Oregon small businesses adapt to the new operating environment, welcoming community support as the state begins to reopen
JOSEPH – Small business owners have faced the challenge of keeping their businesses open and viable while their doors are closed.
“We are usually open 361 days per year,” said Deve Wolfe, a sixth generation local and owner of the Tempting Teal Boutique in Joseph, Oregon. “We went from not ever being closed to relying exclusively on on-line sales. It was a shock to the system.”
Like many small businesses, the Tempting Teal Boutique shut down its physical storefront on March 15 in response to the Stay Home, Save Lives Executive Order. They immediately sought alternatives to in-store shopping.
“We focused on on-line orders,” Wolfe says. “We offered curbside pick-up and free local delivery.”
While sales from January through April provide only a small percentage of annual revenue, Wolfe typically spends the spring gearing up for the tourist season. In summer months, visitors flock to Joseph seeking the outdoor adventure, artistry, and charm of the small town. Instead this spring, with sales at about 25 percent of normal, Wolfe had to lay off her staff.
Despite the challenges and disappointments, Wolfe said that closing the store wasn’t a difficult choice. “Living in a small town, if anyone were to get the virus, you would know them or know someone who does,” she said.
She described the ways the community has come together. Restaurants helped people get groceries. Neighbors, including Deve, worked with Prairie Creek Quilts, the local quilt shop in Enterprise, to make masks for medical workers. “Everyone is watching out for their neighbor,” she said, “which is the way it should be.”
Governor Brown released the state’s framework for phased reopening, including pre-requisites for counties and guidance for businesses. Phase I includes limited reopening of restaurants and bars, personal care businesses, such as salons, and retail boutiques. Wallowa county has been approved to enter Phase I of reopening. The reopening provides a way forward for small businesses, yet the work of rebuilding after the closure is just beginning.
At the request of county commissioners, Wolfe submitted a plan for reopening the boutique. Her plan included recommendations from the state’s guidance for retail stores and from the retail groups she joined over her 23 years in business.
“We reduced displays to create more floor space for patrons to spread out. I’ve installed a plexiglass window divider for the counter and have a new card reader, so we won’t need to exchange credit cards at check-out,” Wolfe said. “We have hand sanitizer outside the store for people to use before coming in, and we are frequently sanitizing surfaces. We also have masks to give out to customers if they want one.”
Along with these changes, boutique owners hope to receive additional public health guidance on how to handle customers trying on clothes.
Small businesses often operate on lean margins. Many businesses reopening have exhausted their financial reserves to stay afloat. Oregonians have an opportunity to shape the way that communities come out of this pandemic.
“I think it’s most important now for people to really think about what businesses they still want to be in place when this is over,” Wolfe said. “And every day, when they spend money, it is going to matter a lot more than it has ever before.”