How COVID-19 affected main street businesses in Blaine County
March 17, 2021
Over the past several months I've read several commentaries about how the COVID-19 pandemic (covid) affected businesses nationally. Recreational vehicle sales were up as folks sought ways to vacation and still maintain social distancing. People forced to stay home to avoid exposure to covid were doing more home fix-up, learning new languages and drinking more alcohol as bars and clubs were closed or scaled back capacity and hours. Toilet paper was in short supply for a time.
In late March my wife took her sewing machine for a tune-up to a quilt shop in Havre. I asked the repair technician there if she'd seen any effects from covid on her work. She laughed and said, "Yes, folks have been bringing in lots of old sewing machines that obviously were stored in attics or sheds. Suddenly they were sewing masks." That got me wondering how covid affected small businesses right here in Blaine County. I couldn't visit every business in the county but I visited with several owners of small business. Here's some of what I learned about the effects of covid.
Consumers and local businesses dealt with new challenges
With concerns about exposure to covid and some businesses forced to close by government directives, new ways to get products and services to consumers began to pop up. Kathy Radovich, at Rad's Deli and Pizza, said, "We were closed for six weeks by a state mandate but were able to still fill food orders through delivery and curbside pickup. Thankfully that kept our staff employed, with some help from a payroll supplement program through the government that was a godsend." At the Chinook Pharmacy, several times during the pandemic prescriptions could only be picked up at the front door, a safety measure to protect customers and staff.
Even funeral services changed. Daniel Dahl, at Wilderness Funeral Home and Cremation Services, said he saw a lot of postponed funerals during the directives limiting the number of people that could gather in one place. His business added streaming so funeral services could be watched remotely via laptop computers or smart phones. "Streaming," he added, "will likely continue. The old practice of funeral services as family reunions lapsed as people feared exposure during the pandemic. We're seeing more stand along graveside services and fewer services in churches."
Employees and owners at Treasure State Title, for family reasons, acquired technology early in the pandemic so they could work from home. Steve Zellmer, a co-owner, explained, "My wife and I and our office person in Havre all have school age children. When the schools closed and we had to do school at home, the capacity to work from home was essential. One good thing that came from the pandemic is we are now prepared to work outside the office when necessary."
Realtor Cassie Johnson, with Lodestar Realty, found consumer concerns about exposure and safety "very personalized." She explained, "Some people with property to show were very worried about strangers coming in to the house and touching things. I had one customer who turned on all the lights and opened all the doors so no one except her had to touch anything." The customer then left the house during the showing.
And changes were made in how businesses organized staff. Rob Reid, at Ace Hardware, tried to "have one employee at the front of the store and one covering the back so they were socially distant." At the pharmacy the staff divided in to two teams working separate shifts. Co-owner Kelcey Diemert explained, "If a team member tested positive for covid only their team had to be quarantined and we could split the healthy team to cover shifts of those in quarantine."
Lots of postponed projects were tackled during the pandemic
The national trend of people confined to home doing repairs and remodeling projects occurred in Blaine County as well. Rob Reid, at the hardware store, added a twist I'd not read about noting, "I couldn't keep garden seed in stock. Apparently people took up gardening because they now had the time." Rod Wagner, at Harlem Lumber, said he couldn't keep decking and fencing materials in stock. He added, "As certain materials became harder to get, like treated lumber, I found myself in the position of telling customers I couldn't get what they wanted. As a business owner that is a terrible feeling."
And it wasn't just home repairs, Dan Friede, at NAPA, said, "I had a lot of people pulling uncompleted mechanical projects they hadn't touched for years. With the pandemic they finally had time to work on their projects again."
This uptick in demand for certain items as well as rumors about threatened shortages also played havoc with the supply chain. Jeff Finley, at Finley Food Farm said, "When customers thought or heard there might be a shortage of grocery products they would immediately buy lots of those items. Our distributors don't currently warehouse a lot of backup like they did years ago. It took a while for the manufacturers to replace and catch up with the items that initially went flying off the shelves. There were shortages."
For many main street businesses 2020 was a very good year
Not all the stories from main street businesses were doom and gloom. Several owners shared comments and described actions local residents took to show how much the hometown businesses are appreciated. Bonnie Weber, who owns and operates Shore's Floral, said, "A lot of people bought gifts and flowers they gave to local business owners and employees to show their appreciation for the extra attention and help they received during the pandemic." Kadie Dahl opened a new women's clothing store in November, 2020, at the height of the pandemic. She stated, "All Dahl'd Up had a great response and people seemed happy to do Christmas shopping locally and face to face. It was gratifying to hear how much they appreciated being able to do real shopping without potential exposure to covid in crowded big box stores or deal with online hassles."
Customers also changed how they shopped. At the Blaine County Journal Keith and Keri Hanson told of customers who came in to buy ads or printing and then would purchase office supplies "just because we sold them and they appreciated not having to make another trip for what the needed." Jeff Finley said people made fewer trips to the grocery store but made "bigger basket purchases." And some unexplainable changes occurred in buying patterns. Finley's grocery distributor tracks what the Chinook grocery store buys by department. Finely said, "The numbers show our biggest increase in sales was frozen food and Mexican dinners and tortillas off the grocery shelf. I have no idea what caused that trend."
Responding to questions about their business revenue for 2020 nearly every local owner rated 2020 as "the best or one of the best years ever." Few owners had to turn to government grants and those who did mainly used the outside resources to keep their employees working. Most owners said it was support and encouragement by locals that kept them going through the tough times of the pandemic.
Jeff Finely summed his take on the year of the pandemic this way: "It was our best year ever at the grocery store but not a year I ever want to relive again." Charles Dickens might have been thinking of a future pandemic when in the late 1890's he wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." For main street businesses in our area 2020 was a tough but, for the most part a good year.