Local businesses get creative during pandemic

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By Rachel Madison

Small businesses across Liberty Hill have been forced to think outside the box in order to keep serving customers amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

From shutting their doors and moving to a completely online platform to taking extreme sanitation measures, local companies are doing their best to keep their lights on, pay their employees and continue to serve the Liberty Hill community.

Retail stores have taken different approaches to allow customers to still shop while practicing self-quarantine and social distancing. For example, Dollar General has dedicated the first hour each day to senior shoppers, who are the most susceptible to COVID-19; and Pep & Punch is offering a “doorbell dash” service where customers can place an order and store employees will deliver their items to their homes.

Kami Pogue, owner of the Blue Door Gift Store & Boutique, said she is keeping her doors open for now, and has instituted a strict sanitizing program.

“We are preparing for the worst, but expecting the best,” she said. “We keep everything wiped down, and anytime anyone touches our doors we clean them, and anytime a customer comes in we clean behind them. We also have hand sanitizer everywhere.”

Pogue has also been ramping up her online store and is inviting customers to call in or FaceTime her and she can shop with them over the phone.

“We can walk around with them and they can pick out what they want,” she said. “That way it’s a more personal experience and we get to visit with our customers. That’s our primary goal anyway—to love our community well and minister to them. When people do come in, we have a positive attitude. We’re trying to get their minds off all this and spread joy.”

Tami Spearman, owner of Simply Home Decor & More, said as an established and thriving business, it’s been interesting to see the last two weeks unwind and wonder what’s ahead.

“Traffic has certainly been lower,” she said. “However, we still have shoppers. We are remaining open unless told otherwise or feel led to close for the safety of ourselves and others. We are in prayer about our decision and feel this is best for us at this time.”

Spearman added that she’s adjusted the store’s everyday procedures. Cleaning and sterilization have increased, and she is pushing online sales more.

“We also have advertised that we will help customers via FaceTime or messenger or text,” she said. “They can tell us what they need, we send pictures, and they purchase. They can then pull up to the store, text us and we will carry their bags out. They never have to leave their car if they choose that option.”

Spearman added that she is remaining positive and upbeat for the community and will continue to serve people as long as it’s an option and not detrimental to anyone’s health.

“Our store’s purpose has always been to be a mission field for the community, and I feel strongly that we are still carrying out that vision right now,” she said. “That could change quickly as new developments and updates occur, but for now we are happy to be open and serving our Liberty Hill community.”

Christina Hobbs, co-owner of The Wildflower Republic, said last week, she and the other store owners weren’t sure what the pandemic would mean for their business, but by the first of this week, they knew they had to do something.

“Last Saturday, we only had two people come in all day, and usually we are pretty busy on Saturdays,” she said. “We realized people weren’t shopping and we also know in Liberty Hill there are a lot of kids that have autoimmune issues and we were thinking about them and wanted to protect Liberty Hill from this virus as much as we can, so we ultimately decided to close our physical doors.”

At first, Hobbs said there weren’t any plans to move to a completely online platform at the store, but several community members reached out and asked how they could support their business.

“We were going to just close, but enough people reached out to us over the weekend that we decided to move everything online,” she said. “We won’t ship out of the city, but we uploaded all our inventory online and we will offer a porch pickup from our porches.”

Hobbs added that closing their physical doors was also a decision they made to encourage people to stay home.

“If we’re open that gives people a reason to go out, and this is how we can help the community and try to stay virus free,” she said.

While business owners are making modifications in order to keep customers, they also worry it may not be enough.

“It’s concerning because even though our store is closed, we still have to pay rent, electricity, Internet,” Hobbs said. “We still have bills while we aren’t necessarily selling product. The scariest thing is we don’t know when this is going to end. We keep hearing May or June. That gets kind of scary because that’s months of bills.”

Pogue echoed similar concerns.

“We have to make rent,” she said. “I’m going through my bills and cutting things that aren’t necessary to lower my overhead as much as possible. That’s what it’ll be over the next couple of months to keep the lights on. We’re happy to meet people at the door with the items they need or drop them off at their house. We will go above and beyond to keep our business afloat through this time.”

Real Estate
When it comes to buying and selling homes, the local and national economy’s unsure futures are what might keep people from moving, said Shane White of RE/MAX Town & Country.

“When it comes to real estate, it’s more about what the market is doing versus the virus itself,” he said. “This is just really uncharted territory about how the virus will affect the local and national economy. We have seen a little bit of fallout, but not a huge amount so far. I think we’ll see a dip in the market, but I don’t think it’ll be long term.”

White said he and his agents are working on different ways they can continue to help people buy and sell their homes while also protecting their health and safety. Virtual meetings, via platforms like Zoom, and helping sellers keep their homes sanitized during walk-throughs of potential buyers are two things he has implemented.

“I’ve told my office that if they don’t feel comfortable meeting with clients or showing properties because of what’s going on, that we could work around that,” he said. “We’ve also put a message out to current sellers that if they have concerns about people coming in and looking at their homes, we would be glad to put instructions on using hand sanitizer and supply that at the property.”

White added that as uncertainty progresses, the real estate industry has several options when it comes to staying afloat.

