Coronavirus impact: Some South County businesses close, some struggle, others do well

If you're a restaurant owner who wants to stay open in the midst of a public health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, you essentially have one choice: trying to eke out a living by offering take-out, and perhaps delivery.

Great Barrington — The streets in downtown Great Barrington were mostly empty in the middle of the day on Wednesday. Even in the middle of March, downtown typically bustles with traffic as the sound of motorcycles, trucks braking and emergency vehicle sirens remind us that life can move fast, even out in the country.

But that seemed to change this week as a series of executive orders from Gov. Charlie Baker closed schools for at least three weeks and directed restaurants and bars to stop serving patrons on-premises and banned gatherings of more than 25 people through at least Sunday, April 5. The order, necessary as it may have been, has devastated the restaurant sector. It has changed the way other retail outlets in town do business as well. More on that later.

GB Eats was quiet during the Wednesday lunch hour. Photo: Terry Cowgill

For restaurant owners, few conditions are more depressing than an empty eatery during the lunch hour. But that’s what Pierre Cum, who owns the popular GB Eats, was facing on Wednesday.

If you’re a restaurant owner who wants to stay open in the midst of a public health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, you essentially have one choice: trying to eke out a living by offering take-out, and perhaps delivery.

“I’m hoping this week everybody’s just hibernating, staying at home, glued to their TV, getting supplies and by this weekend, things pick up with take-out and delivery,” Cum told The Edge. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

Cum has had to lay off almost a dozen employees — cooks, servers and dishwashers — and he is basically down to himself and his family. Many of the employees are on stand-by in case take-out and delivery takes off. Some of his cooks live upstairs in the Barrington House apartments and can be easily reached.

Cum, an experienced chef, is doing the cooking. His son, Jake, is answering the phone, manning the cash register and making deliveries. His wife, Candace, continues to handle much of the business and creative end of the cafe.

“It’s weird because it’s like I’m dead, restaurants are dead, bars are closed, but then you go to the hardware store and it’s packed,” Cum said. And grocery stores, they’re’ still doing business.”

The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center has canceled its events through Friday, April 10. Photo: Terry Cowgill

One strange outcome of the pandemic is that people are buying up toilet paper, resulting in shortages nationwide. Indeed, Cum said he has a case of toilet paper for the restaurant’s bathroom and he sold a couple of rolls last week to a desperate customer. If he had a lot more of it in stock, he joked that it would make a great marketing hook: Buy two entrees and get a free roll of toilet paper. That would surely make GB Eats’ phones ring off the hook!

Officials are warning consumers that if they use paper towels or diaper wipes instead of toilet paper, they should not flush them down the toilet but simply put them in the garbage. Paper towels and wipes do not break down as toilet paper does.

“I would encourage people to not flush disposable wipes or paper towels into the sewer system,” said Great Barrington Department of Public Works director Sean Van Deusen. “Flushing anything but toilet paper causes blockages and can cause the pump stations to break down.”

The crisis has also created a shortage of hand sanitizer fluids. One local distiller, Berkshire Mountain Distillers, has taken advantage of a recent emergency change in the law that allows distilleries to make hand sanitizer. Click here for more information.

At other South County restaurants, it was much the same story. At Fuel, the popular coffee shop and cafe, owner Will Curletti told The Edge he has had to lay off his entire staff.

“It was a very difficult thing to have to tell them,” Curletti said. “But if you don’t have enough money coming in to meet the payroll, then you have no other choice.”

Currently, Fuel is open from 8 a.m. to noon with only Curletti himself manning the counter and register. Coffee and pastries will be available.

Like many other eateries in the area, The Bridge in Sheffield is remaining open to take-out customers only. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Some restaurants have done as GB Eats has. Baba Louie’s, Patisserie Lenox, Tangier, Siam Square, and the Bridge in Sheffield are offering take-out only. Others, such as the Well and Miller’s Pub have closed altogether until further notice.

One problem is that most restaurants that are open for dinner make a large portion of their income from sales of alcohol. Currently, alcoholic beverages may not be sold as take-out items in Massachusetts. Some states, such as Connecticut and New Hampshire, have temporarily lifted the prohibition against take-out sale of beverage alcohol in response to the crisis.

Theory Wellness, the town’s only recreational cannabis store, has limited sales to online re-orders only. That will keep the line of customers waiting to get into the store to a minimum.

Speaking of alcohol, package store business still appears to be brisk. Domaney’s, the liquor store at the intersection of Main Street and State Road, has reduced its hours from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. to noon to 6 p.m. But remarkably, the customer count has, if anything, increased, said owner Ed Domaney.

“It’s like Saturday summer business now in six hours,” Domaney said during a slight lull on Wednesday. “I personally rang up 300 customers yesterday. I was like a hamster on the wheel at the register.”

