Kodiak small business owners weigh reopening

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a range of new challenges for small businesses in Kodiak. For many, with most of the community hunkered down at home, sales have been hit hard.

“Initially, basically 50 percent of our sales disappeared overnight,” Dan Rohrer, owner of the two Subway restaurants in town, said. “Now, I think last week, [the] downtown store was down 39 percent, Walmart store was down 45 percent still.”

Kelly Bennett, who owns Norman’s Fine Gifts downtown said she saw sales plummet between 60 and 75 percent from before the pandemic. In addition to laying off her employees, as retail stores cautiously open back up, she’s cut store hours to three days a week. She’s thought about developing a website to make online sales, but said she’s not ready to take that next step.

Kodiak downtown area. (Photo by
Raymond Bucko, SJ / Flickr)

“Well, the next step is not why I’m in this business,” she said. “I’m in this business for local[s]. And so I’m kind of in a hard spot right now.”

With key yearly events like Crab Fest, cruise ship visits and even Coast Guard transfer season up in the air, many businesses are struggling with supply orders.

Bennett said she had to cancel everything she ordered to arrive in time for May cruise ship visitors.

“We’re talking everything that I could [cancel]. Going through my invoices, calling saying, ‘I don’t want it. I don’t want it. I can’t have it. I won’t be able to pay for it.’ Which is true,” she said. “I mean, in my mind, I have no idea how this summer is going to pan out.”

Sarah Culbertson owns The Frame Shop on Mill Bay. She said she’s trying to work out how to sell the extra product she does have, without Crab Fest and the Women’s Show to anchor sales.

“I’m not disappointed that they’re not going on … but we did purchase a lot of items in preparation for those two shows, which are kind of like our advertisement and the big farewell to the Coast Guard families that are leaving the island,” Culbertson said. “So at the moment, I’m kind of brainstorming ways we can still sell those products before our Coast Guard families leave the island.”

Rohrer, Culbertson and Bennett all say they’ve applied for loans through the federal Small Business Administration. Like many small business owners across the country they say it’s been a waiting game without much indication of when or even if the money will come through.

“I’m not holding my breath,” said Bennett. “It would be really, really, really nice if something panned out there. And I do pay myself as an employee, and I could get maybe one or two of my employees back if that happened.”

Last week, some business sectors got the go-ahead from state and local governments to begin opening their doors, as long as they followed certain guidelines. For instance, in addition to take-out orders, restaurants can begin serving dine-in customers, but they can only seat members of the same household, and only by reservation. They are also only allowed to serve at 25 percent capacity, and must provide hand sanitizer.

The 25 percent capacity rule applies to retail stores as well. Customers must stay at least six feet away from non-household members and wear face masks. There are also specific sanitization guidelines retail stores must follow.

Reopening guidelines have been welcome news to some, but not everyone. For some businesses, like Chris Lynch’s downtown yarn and fabric store, The Rookery, reopening just doesn’t make sense right now. In addition to the tight aisles that make social distancing difficult in her store, she pointed out that it’s not easy to keep yarn sanitized.

“One of the reasons that I’m not going to open is because hand sanitizer isn’t conducive to my product,” she said. “And people need to feel fibers if they want to purchase fibers, so that’s not going to work very well for me.”

Rohrer is also opting not to allow dine-in service at the Subways. He said a reservation process felt a little silly for a fast food restaurant. More than that, he said, he doesn’t want to put it on employees to police face masks and ensure that only household members are sitting together.

“When we get closer to a mandate that allows 50 percent of our seating with maybe six foot separation, something of that nature that would be easier for me to accommodate,” he said.

In the meantime, all four business owners agree, the best way residents can help them out is to “buy local.”

Small business owners looking for more information about how to reopen safely can contact the Kodiak Emergency Operations Center at (907) 486-8970. More resources, including information about loans and other small business support are available through the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce.

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