Small Businesses in Midwest Hurting, Worried About Unknown

Business owners, staff try to stay positive as shutdowns related to the CCP virus have hit their bottom line
March 18, 2020 Updated: March 18, 2020

COLUMBUS, Ohio—The small business district in the City of Worthington, a suburb of Columbus, is looking more like a ghost town than a main destination.

Many stores are shuttered, some with signs on the door saying they’ll be closed until further notice. Those that are still open are wondering if they’ll be next.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered bars and restaurants to close as of 9 p.m. March 15. He closed schools for three weeks starting on March 17, and postponed the March 17 primary until June 2.

Christie Bruffy, the owner of Highline Coffee Co., a small cafe in Worthington, said she’s been in a daze for the past two days.

“I’m struggling to process it all. It’s surreal. Emotions are all over the place. It’s the unknown that’s the worst. Every time a breaking news report comes on, I am sick to my stomach,” she said.

She has avoided the immediate downturn—this week, she is closed anyway, due to renovations she’d planned months ago. Although that’s a blessing this week, the extra capital she’s spending puts her in a tighter spot.

“It made sense for us to continue with the plan, despite any financial ramifications. Our flooring in the workspace needed to be replaced, no matter what,” Bruffy told The Epoch Times via email. “Our original plan was to reopen by the weekend. We still hope to do that, with carry-out only.”

Epoch Times Photo
Many stores are closed and others are essentially empty in the City of Worthington in Columbus,Ohio, on March 17, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

She has six employees that she’s trying to help stay afloat—two of whom are completely dependent on their wages at Highline.

Bruffy said she’ll likely have to shorten her opening hours, but the two employees are her priority.

“I know that I can personally forgo all of my business income because of the support of my spouse. Not everyone can say that,” she said.

Bruffy said her bank account is slowly draining, but if she can at least get 50 percent of normal sales going forward, she can make it through.

“My property manager has already assured me that they will work with me on my rent payment for the next few months. This is a huge relief,” she said.

Bruffy opened her original 275-square-foot space in October 2015, and in April of last year, she was able to take over the neighboring storefront, giving her an extra 475 square feet and extra seating.

“Knowing that we did so well in our original, tiny space is what gives me the confidence that we can do well going forward,” she said, adding that the local community gives her confidence to weather the storm.

“If everyone is like me, they are already done with staying at home and want to get out.

“We hope that anyone who is not currently hurting themselves in terms of expendable income will continue to support all of the local businesses that they usually frequent.

“We need you now more than ever.”

‘It’s Crickets in Here’

A few doors down, in The Old Village Barbershop, it’s usually bustling with chatter and a constant flow of clients, but on March 17, brothers Tommy and Jimmy Checkler were sitting in the otherwise deserted room, glued to the news.

“It’s crickets in here,” Tommy said, stating the obvious. “Right now, we are waiting between the governor and the Board of Cosmetology to render a decision. And as soon as they say we have to shut down, we’ll shut down.”

He figured that it was inevitable that they’d be ordered to close their doors for about two weeks.

(On March 18, DeWine announced the closure of all barbershops, hairdressers, and tattoo parlors.)

“We’ll be just like everybody else if we have to [close]. We’d manage. Financially, it would hurt us,” Tommy said. “I mean, how can I do my job without touching people? We’re touching their hair. And I think it’s last on people’s lists, right now. It’s an elective thing. It’s not essential.”

The brothers, who have been cutting hair in this location for around 30 years, recalled a time when high winds knocked the power out for a week.

“But this is a little different,” Jimmy said. “We’ll find out a little more each day from the governor. That’s who’s going to tell us.”

Epoch Times Photo
Barbers and brothers Tommy (L) and Jimmy Checkler watch the latest news on the coronavirus in their empty barbershop in the City of Worthington in Columbus,Ohio, on March 17, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Tommy is 60 and Jimmy is 62.

“So we’re concerned about it [the virus] because of our age,” Tommy said. “We’re pretty healthy people, you know, neither one of us smokes. We don’t have any problems. But we’re 12 inches or closer [when] working on people.”

The brothers have been asking customers if they feel sick or have a fever, and the hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes are being used frequently and liberally.

The barbershop looks like a sports memorabilia museum, and they both lamented the lack of live sports on television right now, especially the “March Madness” NCAA college basketball tournament, which was scheduled to start this week.

“Now, we just watch the reruns, and we watch for the reports. And we sterilize. And pray,” Tommy said.

He said at least they don’t have to worry about their clients going elsewhere, because everyone is in the same boat.

People Want Donuts

One bright spot across the street is in Peace, Love & Little Donuts. Sales have picked up slightly in the two days since bars and restaurants have been limited to carry-out orders only.

Store manager Bethany Brown said more locals have been coming by, as more people are working from home. And while GrubHub and DoorDash orders have increased, she’s concerned it won’t stay that way, or that the shop might be ordered to close altogether.

She’s a full-time wage worker and said she’d probably have to apply for unemployment if that became reality.

“I’m not sure what else I’d be able to do,” she said. “I’m concerned, just the way the news is.”

Right then, a couple came in and bought six donuts, staving off the worry for a few minutes.

Epoch Times Photo
Bethany Brown, wearing gloves, hands a customer a donut in Peace, Love, & Little Donuts, in the City of Worthington in Columbus,Ohio, on March 17, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Whole World Is on Pause

Sales at the Bubbles Tea & Juice Company store have already dropped by 50 percent, the lone shift manager, Alivia Clark, said. Across all seven locations, sales had plummeted by 56 percent from the same time last week.

