Businesses see decline; hoping to adapt
ADDISON COUNTY — While Addison County residents this week continued to adjust to health-and-safety restrictions to avoid contracting COVID-19, dozens of area businesses began suffering the economic impacts of a disease that on Wednesday afflicted its first local patient.
Gov. Phil Scott earlier this week issued a series of executive orders that closed schools, bars and substantially curtailed operations at restaurants and child care centers. All of this was aimed at enforcing a new expressions that’s enveloped our lexicon — “social distancing” — in an effort to inhibit a disease that as of Wednesday had killed 97 people in the U.S. and more than 7,900 worldwide.
Addison County confirmed its first COVID-19 case on Wednesday, a person who was tested at Porter Hospital’s new drive-through testing center. Due to federal regulations, the identity of all patients is protected for privacy concerns.
Coronavirus containment measures, necessary as they are, have dealt a serious blow to the Addison County economy. The Vermont Department of Labor most recently measured unemployment at 3 percent in January, but that will undoubtedly surge for the month of March, as businesses of all types were forced to lay off workers due to governmental mandates or revenue losses. Many people are staying home and either ordering supplies online or venturing out for just the basic essentials. Grocery clerks and social service providers joined the health care providers and public safety officials as vital, front-line players in the war against COVID-19.
Downtown Middlebury businesses knew they would be taking an uppercut this spring and summer during the most invasive stretch of the $72.5 million project to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges. To have the coronavirus syphon away Middlebury College commerce and other shoppers in early March and through graduation in May was like adding insult to injury for downtown merchants, innkeepers and restaurateurs.
“It’s so hard for all businesses in all communities, but my heart just breaks for our Middlebury community here,” said Better Middlebury Partnership Executive Director Karen Duguay. “We were already facing such upheaval this summer. I thought we were ready for that; we were planning for that. But to have this come first has made what’s to come next even harder.”
The BMP has been compiling on its website a list of local businesses and how the coronavirus is affecting their respective operations. That list can be found at tinyurl.com/udn82zw and is updated daily.
Also, Bristol CORE has provided the same kind of link for Bristol businesses found at: tinyurl.com/tvazb2p.
BUSINESSES SET CLOSINGS
Two Brothers Tavern at 86 Main St. issued the following statement about its closure early this week:
“It is with a very heavy heart that we share with you the need for us to temporarily close the Two Brothers Tavern and Notte doors effective immediately. In the interest of the safety of our staff, our patrons and community, there is no other choice. Right now our primary focus transitions to making sure that our dedicated family of staff is taken care of.
“These are extraordinary times and we are deeply appreciative of the support we have received over the past week as we all navigate these uncharted waters together. The toll this virus will take on all of us can only be minimized by helping all of our neighbors in need as much as we can. This remains our mission and we look forward to reopening the doors in the weeks or months ahead to help strengthen our community in any way we can. Until then, we wish you all well — each and everyone of you are in our thoughts.”
Vermont Book Shop owner Becky Dayton explained her difficult decision to close early this week. The historic shop will continue to serve customers through its website, email and telephone and will offer curbside pickup, delivery with 05753 zip code, and $1.99 media mail shipping.
“With each day since the arrival of the COVID-19 virus in Vermont, my comfort with exposing my employees to the public and our customers to one another has diminished,” she said. “With the ever-decreasing options for entertainment… I worry that being open is tantamount to an attractive nuisance, as they say in the law. No amount of bleach solution or hand sanitizer can quell my conscience. I believe that the right thing to do is to uphold social distancing by closing my doors for the foreseeable future.”
Dan and Michele Brown own the Swift House Inn. Dan, recently elected to the Middlebury selectboard, gave a very candid and sobering account of how COVID-19 has affected his business. The Browns are considering closing the inn temporarily due to the lack of visitors. And they don’t want to expose themselves, workers or guests to possible COVID-19 infection.
“We anticipated this coming a few weeks ago, but when the college shut down, we immediately started losing reservations,” Brown said during a phone interview.
The Swift House Inn has lost 212 reservations nights and taken in none since the college shuttered its campus, according to Brown. He explained the inn is usually getting 10-20 room reservations per day this time of year.
“So we’ve got a swing of around 40 rooms per night, where we should be taking 20 room night (reservations), but we’re losing 20 a day,” he said.
At this pace, Brown is projecting the inn to be down 80% in business for the month of April right now.
“But I think by the time it’s over with, we’ll be closer to 100% down,” Brown said.
Adding to the pain is the Swift House Inn’s popular restaurant, Jessica’s, which had to close its doors in compliance with the Scott order.
“So I have no restaurant business and very little inn keeping business,” Brown said. “We’ve sent all of our employees — except for two — to the unemployment office. It’s just Michele and I and an innkeeper an our chef.”
And deposit money has to be refunded with each room-night cancellation.
“We’re already into borrowing money from the bank, because we have no income and all of our cash reserves are gone,” he said “We can’t get any worse than that.”
It should also be noted the Swift House Inn, like others in the service industry, contract with other businesses for food and other supplies. So there’s a trickle-down effect for the economic malaise.
Dan and Michele Brown can qualify for low- or no-interest loans, but they fear a recession might ensue, which would make debt repayment even tougher.
Looking at a silver lining, Duguay believes downtown Middlebury is better positioned to rebound than other areas. That’s because the downtown, with the help of the ad hoc group Neighbors Together, had already prepared a strategy to deal with the economic doldrums caused by the rail bridges project. Neighbors Together received more than $200,000 in state funding to help implement those plans.
