The coronavirus is upending businesses in South County – including restaurants and retail – leaving workers and owners wondering what the future holds for them.
Whether because of state order, concern about catching the virus or lost customer traffic, businesses are temporarily closing or curtailing services as owners take a wait-and-see attitude until the end of the month.
“I see a lot of concerned people around, lots of uncertainty, we’re in territory where we haven’t been before,” said Rob Ferraro, owner of Jerry’s Paint and Hardware on Point Judith Road in Narragansett.
He said that his business is down already by about 40 percent because people are following state guidelines to avoid large crowds and stay at home if possible — especially senior citizens who are typically the most frequent hardware store shoppers.
Owners say these are unusual times for a generation who have not experienced the swift changes brought by the coronavirus crisis. Even the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and the 2008 financial crisis didn’t have such an impact as the virus has to business-as-usual.
One immediate repercussion is the state order banning indoor dining at restaurants, coffee houses and bars for at least the next two weeks while officials monitor the progress and extent of the contagious disease also known as COVID-19.
Strong and repeated warnings have been issued to protect against the disease ravaging other countries. It can affect anyone and has particularly devastating consequences for people over age 65 or those with compromising health conditions.
Even businesses remaining open are taking steps to help the public protect themselves by limiting contact with others. For instance, a Wakefield Starbucks normally pushes a long line consistently on a Sunday morning for java and tea drinkers.
No line formed this past weekend and before state orders were issued.
Immediate Impact on Restaurants
“We’re seeing a lot of changes and restaurant owners are trying to figure out what to do — stay open with curbside service or close,” said Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce.
She noted that about half of her restaurant members, which include owners from outside North Kingstown, are offering curbside service — order by phone, pay by credit card and pick up food outside the restaurant door. Other area chambers said restaurants, coffee houses and bars in their towns were doing the same.
A list of her member restaurants providing curbside pickup can be found on the chamber’s Facebook page at NKChamberRI, she said, while other chambers said they were working to put the information online.
Joesph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, which covers territory from East Greenwich to Westerly, said retailers are also noting that business is down.
While some have both strong plans and cash flow to continue an operation when hampered by a sudden intrusion, others do not, he said, noting this also affects incomes in the region for service-level workers.
“It’s the end of winter, it’s typically slower and we don’t know how close someone is (to failing), we just don’t know, but they are out there.” Agreeing with him is Peg Fradette, operations manager of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce.
“I think there are some that this will put them under. I don’t want to be doom and gloom, and don’t want to give a number, but I think there could be several who fold the cards,” she said.
To keep afloat a small business that does not have a strong financial cushion, it’s a matter of staying focused on what’s needed to be safe, servicing customers in some way, keeping employees on payroll and the business operating, said several owners.
Following the Sunday decision in Massachusetts to shut down indoor dining at restaurants, Ryan Audette, owner and executive chef at North Kingstown’s The Provisioner New York Deli & Cafe, said he knew it was only a matter of time until Rhode Island did the same.
“Sadly, it was expected we’d follow suit with Massachusetts,” Audette said.
The deli had already taken precautions regarding the virus, including increasing its sanitary procedures, but now with no in-house dining allowed until March 30, Audette said his work turns towards increasing delivery and takeout capabilities.
“We will continue to remain open doing takeout and delivery,” he said. “We’re trying to get online ordering all set up on our website.”
Four days before Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s closure order earlier this week of indoor dining, restaurants at URI were already seeing markedly reduced foot traffic. Most of that was because students were on spring break last week.
“We’ve reduced our hours during spring break, and we’ll probably extend that,” said Jay Wichert, owner of the long-time Kingston Emporium restaurant Albie’s Place. Four people were dining inside at lunchtime late last week. The restaurant had moved its weekday closing time from 11 p.m. to 9 p.m. during break.
Albie’s offers pickup and delivery, which in situations like a snowstorm actually results in more business. “We’ve had to bring in more help to deliver during snowstorms,” he said.
Then there are those who see shutting the doors for now as the only approach. Back Forty Food & Drink in North Kingstown decided to stop all operations during the time period.
“To our valued guests,” Back Forty wrote in a post on its Facebook page, “it is with great sadness and heavy hearts that we are making the difficult, but necessary decision, to close our doors for the well-being of our staff and customers.”
“We understand that this is a challenging time for individuals and their families and we want to do everything we can to help our community stay safe and healthy. We look forward to reopening our doors and welcoming you all back once this is all over. Stay safe and stay healthy. See you soon.”
Effects on Other Businesses
At the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, management decided to shut down all productions until the state gives the signal to re-open, said Christopher J. Simpson, artistic director and founder.
CTC had many classes as well as performances scheduled for the next few weeks, including the finale of its well-known Wakefield Idol series running every Thursday evening.
Simpson said that he had to lay off the employees of the theater and is planning for a six week or so closure, but hopes it is much shorter.
“We want to do our part, keep everyone safe, our audience, our staff, our community. We are proceeding on the assumption we will be closed weeks,” he said, adding that the theater previously only canceled a few shows since 2005 when it was formed.
Simpson and the chamber leaders encouraged people to support the retail, theater and food-service businesses through gift-card purchases now that puts money into the business and gives the customers a return on that investment later.
For those like Jerry’s Hardware owner Ferraro, it’s less about gift cards and more about alternate ways to serve customers.
He said he plans to stay open on his regular Monday through Sunday schedule, despite the downturn in customers, and has adopted some new approaches to service.
About 15 to 20 customers daily call and ask to order an item, but don’t want to come inside the story to get it, he said. Ferraro explained he will take credit cards by phone and tell the person an approximate time the item will be ready.
The customer, after arriving in the parking lot, calls the store and the item is the brought to the vehicle, he said. While the store does not deliver items, it does see this approach as another way to keep business flowing, Ferraro added.
Chamber representatives Fradette, Viele and Urbach said they’ve heard no complaints from members about these orders that curtail business, profits and payroll.
They said they have only heard about businesses’ desire to help and work through this crisis with these temporary changes and extra help to the community, such as Matunuck Oyster Bar and George’s of Galilee providing free food for children and high school teenagers.
“This is one of those things where it takes a village,” Fradette said.
“Everyone is going to need everyone else’s help. When this is all over, we’re going to all need to go out in droves and help the businesses, too,” she said.