|Business as Unusual: Small & Large Shops Try to Weather Outbreak|
|By Tammy Daniels & Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
06:13PM / Friday, March 20, 2020
|Berkshire Emporium reserves the right to limit the number of customers in the North Adams store. |
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Peter Oleskiewicz was near tears early this week as he called his employees and told them they no longer had jobs.
"Hardest thing I have ever had to do," he said.
Like so many local restaurants, Oleskiewicz's Desperados on Eagle Street is trying to adapt to the coronavirus shutdown by shifting from sit-down service to takeout. But you don't need waiters or hosts or bartenders to do that. Oleskiewicz is down to two people in the kitchen as he tries to keep his business alive.
Storefronts and restaurants are going dark or reducing hours across the country as governors and local officials try to keep a global epidemic at bay. With no cure and no vaccine on the horizon, health experts are calling for "social distancing" to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious virus that's infected more than 250,000 and killed more than 11,000 so far worldwide.
The novel coronavirus attacks the respiratory system and health officials fear the surge of cases appearing in the United States will overwhelm hospitals as it has in Italy and other countries. Berkshire County has about 18 confirmed cases so far but the lack of testing means there are probably much more.
Gov. Charlie Baker has taken incremental steps over the past two weeks to mitigate the contagion, finally taking the step to limit gatherings to 25 and to close bars and eateries effective March 17 but leaving the option for them to serve food only as takeout.
"People who I have become friends with and have become family. People who need to feed their kids, pay their rents, whatever they have to do," Oleskiewicz wrote in a Facebook post he shared with iBerkshires. "I've been sitting in my car for hours making the phone calls, I feel horrible but have no choice and I know others are having to make the same choices."
At Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, Missy Leab said the family farm was also affected by the governor's emergency order and can't serve its pancake meals or hold its annual maple open house.
"Our schedule for the breakfast was to go through April 5," she said on Tuesday. "I did some number crunching. Our maple syrup sales will be down 50 percent of the average from the last three years. The whole maple season will be a 50 percent loss."
The season started "neck and neck" with last year's and the farm remained open over Saturday and Sunday. But still, "we were down about 125 people per day, about 250 for the weekend, which is about a third down," Leab said.
She said the farm was as proactive as it could be and the staff went above and beyond to clean between seatings and kept people spaced out.
"It's a very difficult decision as an owner to close or not close. The governor made that decision for us," she said, hoping that it was the right call.
The maple syrup harvesting is going wonderfully, in contrast, and a small crew has stayed on to help with production. Leab said the maple associations in New York and Massachusetts are discussing a fall event when families are interested in going back to the farms.
"The only other trickle effect I'd like to share is that anyone who supplies food to businesses or schools is in the same situation we are. Our whole wholesale market is completely shut down — schools, colleges, restaurants. All that is at a halt. Any of the other local providers will be in the same situation. There will be a lasting trickle effect. There are many layers going on," Leab said. "Hopefully, we get through this, we'll be a stronger community on the other side."
Keith Bona of Berkshire Emporium & Antiques on Main Street, also a North Adams city councilor, has remained open but says he's expecting to spend more time on the store's internet sales. The closure of Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will definitely hurt and he doesn't expect much traffic off the street.
He only had 10 people wander in on Monday and by afternoon Tuesday, no one.
"Not concerned about social distance issues in our store during these times," he wrote iBerkshires, although he's got signs up informing patrons he would limit the numbers coming in. "There will be more people in an average household than what is in here at once. With over 20 rooms, there is plenty of places to spread out."
But Bona is also letting customers know there's a place to wash their hands (he's washing every time he touches money) and a big bottle of hand sanitizer next to the register. "Even if I make $50 a day, it helps keep the lights on," he said. "Won't put money in my pocket, but there are many other expenses."
Unistress is trying to take it all in stride.
"Construction is used to dealing with layoffs, everyone here is used to it," said Perri Petricca, CEO of Unistress Corp. & Petricca Industries on Thursday. "We've scaled back, only doing what is necessary to meet our customer demand ... our plant manufacturing is scaled back to the minimum."
The company normally has about 300 employees but now is down to about 100. And some 75 percent of office and administration is working from home. No one has tested for the virus but there are some people who are out for various reasons and three have self-quarantined out of caution, Petricca said. Employees have a health plan through their union and those with special needs are being asked to discuss their options with their managers.
The company is also trying to prop up restaurants hit hard by the closures by ordering takeout from different venues.
"We're trying to help locally as kind of a thank you to employees ... we're buying takeout from the local restaurants as a way to help them and something nice for our employees," Petricca said.
He hopes to be back up to full strength in another month, and especially once construction projects in Boston restart.
"It's day by day, things are changing," he said. "We'll deal with it."
Interprint is making sure its employees are keeping to social distancing as it continues to operate. Peter Stasiowski, director of media relations for the Pittsfield manufacturer, said the company is waiting to see what Congress does in the next week before taking any drastic measures.
"Because everything is changing so quickly, we're going day by day, hour by hour," he said Tuesday. He anticipated that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, just passed, "will give employers some direction on how to proceed."
The company has had employees out with illness, and is telling people to stay home if they're not feeling well. No one has been tested for the coronovirus but Interprint is practicing social distancing with its 170 employees and is not meeting in groups larger than 10.