“While we can’t do some of the Neighbors Together initiatives right now — because they include bringing people together — we at least know we have money, volunteers and resources in place so that when we can do all these things, we’ll be doing them,” she said.
“Hopefully our businesses can hold on long enough so we can get to that point,” she added. “As a community, we can rally, and I’m trying to look at the potential opportunity here. But I tell you, it’s daunting when you think about these two things happening back-to-back.”
COVID-19 reverberations are of course being felt outside of the county’s shire town.
Vermont Flannel Co. has closed its retail Ferrisburgh outlet. But the company is steering prospective customers online. It’s no coincidence that Amazon.com has been hiring thousands of new workers to keep pace with the demand for home deliveries.
“In light of our concern over the spread of COVID-19, we want you to know that our thoughts are with you,” reads an online message from the Vermont Flannel Co. “To best take care of you and our staff, we are temporarily closing all of our retail locations. The health of our Vermont Flannel community and all of you is of the highest importance to us.”
Bristol’s Bobcat Café & Brewery remained committed to providing limited service, within the new state rules. Ownership announced the café would be closed on Monday for cleaning, then reopened on Tuesday for take away food service and delivery (to Bristol and Lincoln) from the Bobcat’s food truck parked in front of its Main Street building. Plans called for a roped-off outside area for alcohol consumption, music, and free hot dogs and hamburgers for all kids.
“We will institute a pay it forward payment system,” reads a recent Bobcat Facebook post. “If you can’t pay, you won’t. No judgment. We will except all forms of payment including Venmo and barter.”
“This is uncharted territory,” reads the Bobcat Facebook post. “We want to keep people safe. We want to keep our business viable.”
In Vergennes, 3 Squares Café owner Matt Birong met with his staff on Tuesday about the transition to a new temporary business plan.
“We’re still going to offer our full menu, with an option for curb-side service,” he said.
“We are going to give people the option, if people want to stay on or go onto unemployment,” he added. “Everyone’s personal situation is different, so our first move is to give our staff the ability to manage that decision on their own.”
Eventually, Birong knows he’ll have to weigh layoffs due to declining sales. But he’s hoping to avoid that scenario.
“Who knows, maybe we’ll blow up on the takeout menu,” he said. “I’m giving it five days to figure itself out.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, let’s put it that way,” he added.
Birong said he’s been careful not to overextend 3 Squares financially and hopes to ride out the upcoming storm, and wishes the best for other restaurateurs and business owners.
“The last couple years when we’ve seen brisk business, we’ve been very conservative with how we’ve handled our cash flow and our ability to collateralize loans,” Birong said. “I’m bunker-ready as far as cash flow goes.”
Rob Carter, executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, is keeping in close contact with area businesses to get a sense of their needs during this tumultuous time. The Chamber is partnering with the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC) to link employers to information on how they and their workers can tap into state assistance and a federal aid/stimulus package that is currently being crafted by Congress.
Also, the federal government has made $30 billion available through the Small Businesses Association to qualifying enterprises. Vermont is also working on its own assistance programs.
As of this writing, here are some of the things business owners can do:
• Tap into the state website, email@example.com.
• Complete an SBA assessment form, available on the ACCD website and return it to firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible. This will assist the governor’s office to advocate for eligibility for the state. Also copy ACEDC so we can continue to advocate for businesses in our region.
• Use the ACCD COVID-19 hotline at (802) 461-5143. It’s staffed Monday through Friday, 7:45 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
• Inquire about unemployment insurance at UI Employer Services - 802-828-4344.
• Send general Department of Labor Questions to email@example.com.
It should be noted the Vermont House recently passed H.681, a bill that would provide relief to employers with unemployment insurance rates and to employees with unemployment benefits. The bill had been sent to the Senate at press time.
“It’s changing every day,” Carter said of the local economic landscape.
Fred Kenney is executive director of the ACEDC. He believes help is on the way for local industries affected by the coronavirus.
“The disruption is of a scope that the state can get assistance from the federal government,” he said. “The governor has declared a state of emergency, and the federal government has announced the availability of loans. But unless there’s evidence of enough disruption, those two don’t meet.”
Kenney has checked in with enterprises in Middlebury’s industrial park. That park hosts such major employers as Vermont Hard Cider, Agri-Mark/Cabot and Otter Creek Brewing.
“I’ve only talked to a few so far, but so far so good,” Kenney said on Tuesday. “They’re figuring out ways to deal with employees having to be out because their kids are out of school. I think it’s going to be another week or two before there’s any major impact on manufacturers. That’s come in the form of loss of sales and still having debt loads.”
Speaking of debt, the ACEDC operates its own revolving loan program. The ACEDC board was slated to meet this week to discuss the potential of borrowers not being able to meet loan payments during this crisis.
The Independent reached out to Mike Rainville, owner of Maple Landmark Woodcraft. Workers on Tuesday were still busy.
“Everything is happening so fast,” Rainville said. “Right now, we’re fully up and running. On the sales side, it’s slowing up… but it’s our slow season anyway. We are trying this week to push a lot of orders and custom stuff out the door, so it can get there before it gets cancelled or before the government tells us to shut down. We’re pressing right now to clear the decks and be responsible, business-wise.”
It’s too soon to tell what the future will hold, he said.
“We don’t know where it’s going to end up, but I think we’ll all be hurting pretty bad,” Rainville said. “I’m trying to figure out how to keep the employees; you can’t hold them harmless, necessarily, but we want to figure out a way to do the best we can.
“I’m under no illusions,” he added. “I kind of do expect we’re going to have to shut down at some point. This is going to be an extended situation. But I don’t really known what it’s going to look like, and we’re working on our contingencies.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.