificate, and the money goes to the local business.
As Jannsen went to collect one prize, the business owner added extra money onto the gift certificate for free. “I said, ‘No, you don’t need to do that,’” Jannsen stated. After all, the idea was to support the woman’s business. Jannsen recalled the woman’s response: “No, I want to, because you have no idea how much it makes my day just to be approached by you … Thank you for doing this. Thank you for thinking of me particularly.”
Jannsen said of the experience, “It’s made me come a lot closer to the community of Winona because not only do I get to know these individuals that are running these businesses, but I see how much it’s affecting them just to be asked, ‘Can I buy something from you? Can I support you?’ It means the world to them.”
When the pandemic and shutdowns hit, Winonan Brenda Edwards wanted to help her restauranteur friends. “My immediate thought and action was to support them as much as possible,” she wrote in an email. Unfortunately, Edwards’ own problems would soon derail her urge to help. “Two days into the stay-at-home order, my hours were cut 50 percent. OK, we can adapt,” she continued. “Two hours later, my husband was notified he was laid off indefinitely. Panic is now my word to describe my feelings. Now, not only were we not able to support our friends and neighbors whose businesses were struggling, we were now for the first time in our lives having to rely on the unemployment system. Nothing about that went smoothly and here we are nearly two months into this, and one of us is receiving a benefit, the other one is still in a hold status as the [Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development] office is ‘working on’ verifying out-of-state previous employment earnings.”
Another local woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said her job at a factory has been especially busy. “Since the shutdown, I and several others have been busting our butts to keep our company flowing,” she wrote. She said many of her co-workers chose to stay home, in part because they could make more on unemployment than they could at work. “Our facility has lost orders because of our diminished workforce. It’s frustrating that those who have work available to them are choosing to not work when so many people have legitimately lost their jobs because of this pandemic,” she added.
Despite regular disinfections and the use of personal protective equipment, “I’m a little worried myself,” Chris Leblanc said of the health risks in his work as a bus driver. Leblanc said he kept working to support his family, and because, although he worries about the virus, he felt the number of new infections in Winona was not out of control.
“Being someone who is high-risk, it is an element of fear,” Edwards wrote of the possibility of infection when she does return to work. “However, I also am stir-crazy, and it is time to move along and let the MDH [Minnesota Department of Health] provide advice and recommendations and let people make their own personal decisions.”
The MDH and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz have strongly recommended that people at high risk from serious illness or death from COVID-19 continue staying home except to run essential errands. That includes people over 65; people with underlying health conditions including lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, severe obesity, and compromised immune systems.
“My big job this week is just developing a COVID plan,” Lynne Hartert, the owner of the downtown Winona gift shop Heart’s Desire, said last week. Minnesota partially lifted the stay-at-home order this week, allowing shops to reopen at 50-percent capacity if they had protocols to protect workers’ and customers’ safety.
State agencies and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have issued lots of general guidance on how to safely reopen businesses, but for better or worse, the details are left up to small-business owners to figure out. “I spent last night and this morning reading all these guidance things, and it’s like anything, ‘Now how do I interpret this?’” Hartert said.
Hartert has a plan. She is stocking up on hand sanitizer and requiring employees and, yes, even customers to wear masks. “I do take this very seriously,” Hartert stated. “We want our employees and our customers to feel very safe when they come back shopping here. So we’re putting a lot of thought and a lot of effort into this.”
Lark Toys owner Kathy Gray was also preparing for reopening. She ordered hand-washing sinks, installed plexiglass shields at cash registers, cleared out furniture to make more room for social distancing, and made plans to open parts of her business: mini golf, but not the cafe. In the toy store, she said, “There will be some rules like at Menards and everywhere else. You have to wear a mask.” She said it is a duty she took seriously: “What can we do to make everybody safe? And we care about our staff so much, so what can we do to help them?”
Many small businesses are finding ways to adapt to the pandemic’s restrictions, Ransom said. “A lot of them have realized, most people want to pay with their card, they don’t want to have contact, they want to keep people safe,” she stated. Local companies are adapting in other ways, too. “Small businesses, not all of them, but some of them have found ways to reinvent themselves and found different ways to reach their customers,” Ransom said. “The ones that are doing well have figured out ways to survive,” she added.
During the stay-at-home order, Hartet and Gray both offered curbside pickup and delivery to try to earn some revenue. Without online stores, they texted photos of their goods to customers or just described their inventory over the phone. “We tried to think, ‘What do we have that people might need right now?’” Gray said. Puzzles and games were popular and many loyal customers made a point to get Mother’s Day gifts from the local shops, but ultimately, Hartet and Gray said their businesses revolve around the experience customers have at their shops.
“We’ll do our very best as we open on Monday to make it safe and joyful,” Gray said.
Hartert was eager to welcome customers back to the store, while acknowledging that it was not a return to the old normal. “We’ll see what next week brings,” she said.
Share your coronavirus story with us. Email reporter Chris Rogers at Chris@winonapost.com or call 507-452-1262.