“It’s like the whole world is kind of on a pause. It’s very weird,” Clark said.

She’s a freshman studying music education at nearby Otterbein University. She works 20 to 25 hours a week at Bubbles and puts the money toward her financial aid, books, savings, and personal items.

“From a personal standpoint, I’d like to sustain myself because I’m a college student and college is expensive,” she said. “That was my main fear on Sunday when DeWine said, ‘Close all the bars and restaurants.’ I didn’t know what we were considered at that point, so I didn’t know if we were going to be shut down. I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ Like, how am I going to get hours, how I’m going to get money?”

Clark is also concerned about the business. One of the locations is already closed and another has cut its hours. Where she is, the gym upstairs usually provides a generous flow of customers—but it’s now closed.

“I’m worried about the business just not having enough backup to sustain itself so we can still reopen once all this happens,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
Alivia Clark stands in the empty Bubbles Tea & Juice Company store in the City of Worthington in Columbus, Ohio, on March 17, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Online Sales and Virtual Yoga

Next door is Vernacular, a contemporary womenswear store. Manager Kim Osborne had plenty of time to talk, but was briefly interrupted when a couple wandered in for a minute.

Osborne’s day was a bit different to how she had originally planned it. She had been forced to cancel her plans to attend the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, and instead, started her day with a virtual yoga class, as the in-person classes had been canceled.

“Things are just kind of on hold right now,” she said. “So just do what feels good to you each day. And you can’t say what it’s going to be like tomorrow, depending on how this virus spreads, or not. So just hang on to that hope for sure.”

She said Vernacular relies on foot traffic and especially the employees from neighboring businesses.

“I have people usually coming in from the Old Bag of Nails Pub next door around this time—sneaking in after lunch break before they go back to work,” she said. “We [usually] have lots of moms with jogger strollers that are out and about and they’ll stroll through.”

The store also sells through its website and is offering free shipping as an incentive, but Osborne is predicting some cutbacks before things return to normal.

“It’s just, when people shop for ladies’ clothes, it’s to go places. You shop for a wedding, you shop to go to dinner, you shop for a big event at church or Easter. And no one is shopping right now to buy clothes,” she said.

“We’ll just see how it goes once things settle. … This is so new.”

Epoch Times Photo
Kim Osborne, manager of women’s fashion store Vernacular, stands in the empty store in the City of Worthington in Columbus, Ohio, on March 17, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

A day earlier, Osborne was filling in at Vernacular’s other location in German Village. It was unbearably quiet, but she was reminded of hope when a young couple came in to ask if they could use her dressing room to change for their wedding photos.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the highlight of my day.’ I knew they weren’t going to buy anything, but it was just a little bit of glimmer of hope happening,” she said.

“It made me so happy. I was like, ‘OK, everything’s going to be OK.’ Maybe not right away, but people are still getting married, having babies. The world is OK. You know, this is all going to be okay. Temporary.”

Meanwhile, she encourages people to continue to visit their local small business, if they feel safe doing so.

“If you love a store or a restaurant, buy gift cards … because that’ll keep them going. It’s revenue coming in,” she said.

Finding Creative Solutions

This shopping district hosts the Worthington Farmers’ Market on Saturdays starting in May, and the local shops rely on the traffic boost. The businesses are hopeful for a return to normalcy by then.

During winter, the market is held indoors at The Shops at Worthington Place, a small mall, and serves an average of 2,000 to 3,000 customers every week. However, it had to close down as of March 14.

“I mean, nobody wanted to cancel it. It was really a tough decision, but it was definitely the right one,” said Annina Parini, the executive director of Worthington Partnership, the market’s umbrella organization. “Even though we’re providing access to fresh food, it’s not the same as a supermarket.”

The organizers jumped into gear to figure out how to help the 60 to 70 vendors who rely on the market to sell their wares, ranging from fresh produce to honey, homemade soap, and organic meat.

“We feel terrible. We have a responsibility to these producers to provide the opportunity to reach their customers,” Parini said.

“They’ve dealt with things like their crops getting flooded, or not having a good yield that affects their business. So they’ve been flexible from that perspective, but honestly, no one has seen anything like this.”

Epoch Times Photo
A sign announcing the closure until further notice due to the coronavirus hangs on the door of clothing store Birch in the City of Worthington in Columbus, Ohio, on March 17, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Parini said they will hold a different type of market on Saturdays for the foreseeable future. It will be a drive-through scenario at the Worthington Community Center parking lot. Customers will have to pre-order and pre-pay, and they’ll have a two-hour window to stop by and pick up their orders.

Parini said customers can order from multiple vendors, and the market staff and volunteers will package their orders together and drop it into their trunk as they drive through.

“Until things significantly change, this might be our new normal,” she said. “We’re just trying to find some sort of middle-ground solution where we can at least get some product into people’s hands—or their trunks, rather.”

Some market vendors, however, don’t take credit cards and others don’t have an ordering system.

“We hate that it doesn’t serve 100 percent of people. But this is the best we can do at this point,” Parini said. “Everybody feels awful that we’re cutting everybody off from each other, but that’s the way it is for nearly every business.”

She said the market organizers and staff held a meeting in the parking lot, “and we all were at least six feet from each other. I mean, it’s just bizarre. But we’re trying to be creative and make it work. … Hopefully, folks will give us grace and work with us.”

The focus is week-to-week right now, Parini said, but they’ll get the outdoor market launched earlier than May, if conditions allow.

“Of course, we’re thinking, ‘When is this all going to end? When will we be back to normal?’ Things are changing so rapidly in this situation.” get more when we run out.

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @charlottecuthbo