“I just read something from another agent that they’re going to do video walk-throughs of houses and 3D imaging, where people can get an idea of what that house offers without physically going there,” he said. “We may need to set up some videos like that, so that we have virtual showings.”

White said interest rates are at historical lows for buyers, so from that standpoint it’s still a good time to purchase a home if buyers aren’t fearful of what the economy may bring as a result of the pandemic.

Services
At Indigo Salon, owner Jaime Amezquita said it’s been difficult to make decisions around the pandemic because the beauty industry is one that is so intimate.

“The CDC is suggesting a six-foot distance at minimum from your fellow man, but being in an industry that is so intimate, like as a hair stylist, you’re faced with the inability to keep up with that recommendation,” she said. “We’re probably going on the extreme side, but we are implementing a whole new set of sanitation guidelines.”

She said her salon has always had very specific procedures that it must follow, according to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, but she has implemented more frequent hand washing among employees, and as soon as guests arrive, they’re asked to wash their hands as well.

“We’ve taken out our couch because it’s a porous surface, so guests are now sitting at our table and chairs, and we’re leaving Lysol wipes out so they can clean the area they sat at,” she said. “We’re also going to take everybody’s temperature who comes in, and if anyone has any sign of coughing or anything of that nature, they’re going to be asked to leave.”

Amezquita doesn’t expect Indigo Salon to stay open much longer, because the worse things get, the harder it will be to keep a full schedule of clients.

“We’re at that point of do we close and let our employees suffer for hopefully not too long, or do we stay open and risk everything?” she said. “I’m hoping most people will see that we’re being proactive. If this virus has traveled all the way from China to Austin there’s something to be said about it.”

WeClean Home Solutions co-owner Amy Thompson said she didn’t see an impact from the virus pandemic until earlier this week.

“We had five of our recurring customers cancel in one day,” she said. “I don’t think it’s so much that people are concerned about us transmitting the illness to their homes, it’s more that they are home now, so they don’t need our service. With a lot of people working from home or taking time off because their kids are home, they have time to maintain their homes themselves.”

Thompson added that some customers have also canceled because they have small children in their homes and were uncomfortable with someone coming into their home.

“We are understanding and respectful of where our customers come from, but these cancellations are hitting us hard because we don’t have a cancellation fee,” she said. “Our employees aren’t getting paid. Our full-time employees count on this job to pay their rent and car payments, and the hours are just not there for them.”

Thompson said she’s already downsized by not scheduling any of her part-time employees, but she’s hoping the pandemic doesn’t hit her business so hard that it affects her full-time employees. She is also offering a 10 percent discount on all deep cleanings to customers.

“We’re trying to keep our schedule full,” she said. “Before all this, we had more business than we could handle.”

Though business has slowed, Thompson said when her employees enter a home to clean, they are taking extreme precautions. All staff is wearing medical grade masks and gloves in the homes, and they are also using isopropyl alcohol on the bottoms of their shoes and hands as they enter each home.

“We’re using Lysol in every home, and we are paying special attention to areas like light switches, doorknobs and door jambs,” she added.

Ultimately, businesses in the service industry are just using their best judgment to maneuver through this experience, Thompson said. She had hoped there’d be an uptick in business because she runs a cleaning service, but the opposite has occurred because people are so unsure of what the future holds.

“We’re trying to be good examples of calm and weathering the storm,” she said. “I think our company will be fine; we’ll be here at the end of it and our customers will come back.”

Healthcare
Healthcare is one of the most affected industries globally. Nurse practitioner Kaela Thurman, owner of Care First Walk-in Clinic, said her concerns are focused mainly on limiting the spread of infection as well as continuing to provide routine care to those who need it.

“We don’t want people who need routine care to feel like they have nowhere to access it or be scared to access it,” she said. “That’s why we’re doing outdoor screening in order to mitigate the risk as much as we can, and prevent a potential positive COVID-19 patient from coming in.”

If a patient screens high risk, they’re being directed back to their vehicles and asked to call Care First for further instruction.

“We’re also trying to give people the option to see us virtually,” Thurman said. “With the disaster declarations from the federal and state governments, we are able to see patients virtually that are established and new to us. You don’t have to have been a patient here before to have a virtual visit. If you don’t have access to the Internet or you aren’t tech savvy, we can also do a visit by telephone, which is normally not allowed.”

So far, Care First hasn’t seen an increase in visits. The number of patients is about where the clinic normally sits, if not a little lower, Thurman said, because many people are delaying routine preventive care.

“I am concerned because I don’t feel like the community can afford for Care First to be shut down, and we can’t afford it either,” she added. “That could potentially happen if we did have a positive COVID-19 case here.”

Thurman said in addition to physical health, she’s also worried about people’s mental and emotional health during this time. She suggested reaching out to local counselors and therapists and requesting virtual visits if needed.

Other healthcare businesses, such as dentist offices, are also being asked to take precautions. The American Dental Association has asked that all dentists postpone elective procedures for the next three weeks, and instead concentrate only on emergency dental care.

Restaurants
The food service industry is seeing a lot of ill effect from the coronavirus outbreak, as many cities across the nation, including Austin, have asked restaurants and bars to close to the public, and only provide drive-thru, curbside and to-go orders.

