Charleston-area business owners reopen with eyes on safety and recovery 

Getting Back

click to enlarge Despite the pandemic, Catherine Hollister of blue sky endurance holds steady after the non-essential business closure order was lifted

Ruta Smith

Despite the pandemic, Catherine Hollister of blue sky endurance holds steady after the non-essential business closure order was lifted

Local business owners have started opening their doors, and employees are returning to work, setting out to recover from a surprise economic meltdown that few were prepared for.

"I was terrified," says Gary Flynn, owner of M. Dumas and Sons, the long-running men's store on King Street. "This is something that's never happened before. We've made it through the Depression, two World Wars, and stock market crashes, and we've been open through it all. The only time we physically closed the store outside of a holiday is when there's a hurricane bearing down on us."

Catherine Hollister, the owner of Mt. Pleasant-based sporting goods store, Blue Sky Endurance, says that the pandemic couldn't have come at a less-opportune time. But there has been some light in the dark: Shops like hers that sell bikes are considered an essential business, letting them stay partially open through the closures.

Others, like Marshal Simon, owner of Mt. Pleasant clothing store Gwynn's, shut their doors in mid-March, before the order from McMaster came. But he and his team never imagined it would last as long as it did, expecting to be back open sometime in April.

Flynn had some idea of the timeframe he was in store for. "I knew once we closed, we would be closed for a while," he says. "I have a team of people I'm responsible for, and with no income, how was I supposed to take care of my team? I tried to delay [closing] as long as I could."

But even with doors opening, the threat of spreading the coronavirus remains at the forefront of most people's minds.

"We cautiously reopened with a lot of safety precautions and cleaning and safety for our employees as well as our clients being the top priority," Simon says. "We put out wipes and gloves and hand sanitizer at two stations at the front and throughout the store."

Others weren't quite so ready to open their doors, even with the initial OK from McMaster.

"I was not comfortable with the decision to open when I hadn't seen enough of a downward turn in new cases in our state," Flynn says. "I was reluctant. The lift was on [April 21] and I didn't open the doors until [April 27]. This had to be a team decision if we were going to do it, but I had a variety of different reactions from my team."

click to enlarge RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

That waiting doesn't come without a price. Business is down about 90 percent, Flynn says.

"I've said to my staff, as we start to ramp back up, you need to let me know what you're comfortable with," Hollister says. "Some of them have kids at home, others live with elderly parents. I'm completely leaving it up to them, but a lot of people are out of work at the same time, so I've had a lot of people come to me asking for a job."

Hollister says her business is down about 60 percent.

But one of the biggest hurdles for business owners when it came to reopening is remaining in compliance with the restrictions still in place, such as social distancing. Luckily, customers are more than aware of what's going on.

"Customers are pretty understanding if they have to wait outside until somebody else leaves," Hollister says. "And the people coming in aren't just coming in to browse, they are here for something specific."

Even with customers willing to accept the new normal, stores simply aren't built with these sort of restrictions in mind.

"A normal store has to think about distancing in respect to wheelchairs, which is only a 3-foot restriction," Flynn explains. "When they start saying 6 feet, it challenges you. We had to make our aisles one way, put marks at the register and another 6 feet back in case we have a line.

"We've put up what feels like 5,000 signs that all say, 'Please use social distancing.' We took all that straight out of the governor's requirements for a store to be open, and we followed it to a tee."

But even with the doors open, and the customers spaced out inside, the final challenge comes in actually turning a profit.

"The pools are closed, so nobody is really swimming right now," Hollister laments. "You can't even really get to the beaches, and our running business has pretty much stayed the same."

In other parts of her shop, business kept rolling. "The bike business has continued to be strong because so many people are out riding their bikes right now.

"It's something they can do as a family. They can all hop on their bikes and ride around their neighborhoods together," Hollister concludes. "We are seeing a lot of family bikes, just for cruising around."

Despite being blindsided by the pandemic, Simon is persevering through the tough times.

"How do you prepare for something like that?" he asks. "Even during the recessions, we didn't go to zero, and I don't care what they teach you in elementary school, but zero is a big number. Thankfully, we haven't gone quite to zero this time either."

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