Hburg businesses roll out a range of strategies to connect with customers and gradually reopen

Downtown Harrisonburg has been far quieter than usual for two months because of COVID-19 precautions, but now some stores are trying to reopen or expand availability to customers. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor

Since mid-March, many local businesses closed their doors, but with Virginia’s Friday launch of Phase 1 reopening, many owners are unlatching their doors or have developed  alternative ways to serve customers. 

The Citizen contacted more than a dozen businesses to find out how they’ve approached the challenges of the stay-at-home order and are adjusting to Phase 1 reopening. And there’s a range of ways local businesses are adjusting to survive. 

Online and getting by

For some businesses, online sales have proven to be the best option for Phase 1. 

The Harrisonburg Farmers Market, for instance, is the hub for locally grown, handcrafted goods and has shifted its operation to online ordering and drive-thru pick up since mid-April because of COVID-19. Manager Josie Showalter said after trying one Saturday to operate the market as usual with masks and social distancing, it was clear they needed to find a new alternative. 

Customers can place orders online but Showalter said it’s best to make the requests by Friday to ensure pick up by  Saturday. 

Eleanor Held, owner of the Green Hummingbird Fair Trade Clothing, said she signed a lease for a new branch at the Dayton Farmers Market just before COVID-19 struck. She said the downtown store is still closed because her top priority is preparing the new location for its opening day. 

Held still offers curbside and delivery services for Harrisonburg residents. She said she hopes to increase online sales especially because festivals — a key way her business sells products — have been postponed or canceled. 

Because of a decrease in sales, Green Hummingbird received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and a local grant. 

While The Center, a yoga and pilates studio, is choosing to remain online, its instructors and participants are still working up a sweat. Within 24 hours of closing its doors, The Center began online classes in mid-March. With Phase 1 of reopening, nothing will change. 

Owner Suzanne McCahill Perrine said she recently spoke with her instructors, and they are still trying to decide on how they can safely and efficiently resume in-person classes. 

Same store, new precautions

Some businesses are taking a hybrid approach by reopening with in-person appointments and implementing a drive-thru option. 

As one of the largest retail operations downtown, Agora Downtown Market has eight businesses within its walls, each of which are taking individualized approaches to serving customers. While Agora’s manager Allie Motyka said it won’t officially reopen until around July 1, many of its businesses offer in-person appointments, curbside and delivery options to Harrisonburg residents. 

Located in the Agora Downtown Market, Bring Your Own is a practical goods store that promotes a zero-waste lifestyle. Bring your Own offers free delivery for Harrisonburg residents who order online. The owner Allie Jensen said until the July 1 in-person reopening, she’s flexible with delivery hours. 

Heartworn Vintage, a mother-daughter duo vintage shop located in Agora Downtown Market, is offering curbside and local delivery options for shoppers and in-person appointments. Shipping is also available but at an additional cost. 

After teaching dance lessons online for almost two months, the Friendly City Dance Room reopened its doors for solo and partner classes Saturday. 

Owner Phillip Fusaro is allowing up to two dancers at a time for each class he’s teaching. Fusaro teaches with a mask on and has spaced out appointments so that he has about 15 minutes to wipe down everything in between sessions. On top of that, Fusaro makes available hand sanitizing stations for dancers. 

“It’s been my aim to be as sensitive as possible to how the public is feeling because they are what makes this place special,” Fusaro said.

Since closing its building to foot traffic, Mossy Creek Fly Fishing has served customers online and through a drive-thru window. Co-owner Brian Trow said the store’s interior has turned into a warehouse for all of its supplies. 

Trow said even with a temporary closing, business has remained steady throughout the pandemic. But of the services Mossy Creek offers, its guided fishing classes have decreased the most because people are more hesitant to interact with others, especially in close quarters of a boat. 

But Trow said because of COVID-19, Mossy Creek has created a “pole-length rule,” which means that if someone is to go on a guided fishing class, they must remain a pole’s length away — or nine feet — from others. 

And its drive-thru is a no-touch experience with customers reading off credit card numbers and items being slid across a table. 

Stuart’s Elk Run Mining Co., a jeweler, reopened its doors Friday and is serving customers by appointment only. The owner, Stuart Mercer, said business has suffered  since mid-March. Because of the pandemic’s timing, his business missed Mother’s Day, which Mercer said is one of his busiest holidays. 

Harrisonburg’s toxin-free cosmetics and skincare store, withSimplicity, is inching its way back to normalcy. While all tester products and in-person makeovers have gone away, two people are allowed to enter the store at a time. 

Since the store began to reopen, employees have worn masks while serving customers and makes available hand cleanser. 

In addition, curbside pick-up is also available for those who’d rather not go inside.

Coming soon … new approaches

The Lady Jane, like many businesses, closed in mid-March.

The Lady Jane’s 850-square-foot store is continuing to offer curbside and delivery services for online orders. Since its maximum capacity pre-COVID-19 was about 16 people, owner Sara Christensen is taking the next few weeks to prepare the shop for customer appointments. 

Starting June 1, groups — up to four people — can book an appointment to shop at the home goods store on weekends. 

In the meantime, The Lady Jane is offering curbside services Tuesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and delivers to Harrisonburg residents on Wednesdays and Saturdays. 

Welcoming customers back … at a distance

Other businesses are opening their doors to a small amount of customers at a time with plenty of personal protective equipment. 

The five-year-old taproom located on South Liberty Street reopened Friday after about a two-months of doing carry-out only. Instead of allowing customers inside, Pale Fire Brewery is now serving up to 23 customers at a time on its patio. 

Customers can pay for drinks outside at a no-contact register. No-touch levers are mounted on the brewery’s doors so customers can go inside to use the restroom and touch as few surfaces possible. In addition, all tables and chairs are at least six feet apart and customers are asked to bus their tables before leaving. Owner Tim Brady said all of these decisions were made with employees’ health in mind. 

“If our staff doesn’t feel comfortable, you know, we’ll close before we ever say you have to do this,” Brady said. “But that’s, you know, one point of contact for 25 glasses rather than our employees touching 25 different glasses.”

After seeing an 80-90% decrease in sales, Pale Fire applied and received a federal paycheck loan. Brady said he hopes people will take advantage of the patio. 

For OASIS Fine Art & Craft, its hours have adjusted to Fridays and Saturdays from 12-5 p.m. with a 10-person limit. Before entering, customers are greeted with signs about social distancing and can use masks made of recycled materials, as well as gloves and a handwashing station. A sneeze guard has been placed at the register counter to protect workers and customers. 

Since OASIS is a co-op, and doesn’t have any paid employees, it didn’t qualify for many financial aid offers. However, it has received one grant so far. 

Harrisonburg helper

Many of these business owners credit the unity of the Harrisonburg community — specifically that of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance — for helping them mustering through the pandemic. 

Through the resilience grant program, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, along with a couple of banks, have financed more than $90,000 in grants for local businesses in the city and county. Andrea Dono, the organization’s executive director, said 32 grants have been awarded so far. 

On top of that, several businesses have GoFundMe pages for public donations. 

Dono said she’s been blown away by the collaborations among business owners and the appreciative customer base. 

“I think when you’re entering into a crisis like the one that we’re in right now,” she said, “knowing that you have those two really incredible strengths working for you — we’re already going to be ahead of the recovery it’s just going to be a matter of time.”

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Stuart Mercer’s last name


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