Fulton County retailers reopening with uncertainty

By David J. Coehrs - [email protected]

Fulton County retail businesses are preparing to reopen May 12 after being closed due to the coronavirus, but some of their owners wonder how the over month-long shutdown has affected their livelihoods.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s directive that businesses the state considers non-essential may reopen their doors next week does come with a social distancing restriction. The governor is also encouraging the use of masks and hand sanitizer.

But despite the precautions, the business owners will open back up to the public unsure if the closures caused them permanent damage.

“We’re kind of in limbo like everybody else. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Abe Wyse, owner of Hit Trophy on State Route 66 in Archbold.

A third-generation owner of the 56-year-old family business, Wyse said Hit Trophy’s closure March 23 due to the pandemic has been his most difficult challenge. Business itself has dropped between 80% and 90%, and his seven employees have been idled, waiting to return. Wyse has sustained himself through a financial cushion and online orders, which provide the majority of his revenue.

Still, the company supplies trophies to local school districts, fairs, and other area businesses, “so we want to open to the public,” he said. “This is our busy time of year, normally.”

Wyse said he’ll follow protocols the governor has set forth for reopening businesses, but won’t require his employees to wear protective masks. He said because the business is housed in a 10,000 square-foot building and his employees work in separate areas, the protection isn’t necessary.

He’s not sure how fast Hit Trophy can rebound from the closure, but hopes it will be by November. “You won’t make back what you lost, but things should be better by then,” Wyse said.

Drag N Vapors and More on Shoop Avenue in Wauseon has been in business only about 14 months. Owner Austin Perry runs the store with his wife, Theresa, and a part-time worker who has been laid off the past month.

“It’s hurt a lot,” Perry said of the store’s closure. “Being a fairly new business, we kind of run week to week. So when you cut off customers, that’s coming out of my pocket now.”

Only online sales have been available to customers, and they have totaled only about 20 orders per week. “I should get that amount of business in a day, let alone an entire week,” Perry said. He said Ohio’s nicotine tax is sending his customers across state lines to avoid the added cost.

“But anything’s better than nothing,” he said of the scarce online sales. “Either way, I have to pay the bills. A dollar’s a dollar.”

What’s kept the Perrys afloat during the pandemic are their additional full-time jobs at Con Agra in Archbold. Perry said between the two workplaces he puts in over 100 hours each week.

“If (Drag N Vapors) was my only source of income I’d be in serious trouble,” he said.

When the store reopens this month the staff will implement six-foot distancing, wear protective gloves, and provide hand sanitizer. They’ll limit customer occupancy to three in the 20-foot b30-foot store, although Perry said that’s already the usual number of customers at a given time.

He was concerned the business might fail if the state’s restrictions had lasted longer. “But I think my regulars will come back,” he said. “I know most customers by name when they walk in the door. Once we get opened back up and it give it a couple of weeks we should bounce back to where we were before.”

Despite the setback, Perry said, Drag N Vapors is worth sustaining. “My wife and I don’t want to give up on it just yet. We thinks there’s potential here,” he said.

In Swanton, Master B’s Self Defense and Sport Karate on Main Street is at a standstill. Operating for about five years, the business has five clients owner Richard Barkhimer hopes will resume their memberships once he reopens in May.

“I have clients willing to start when this is over,” he said. “They say they will, but will they come in and sign up. That’s the question. I have no money covering my bills.”

Retired from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 8, Barkhimer said he’s covered financially by his pension and Social Security payments, so he’s prepared to close Master B’s if necessary. “If I can get people back in I won’t have to,” he said.

When the business reopens May 12, Barkhimer will follow social distancing mandates and routinely spray all surfaces with a sanitizer specially designed to kill COVID-19. Clients will participate in warm-up exercises, the discipline’s usual open-hand and weapons forms, and drills, but sparring won’t be practiced.

“Stay your distance. People have to be smart about it. I do not have to touch you to show you how to do this,” he said. “If you’re smart about it, we can get through this.”

Barkhimer said he’s confident social mores will be back to normal by May or June. “The news media is blowing (coronavirus) all out of proportion, scaring the daylights out of people,” he said. “We’re just waiting for this to be all over.”

Matt Gilroy, executive director of the Fulton County Economic Development Corporation, said statistics regarding the loss of revenue of local non-essential businesses is not yet available. “I imagine that will take some time before we know the full effect that the pandemic and following stay-at-home orders have had generally on small businesses on a local level,” he said.

Conversations he’s had with business owners across Fulton County have emphasized the different types of impact the pandemic has had on their livelihoods. Gilroy said, given the circumstances, some businesses haven’t been able to generate revenue, while others, such as restaurants, have relied on carryout and delivery services to bring in cash.

“Some businesses like grocery stores and food production facilities have found themselves busier than usual,” he said.

The county has over 900 small businesses, most employing under 20 people. Gilroy said none, to his knowledge, have decided to close permanently due to the pandemic restrictions.

“In general, it will take quite some time for the overall economy to re-engage, and largely the effect to every business will be dependent on how consumers respond once the business is permitted to re-open,” he said. Gilroy said some of the county’s small businesses will likely continue normally, but others may need time to recover.

As to the possibility of another COVID-19 wave, he added, “We all must do our due diligence to keep the spread as low as possible. Preventing a second wave is important, as the economic costs nationally, regionally, and locally will make it even more difficult for small businesses to overcome. Business owners are itching to re-open their companies and bring their employees back, and I believe we will all do what we can to prevent a second spread.”

Gilroy said the changes many businesses will practice to promote wellness will continue even after the pandemic is declared over.

By David J. Coehrs

[email protected]

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.