If it’s one thing Brainerd lakes area businesses could bank on during the coronavirus pandemic it’s that it would be a challenging year.
Businesses that were closed — or only offered curbside service or takeout — reopened in May following executive orders from the state that temporarily closed them due to the contagion.
“I think this last year has been very challenging yet we’ve managed to stay busy,” Christmas Point Wild Rice Co. co-owner Jennifer Tihanyi said of the Baxter-based business. “There are many people who would just rather stay home.”
Last spring, many businesses like hers opened with a COVID-19 preparedness plan to ensure the safety of employees and customers.
“We never used to sanitize stairway railings, doorknobs, things like that, every couple of hours — we did it daily but not, like, six times a day — and I think we’ll just continue sanitizing more frequently because the virus isn’t really going away,” Tihanyi said.
But with more Minnesota residents receiving the COVID-19 vaccination each day, business owners and customers alike are beginning to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s been a challenge to keep employees at work because of all the stimulus plans and the unemployment (benefits) that people are getting,” Tihanyi said.
A year after the coronavirus pandemic forced the U.S. economy “into the deepest downturn in generations, high-frequency economic indicators illustrate a strong rebound,” according to a Bloomberg report earlier this month.
“I’m looking forward to shopping with my daughter and not having to wear these masks,” Kim Big Bear of Garrison said while out shopping at the Westgate Mall.
With more states reopening their economies — and the loosening of coronavirus restrictions coupled with the improved rollout of vaccines from several makers — there was a “better-than-expected February jobs report,” according to the Bloomberg article.
“I’m just excited for the world to be normal again and not have to wear masks, like, you’re on your way to the store and you’re, like, ‘Ope! I forgot my masks — got to go back,’ you know?” said Kendra Orr, a Pequot Lakes teen.
Arlene's Bridal and Tuxedo Shop is a familiar sight to those who shop the streets of downtown Brainerd. And Nancy Gates, the owner of the business on Laurel Street, is also a familiar sight to her loyal customers.
“I’ve still got people that are tired of waiting to get back to their normal life, and they’re trying as hard as they can to do what they can to be safe and get back to normal,” Gates said as a backdrop of patrons came and went in her now bustling store.
Gates received a lot of phone calls but not a lot of stop-in traffic initially when Arlene’s reopened last spring after getting the go-ahead from Gov. Tim Walz and state health department officials.
“My sales were way down and some of the companies I do business with suffered, and they didn’t get their new books out for the new season, and I didn’t get my new dresses in because, well, I couldn’t afford to get them in because of the COVID thing,” Gates said.
Almost 1.2 million Minnesotans were vaccinated, including more than 70% of seniors, so the governor announced last week that restaurants, bars, salons and entertainment venues would see their attendance restrictions bumped up starting at noon Monday, March 15.
“I’m hoping to be able to get rid of this mask soon. … I’m not a fearful type person that wants to be scared of everything,” Gates said. “I’m hoping that people can just be smart about it — that if you’re sick and don’t feel good, just stay home.”
Gates said she disinfects any clothes her potential customers try on at her business and the dressing rooms, too, in addition to doors, countertops and mirrors.
“You know we were always clean, here, you know — vacuuming and cleaning and stuff — but it wasn’t always Lysol every single thing, every single time, you know, but now we do, so I’m more conscious of keeping things more clean for my customers, that’s for sure,” Gates said.
Hope on the horizon
Promoted in radio commercials as “the cure for the common wall,” Picture Perfect Framing Studio is a custom picture framing business on Front Street in downtown Brainerd that also offers framing supplies, glass, mirrors, ready-made frames and pre-cut mats.
Owner Beth Workman said the pandemic has been good for her sales because of other shuttered businesses.
“People are at home doing a lot of crafts, puzzles, photography, things like that — that they then have framed — cleaning out their attics and basements, and basically looking for things to do and finding things to frame at home,” Workman said.
Workman said sales, overall, for the year were down due to being temporarily closed in the spring for weeks.
“But since about October it’s picked up and I’ve actually had record sales for those months — especially this January it was very busy — my best January yet,” Workman said. “Since October, every month has been a little higher than I’ve ever done before.”
Picture Perfect Framing Studio has been in business for seven years and temporarily closed last spring because of the governor’s orders. When it reopened, the store encouraged but did not require its customers to wear masks. Workman, herself, wears a mask.
“I’ve heard that actually from a variety of people that furniture sales, paint sales — things like that, everything kind of home-related — has been doing quite well, actually,” Workman said.
Workman also limits the number of people in her small store with signage, and offers curbside and in-store pickup of items. There are also Plexiglas barriers in the store for protection.
“Hopefully, with the vaccine and life getting back to normal again, I’ll be able to turn around things more quickly and be able to keep up on my inventory better,” Workman said. “I’m actually having a great deal of difficulty right now getting in inventory and stock like everybody else.”
Ups and downs
Biff Ulm is the owner and manager of Zaiser’s in Nisswa, which had its best day ever in sales for June on June 21, after reopening like many area businesses that were closed because of COVID-19.
“Our Christmas? We were slightly up over last year,” Ulm said of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce’s City of Lights Celebration, which became a drive-thru event. “That weekend was just abysmal for us. … But then, like, everything averaged out over the entire holiday season.”
Zaiser’s unpredictable sales amid the coronavirus pandemic are representative of small businesses that may have benefited from a pent-up demand to shop or suffered from those hesitant to set foot in stores during a recession and high unemployment.
“We hear over and over and over from our customers — and I just feel blessed about this — is that they are choosing to spend their money locally at businesses they want to support,” Ulm said of Zaiser’s.
The popular tourist destination is traditionally only closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter, so temporary closing like other businesses due to executive orders affected Zaiser’s bottom line, but the COVID-19 vaccine represents hope on the horizon.
“We can really feel that people are itching to get back to — we can just feel that people are itching for some sense of normalcy right now,” Ulm said. “We’re excited about the vaccine.”