"We try to find the largest conference room for people to spread out," Stasiowski said. "I think we started really addressing this issue with our employees a good three weeks ago."
He was optimistic that the state and federal government would come through with an aid package to help both employees and employers. And Interprint isn't planning to close at this point.
"Although the worst is yet to come, we're managing this as well as we can," he said. "I think all the employees understand the gravity of this situation."
Some places are turning to curbside service, including hardware stores like Carr Hardware and r.k. Miles. Wild Oats Market in Williamstown recently started a curbside service and had its first orders on Tuesday.
"It's an entirely new service and involves an entirely new process for us. We're asking our customers to be patient with us," said General Manager David Durfee on Tuesday. "We had a handful of people who placed orders over night or yesterday for today, and they seem to appreciate it."
Durfee said the store had been thinking about pickup orders for awhile as larger supermarkets began offering the service.
"For a store our size, it's a real heavy lift to try to set up the kind of system that, say, Stop & Shop has. They have virtually every inventory item available with the current price," he said. "We're not quite like that. We're asking customers to send us [by email] what they want, and if we've got it, we'll try to get it for you. There's no payment online. We'll be learning as we go and making adjustments. We'll probably be asking our customers to make adjustments with us. They'll have to be ready for some return phone calls."
So far, the small co-op grocer hasn't seen much of a run on items until recently. Last week, the store had toilet paper, this week, like so many other stores, the shelves are bare.
"We have a fairly big bulk department, and we're out of a lot of the dried beans and other legumes, which we had ordered yesterday but were out of stock at the warehouse," Durfee said. "Otherwise, we've been able to keep pretty much everything that we've ordered from our distributors. My understanding is there isn't a shortage at the beginning of the supply chain, but, for whatever reason, people are stocking up on some items and they're in short supply."
In Williamstown, the Williams Inn closed on Friday and will furlough its employees with pay through April 6, making a commitment to hire them back.
The North Adams Holiday Inn is operating this week at about half-capacity and had no plans at mid-week to close.
"We have a few long-term guests ... and there are a few hotels in the area that did close and sent the few guests they had to stay with us," said Director of Operations Yvonne Walton. "We have protocols put in place through our home office and our brand office [in regard to the virus] ... we're also getting support from our corporate office."
Guests do have the option of having their rooms turned by the housekeeping staff or requesting they only pickup to maintain less contact. The Richmond Grille, which provides dining and room service, was closed in line with other restaurants.
Normally the hotel is quite busy during this period for events at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — with both patrons and performers — and for tournaments, which have all been canceled or suspended until next month.
Walton said the hotel is supplied to support guests because it had been stocked for these months.
"Our supply stream has not slowed down though some things have been back ordered," she said.
With people largely hunkering down, it's not just hotels and hospitality getting hit. Travel bookings are down at a time when people are planning spring breaks, summer vacations and fall getaways.
"The travel and tourism industry is definitely taking a major hit. These are unprecedented and challenging times," said Sharon Polidoro, owner of Berkshire Travel Group in Pittsfield. "At this point, we'd be doing Italy and European countries, Caribbean islands, honeymoons, cruises, summer vacations. At this point, anyone who had anything booked is being canceled."
Polidoro said most of her business is booked out four to six months although there are usually travelers looking for a last-minute deal. That's not happening.
"I did do a couple of bookings for the islands in September and October. There are still people who are thinking we'll be over the hump and travel will be back to the new normal," she said, but added with the stock market dipping and people out of work, there will be a snowball effect on discretionary income. "All industries are going to be affected, and travel is one of the first."
She estimated her losses on Tuesday at about 90 percent and isn't sure how much more cost-cutting she can do.
"The past week — last Tuesday/Wednesday is when we got hit with all the cancellations. With the government putting in restrictions and closing the borders, that has solidified it more," Polidoro said. "We're just hoping that the people who traveled January to March will carry us through. The support of our loyal customers has been amazing."
Everything worked on over the past seven to nine months is gone — along with the commissions because they aren't paid unless people actually travel.
"Cruise lines are trying to be somewhat flexible and protect commissions for people who are paid in full. Some of our tour operators are also saying they'll protect our commission up to $100. But when you're expecting a commission of $1,300 to $1,400 ... ," Polidoro said. "The industry has been a tough industry to be in for years once the airlines took away commissions. … A lot of agencies would charge extra for trade fees and cancellations, they would charge other fees on top of that, but we don't do that."
Those who are canceling may not get covered by their travel insurance. Polidoro said it depends on what they took out but most won't cover not traveling because of fears. If someone as the virus, they'd had submit a claim. But if they took additional coverage for any cancellation, they could get 50 to 70 percent back. Airlines are offering different options, such as travel credits or extensions.
"Times like this show the importance of people coming to agencies. We're working 24/7 and staying on top of everything," Polidoro said. "I have people on a cruise that was supposed to dock in Puerto Rico on Sunday and fly home. The ship was denied docking rights in San Juan, so they continued to Miami, docked at noon time today and will be flying home from there. Rearranging flights, things like that — we're trying to stay on top of everything. We're here for our customers."
She's still optimistic that things will work out.
"We will survive this some way, somehow. I keep saying, America is strong. We'll get through this together."