In Liberty Hill, this hasn’t happened, but local restaurants are taking measures to modify the way they serve customers. Dahlia Café has closed its restaurant and stopped serving breakfast, but will still do curbside orders for lunch and dinner. Hell or High Water Brewing has completely closed its doors for now, but is hoping to come up with a way to continue to serve the community safely.

Ellen McGinty, co-owner of Agape Java, is keeping her coffee shop open, but has done several modifications to protect her staff and the public. She said her staff is focusing on keeping everything extra clean, and is using all disposable utensils, to go cups and bags. They are also frequently wiping down surfaces like chairs, tables, doorknobs and soap dispensers.

“We’re also trying to encourage people to use our app to order their stuff to go,” she said. “We have also opened up a walk-up window to the outside, so that people can grab and go. If they do want to stay, we’re asking people to use the backyard to sit and hang out.”

McGinty said she’s wanted to do a walk-up window for a long time, and now was the perfect opportunity to give it a try.

“I wanted to give people another form of being able to grab something to go,” she said. “Especially in our connected society, for us to step back and not socialize, it’s kind of a challenge. This gives you a little bit of interaction.”

McGinty also owns the house next door to Agape Java, which she has been renovating to create a remote worker space. In light of the pandemic, she’s opened it up to the community for a small daily fee.

“We only have one private office in there now, but we’ve opened that area up to remote workers if they need high speed Internet and somewhere to work,” she said. “It has Wi-Fi, coffee is included, and if someone decides they’re hungry I’ll deliver food to them. I’m hoping this will be another way to make this a little easier on people.”

Melissa Day and Michael Biggs, owners of Malted Grains, said the weekend was tough for them, but business has slowly picked back up over the last few days. They are working hard to make sure the community knows they plan to stay open. They are posting frequently on social media and have moved the tables inside their restaurants to be at least six feet apart to accommodate social distancing.

Day said Malted Grains has always offered to go and curbside services, but they’re promoting them now more than ever. People can order over the phone, let them know when they’ve arrived, and they will bring the food out to them.

“We’ve also talked about doing family style to-go meals, but we want to go through what we have on hand first,” Day said. “Our Sunday bake shop has been open for last few months and we will still sell you bread if you call ahead, but we won’t be having our bake shop for now.”

Malted Grains is also offering all day happy hour, which means customers can get $3 beers and $20 bottles of wine. The restaurant has also modified staffing and is running a skeleton crew.

“As far as supply chain for us, we’re pretty good,” Biggs said. “The supply chain hasn’t been interrupted just yet. Our next order comes Friday, so we’ll see what happens then. A lot of restaurants are trying to hoard and get themselves set up, so the supply chains are experiencing some shortages on things like water and cleaning supplies.”

McGinty said the unknown future of the local and national economy is a real fear for her.

“We depend on local foot traffic, and I employ seven other people,” she said. “I’m definitely dependent on customers daily. If I don’t have that, I can’t go very long without letting someone go, especially because I have full-time employees. I’m doing all I can to make sure I stay in business, but also keep everybody safe and healthy. Business is definitely slower, and there’s a trend of a little bit less people every day.”

Day and Biggs worry about their restaurant as well, especially because restaurants run on such slim margins as it is, Biggs said.

“We’re getting like 25 to 30 percent less margins, and we are worried about our staff, because some really depend on this job,” Day said. “I don’t want to be able to not pay my staff. I’m up here working; but we have to keep money coming into our home, too. I feel better not paying myself than not paying other people. It’s a real concern.”

How Liberty Hill Can Help
Spearman said she knows there are several people in Liberty Hill who are affected by the changes this virus has caused, but businesses in town want to come alongside those families to help in any way they can. Likewise, she hopes the community will do the same for small business.

“We love our community and appreciate all the support,” she said. “We ask that people continue to shop local and eat local as much as possible as small businesses will take a hit. We have great shopping and dining options here so keep those dollars in our community.”

Pogue added that if people don’t need anything right now, they can buy gift cards from local businesses to use later, and that will help businesses pay their bills now.

“We need the community’s support,” she said. “Don’t go to big box stores—shop local. If your budget is tight right now and you don’t feel like you can shop, give us a shout out on social media give or reach out to us and check in. Visit with other business owners and just help to encourage and lift people up.”

McGinty also asked for the community to put out good vibes and encouragement to small business owners—and if they can afford to buy a cup of coffee, to do that, too.

Day said when it comes to all restaurants, if people do place to go or curbside orders, they should still tip their servers.

“Make sure you tip because servers make $2 an hour,” she said. “Our economy has to keep consuming and buying to keep things moving, so try not to change your habits. Do what you normally do if you’re financially able, and keep supporting us, because it’s a domino effect to everyone.”

Thurman said she’s concerned for all the local businesses, because they are all facing the potential possibility of closing.

“I’m inspired by the ingenuity of some of the businesses,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of out-of-the-box thinking from local business owners to stay open. I’m hoping Liberty Hill residents will get behind them and choose to do more business locally right now instead of leaving the area.”

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