With the COVID-19 outbreak causing JMU to shut down in-person operations unexpectedly, local businesses in Harrisonburg are faced with an abrupt decline in customers.
JMU closed for the week of March 16, then moved classes online through the end of the semester. Students were sent multiple emails urging them to stay in their hometowns and not return to on or off-campus housing for the rest of the academic year. This has affected the businesses that rely on the patronage of those students during the school year.
In a media briefing on March 23, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said that all restaurants, fitness centers and theaters are mandated to significantly reduce their capacity to 10 patrons at a time. Restaurants are being encouraged to continue carry-out and takeaway options.
On March 30, Northam issued a statewide Stay at Home order that took effect immediately and will remain until June 10.
As a result of these mandates, many restaurants in Harrisonburg remain open for business but are experiencing a loss of customers.
Taylor Secrist, who works at Mr. J’s Bagel & Deli, said the shop has been seeing a decrease in customers. It usually serves a large number of students to keep them busy, but with most students gone, it’s feeling the loss with a decline in student customers. She said the business has tried to offset this by being careful with following the heightened guidelines for cleanliness and safety, like wearing gloves and not allowing customers to sit inside.
The CDC has recommended strategies that businesses should implement, which include actively encouraging sick employees to stay home, separating sick employees, emphasizing staying home when sick, stressing the importance of respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees, and performing routine environmental cleaning.
“We can’t have customers sitting down, we have to wear gloves, we can’t do refills on coffee and we can’t take personal cups,” Secrist said.
The shop has had to cut hours, but business hasn’t been bad enough to close them down or lay off anyone.
“Now that we have DoorDash and Grubhub we’re a little busier,” Secrist said.
Josh Scotto, a manager at Tutti Gusti, said the restaurant is also taking extra precautions to handle food safely. He said that these steps are necessary to prevent spreading the virus and acknowledged the best thing for everyone to do is to “just stay home.”
The restaurant is now only available through curbside pickup, Grubhub, Doordash and delivery. Despite following all the precautions, Scotto said Tutti Gusti has also seen orders decrease from not just students but also permanent residents of Harrisonburg.
“Like anybody else, we’ve been losing 70% of business,” Scotto said.
Due to this extreme loss of business, they’ve been forced to lay off five staff members.
Greens & Grains Cafe has also seen a decline in business from local residents, as well as an absence of college students, worker Maelani Kline said.
“Most of the people who come in are college students,” Kline said. “Usually, we have the locals who come in, but just nobody’s coming in at all.”
Kline also said that the cafe has had to shorten its hours because of this, with the store closing down shop up to four hours early.
“It’s been super slow,” Kline said. “Nobody comes in for four straight hours.”
In order to help out local businesses, the Harrisonburg Rockingham COVID-19 Business Support Task Force was created. The task force includes the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Department for the City of Harrisonburg, the Economic and Tourism Department for Rockingham County, the Small Business Development Center, the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, and the Shenandoah Valley Technology Council.
Frank Tamberrino, president of the Chamber of Commerce, described how the task force started the Business Resiliency Grant Fund, which had about 100 applications in the first week.
“We’re trying to help sustain and even save as many small businesses as we can with the funds we have,” Tamberrino said.
The City of Harrisonburg has created the Disaster Impact Loan Fund, which allowed businesses to apply for a loan of up to $5,000 with 0% interest.
Besides the loan, Director Of Communications at City of Harrisonburg Michael Parks said the city has had to be creative in encouraging people to support local businesses. This includes converting restricted parking spots into 10-minute parking spots.
“We tried to put those parking spots right outside different restaurants so people could come downtown, park, pick up their food, and get out of there in just a couple of minutes,” Parks said.
Another tactic they employed was printing out signs that say ‘shop local’ or ‘support your local business’ and placing them around town.
Finding funding for those grants and loans has been challenging, even with generous grants of up to $50,000 from Farmers and Merchants and $7,500 from Wells Fargo and Atlantic Credit.
“Our focus is continuing to look for places that we could get some funding that we can get into the hands of shop owners,” Parks said.
With the end of the Stay at Home order remaining tentative, the question of when businesses may fully reopen and what it will look like when they do remains similarly up in the air.
“It will get back to normal,” Tamberrino said. “We just don’t know what normal is going to look like.”
Contact Eda Tercan at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.