Domaney’s is taking extra precautions and wiping down everything frequently, including door knobs, counters and shelves. For the time being, credit card receipts do not require a signature. The store is also encouraging social distancing and asking customers to call ahead, place their orders, pay for them by credit card and have their goods delivered to their vehicles at curbside.

Town Hall is closed per order of the selectboard. The Register of Deeds office, which is rented to the state by the town, remains open and accessible by a door on the right side of the building. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We’re taking every precaution as would any store,” Domaney explained. “We’re trying to wear gloves. I get in at 11 in the morning and go through the whole store. I’ve ruined about six shirts with bleach but that’s okay.”

Because of sanitary concerns, Domaney’s has temporarily suspended its beverage container recycling and redemption program. Domaney said he favors recycling but thinks the state’s current law is deeply flawed and needs to be reformed. He is hoping reform of that law is something positive that could come out of the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s a crazy situation but we all have to pull together and be strong and do the best we can no matter what the political climate is,” Domaney said as he walked away to the register. “I do believe Great Barrington, the Berkshires and the whole area is the strongest-knit community in Massachusetts. If anyone can get through this, we can.”

About a quarter of a mile up State Road, Plaza Package Store has also suspended its redemption program and is taking the same precautions as Domaney’s. But last year, Plaza started a delivery program.” Click here to see an Edge story on Plaza’s “Boozemobile.” Plaza has waived its delivery fee through Thursday, April 30.

At Gorham & Norton, a small grocery and package store on Main Street, owner John Tracy said on Wednesday he has not had to lay off any employees but probably would soon. He added that the “customer count is way down but the people coming in are spending a little more.”

Cumberland Farms seemed as busy as ever. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“I’m selling more of this stuff, actually,” a smiling Tracy said, pointing at the shelves of wine and liquor behind his register.

Robin Helfand, who owns Robin’s Candy, said she could not justify keeping her store open, in part because of the large self-serve jars of goodies with removable lids.

“If I was open, I’d have every family in a 5-mile radius with kids begging their parents to go get candy,” Helfand explained. But for her employees’ sakes, “it was a tough decision to make.”

For now, she is offering private shopping. Customers can call her in advance, knock on the front door and she will let them in. Like many other merchants, Helfand has had to lay off employees until the situation improves.

Helfand noted that there was also great anxiety among downtown merchants during the Main Street reconstruction project of 2014-15.

“But it was finite and it wasn’t as scary a situation,” Helfand said in an interview. “We could wrap our minds and our hands around it. You could make contingencies … this is different. It deals with anxiety and emotions and uncertainty … When it reaches people you know, then it goes from uncertainty to terrifying.”

Helfand has also started a program to send “care packages” (in reality, Robin’s Candy gift baskets) to first responders and staff at Fairview Hospital. Customers who wish to participate can find information about that program on Robin’s Candy’s Instagram feed.

SoCo Creamery remains open for take-out. Photo: Terry Cowgill

At SoCo Creamery, the locally owned ice cream maker and store, owner Erik Bruun reports his Railroad Street store remains open for take-out only, though take-out was about two-thirds of his business to begin with. He added that during daylight hours, business is about where it was the third week of March last year.

But about 60% of SoCo’s business is in the evening, when people stop by after dinner for dessert or for a treat after taking in a movie at the Triplex Cinema. With restaurants only open for take-out and the cinema having closed earlier this week through at least Thursday, April 9, that traffic has vanished. Bruun said he has not yet had to lay off employees but expects he will if the situation doesn’t improve.

“I think of SoCo as comfort food in discomforting times,” Bruun said, adding that his servers are wearing gloves. “We’re trying to mitigate risk. It’s impossible to make it zero. I do know some people are grateful we have stayed open.”

Richard Stanley owns the Triplex and a number of other downtown properties, including the Barrington House building, which houses several upstairs apartments and offices as well as retailers like GB Eats, Fiesta and Robin’s Candy on Main Street.

Stanley said the decision to temporarily close the Triplex, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in November, was a difficult one for him.

The Triplex Cinema has closed until at least Sunday, April 5. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“It was a major concern of mine,” Stanley said. “I’ve got a range of people who have been with me as little as four to five years and as many as 30 years.” His longest-serving Triplex worker has been at the cinema for 22 years.

Since Stanley is also a landlord, he has additional concerns. Questions are being raised about what happens if people who cannot work, or owners of shuttered businesses, are unable to pay their rents.

“I’m very concerned for my tenants and will work with them to the extent that I can,” Stanley said. “I also have bills that I have to pay. I need to keep the premises operational: There is heat, insurance, water and sewer.

As observers have noted, downtown Great Barrington is dotted with real estate firms. It remains to be seen how the current health crisis will affect them. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan, sales were brisk because lots of New Yorkers bought weekend homes or moved up here full-time if they could.

But broker Jonathan Hankin of Berkshire Property Agents is not so sure. He has heard there has been an increase in rental inquiries but he has not seen a surge in sales yet.

