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Downtown closed but not defeated

Emily Lytle * Delaware
elytle@doverpost.com
Dover Post

Small businesses make up the fabric of downtown Dover. From clothing boutiques to gift shops to hair salons, most have been forced to close in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Even before Gov. John Carney ordered business closings and released a list of “nonessential” businesses March 24, most downtown owners decided to shut their doors.

Debbie Lyn owns Sozo, a boutique for refurbished or “upcycled” furniture. She was celebrating reopening downtown when, two weeks later, she found out she’d have to close.

“I was so happy, and then bam: pandemic,” she said. “I just woke up the first few days and thought it was a dream.”

One of the things that Lyn said attracted her to downtown was the sense of community, which some say has strengthened during the crisis.

Lori Llewellyn, owner of the clothing boutique My Roots, said the business owners have come together and customers have been eager to support. She said this is at a time when many were eyeing a possible downtown revival.

“We had a forward momentum downtown before this all happened,” she said. “I think if we hold strong we will get out of this and continue building a community down there.”

Adapting

Tina Bradbury, economic development and operations manager for Downtown Dover Partnership, said she has seen many find ways to adapt.

“I’ve seen absolute creativity within some of these small businesses,” she said.

Some, including Sozo and My Roots, broadcast weekly sales on Facebook Live. They assign a number to an item, talk about it and then customers can comment or leave a message to order. Businesses are invoicing, using PayPal or adding e-commerce website options.

Lyn said her business depends on social media right now, and the online sales have exceeded her expectations.

“Absolutely it’s been worth it,” she said. “Even if you did $50 of sales, it’s worth it compared to $0 of sales.”

As newer businesses, Lyn and Llewellyn said their increased presence on social media will likely draw in new customers once they can reopen. However, they both recognized that the weekly sales may not be sustainable.

Llewellyn said she is looking for longer term solutions like building an e-commerce website. “The unknown is a little scary,” she said. “Right now we’re just going week to week.”

Most of Dover’s downtown relies on in-store sales. Bradbury has been sharing resources and working to help businesses get set up online, something many were not prepared for.

“I don’t think a lot of small businesses were ready, so I think they’re behind the curve,” she said.

For stores like Puffster, which sells CBD and hemp products, owner Sam Chick said online sales have not been enough to cover the bills.

“One of the only advantages that we have against Amazon and places like that is we are here physically and people can come and get this stuff immediately,” he said. “Our biggest advantage as a small retailer has been taken away.”

Defining “essential”

The state lists all the businesses that can and cannot be open during the pandemic. When the shutdown began, the state designated Puffster as “essential” under the category of “other miscellaneous store retailers” or NAICS code 4539.

Then, the business was given a cease and desist order March 26. The state had reevaluated and decided to close all businesses classified as “other miscellaneous store retailers,” with the exception of pet supply stores.

After calling Jaime Mack, Chief of Health Systems Protection for the Division of Public Helath, Chick said he was given permission to stay open with curbside delivery only. A couple days later, police officers told him he had to close completely.

“We had to close down and lay off all our employees,” he said. “It’s a shame because it seemed like [curbside] would have worked for everybody.”

They appealed, but the Division of Small Business denied it. The owners of Puffster have collected more than 400 signatures on an online petition to reopen, which argues that many people rely on the CBD and hemp products for their health.

The Division of Small Business decides if a business can stay open without risking public health. Michael Chesney, director of communications, said they consider several factors, including:

  • Can the businesses operate in a way that could limit the spread of the virus?
  • Can the businesses be modified to limit close, uncontrolled contact between people without inhibiting sales?
  • If the product or service these businesses supply was not available, would that significantly endanger public welfare or the effectiveness of public health systems?

The division uses advice from the state, looks at what neighboring states are doing and considers guidance from the Federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Businesses can email covid19faq@delaware.gov to make the case for reopening, but Chesney said only a few have been allowed to reopen with modifications.

“Because of the day-to-day nature of this situation, we anticipate that business owners will continue to reach out. When they do, we ask that they describe the issues they face in detail,” he said in a statement. “The Division of Small Business will work to address their specific issues and provide support through this very challenging time to the extent that it is consistent with preserving the public health.”

What’s next

The state does not have an answer for when businesses may be able to reopen, but Carney announced April 13 that Delaware will be joining a multi-state council to develop a plan for lifting stay-at-home orders in the region.

“We need a consistent approach for moving our states out of this crisis, when that day comes,” Carney said. “I’m grateful for the partnership of my fellow governors in the region. They are all working around-the-clock to prevent surges in COVID-19 cases, protect hospital capacity for the most critically-ill patients, and save lives. We’ll get through this by working together.”

Not knowing when or how businesses will reopen downtown, owners look to the community for support. They urge people to follow small businesses on social media, buy gift cards or talk to their local representatives about changing the way businesses are defined as essential.

Downtown Dover Partnership is already thinking of creative ways to bring people back once things reopen.

“I just want shoppers and merchants to [know], together we’re going to get through this pandemic crisis,” Bradbury said. “Downtown Dover is going to be back to business real soon.”

Stay connected

Two Facebook pages to check out:

https://www.facebook.com/DowntownDoverHappenings

https://www.facebook.com/DowntownDover.