The normally bustling Railroad Street was eerily quiet this week. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“9/11 was huge and it happened all at once,” Hankin said. “Right now everyone’s in paralysis. Many people are scared to leave their houses. After we get through this, any surge will be very gradual.”

Barney Stein, an agent at Lance Vermuelen Real Estate, agreed: “People say that, but it’s way too soon to tell. The phone is not ringing off the hook. Maybe in a few weeks we will have a better idea.”

Stein did say there are a lot of unknowns in the real estate industry in an era of social distancing and shuttered buildings. For example, walk-throughs occur before and after sales. Are those safe? What about closings with buyers, sellers, agents and lawyers sitting around a table in a conference room? Completing the process through video conferencing would be complicated because of the signing of multiple documents by multiple parties.

Stein confirmed reports that people who own weekend homes have fled New York and Boston for the Berkshires.

“I’ve heard people say if they’ve got a place to be outside of the city, they’re coming here,” Stein said. “Absolutely. Everybody’s home.”

Stein has also received calls from weekenders staying up here full-time temporarily. Some who live in towns with poor internet access are looking for office space with broadband.

Hair stylists and barbers seemed to be struggling. David Gavin Salon was open but there were no customers visible. Lawrence of London was open but no customers could be seen. A sign on the door announced that beard trimming has been discontinued for “sanitary” reasons.

The interior of Jake’s Barber Shop on Railroad Street in Great Barrington. Photo: Martin Albert

Jake’s Barber Shop on upper Railroad Street was open for business. Owner Jake Hunker said he was doubling down on his sanitizing efforts and reducing the number of customer appointments to limit the volume of people coming through the door.

“I’ve seen about 30 people in the last two days,” he said Wednesday. “I wanted to do the best I could to keep the positive going.” There were containers of sanitizing wipes all over Hunker’s shop.

“I practice these sanitary practices all the time,” Hunker said. “It’s required that we wipe down the chair before anyone sits down in it. All the hair is swept up after the person is done with their haircut and clippers and everything have to be sprayed and cleaned regularly anyway.”

Big Y and other grocery stores are open for business with different hours. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Like package stores, grocery stores seem to be faring well. Both Price Chopper and Big Y have reduced their hours but have reserved the first hour of the day for senior citizens and, in the case of Big Y, those with “compromised immune systems.”

Hours have also changed at Guido’s Fresh Marketplace. The first hour of operation (9 to 10 a.m.) will be reserved for seniors and those who are “immunocompromised.” Click here for the full rundown on changes.

The Berkshire Food Co-op was doing business at a healthy pace this week. The indoor dining area was closed but the tables on the porch outside were occupied by customers sipping coffee and eating snacks. Click here to find out about changes in operations at the Co-op.

The Berkshire Food Co-op has plenty of customers but the indoor dining area was closed. Customers were free to take their coffee and snacks out side to the patio. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Dollar General was open in Sheffield and it had several customers. Remarkably, a sign inside said the store was looking for help.

Likewise, Carr Hardware was doing a brisk business on Main Street. Carr President Bart Raser told The Edge: “We’re coping because we’re basically in the emergency supply business. We’re seeing demand for those types of items. We’ve been working day and night to keep those items in stock. A lot of people are taking advantage of curbside pick-up, and of course we’ve also had a longtime delivery service, mostly for commercial customers.”

One thing Carr does have is toilet paper. Friday morning this reporter found a box of single rolls near the front register. But purchases were limited to three rolls per customer. He gladly paid a little more than $4 for the three rolls.

One activity that still appears to be very popular is hiking. The parking lots at the Monument Mountain Reserve, Race Brook Falls in Sheffield and the Undermountain Trail in Salisbury, Connecticut, are full on nice days. After all, social distancing is easy to maintain and there is exercise and fresh air to be had.

Dollar General in Sheffield is actually looking for help. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Betsy Andrus, who directs the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, told The Edge there are programs that could help distressed business owners, including the small business recovery loan fund recently announced by Gov. Baker, as well as similar programs on the federal level through the Small Business Administration.

Andrus said people have been asking what they can do to support local businesses, especially those that are in trouble.

“Our suggestion was if you were normally going to buy a gift for someone’s birthday, get a gift certificate — or buy one for yourself and redeem it later,” Andrus said.

The situation is changing so rapidly that the chamber is struggling to keep up with it. “We have been on the phone contacting businesses, asking if they’re going to stay open. People are in shock. They say maybe partial hours, but once they see the reality they might change their minds. Things can change in five minutes.”

Small businesses don’t get bailouts as the big banks did during the financial crisis of 2008, though Andrus reiterated that businesses should look at the loan possibilities.

“All they have is themselves,” Andrus added. “Most don’t have the funds to project out for many weeks. A lot are faced with the possibility this could be devastating.”

“But we will get through this,” Andrus ended on a positive note. “The landscape in South County will change somewhat, but we will get through this.”