Three months after severe restrictions on businesses went in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, economic activity is once again picking up.
Stores are reopening and restaurants are serving diners at outside patios, while hair and nail salons are making plans to reopen June 26 when Lancaster County moves into the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan.
Although limitations on large gatherings will continue to complicate many business plans, and customer zeal for spending during a sudden recession remains an unknown, for many small business and nonprofits, just surviving until this point has been an accomplishment.
Federal, state and local grants and loans have helped small businesses get through the unprecedented shutdowns, but sorting out the options for funding while juggling landlords looking for payment and employees wondering about their jobs has strained many small operators.
“For a small business owner or an entrepreneur, it’s a pretty lonely existence when you have to make these types of decisions and are faced with this type of uncertainty,” said Eric Parker, a former manufacturing executive who mentors entrepreneurs and small business through SCORE Lancaster-Lebanon.
SCORE is a local non-profit dedicated to assisting existing small businesses, non-profits and new business start-ups. The Lancaster-Lebanon chapter has more than 80 certified mentors who are available for free mentoring. For more information, visit www.lancaster.score.org.
Kevin St. Cyr, the chairman of the Lancaster-Lebanon chapter of SCORE said the organization saw a big jump in requests for its free mentoring during their crisis as people tried to sort things out.
“This pandemic hit everybody, including the existing small businesses, square in the jaw,” he said.
Here are stories of how three of SCORE’s small business or nonprofit clients have been trying to manage during the coronavirus pandemic.
‘Apply for everything’
When Salon Enso was idled in mid-March, owner Darcy Taylor shifted from cutting hair and managing stylists to overseeing a slowly unfolding crisis that tested her ability to stay afloat.
“You don’t make a business plan with the prospect of being closed for three months,” said Taylor, who opened her East Hempfield Township salon in 2011.
Without money coming in, Taylor tapped some of her own cash reserves and negotiated rent forbearance with her landlord while seeking out federal, state and local grants and loans.
“My philosophy was to apply for everything and see what happens,” she said.
Taylor got a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan as well as grants and loans from the Small Business Administration while using healthy cash reserves to tide her over until paying customers can return.
In the meantime, Taylor has been sorting through some new best-practices for safely cutting hair by installing Plexiglas, removing waiting areas and spacing out stations in order to operate as safely as possible.
“Salons can’t social distance. You can’t get your hair done and be 6 feet apart,” she said.
Over the last three months, Taylor said she’s found herself having emotional responses to new problems, which led to educating herself on what to do, and then taking action.
“You just kind of kept repeating that cycle for all of the different little branches to this,” she said. “For me it has felt like a blink of the eye. For me, it went very quickly.”
‘Crash course in science’
After completing a major expansion last year that added new exhibits and a maker space, the Lancaster Science Factory was expecting good things for 2020.
“It’s tough because we were on track for a record year,” said Emily Landis, executive director of the nonprofit science museum in Lancaster city, which features hands-on interactive science displays for children in pre-K through eighth grade.
Forced to close in mid-March, the 18,000-square-foot facility only resumed limited summer camps in early June, with regular visitors not returning until Lancaster County moves into the green phase of Wolf’s reopening plan.
The Science Factory’s seven full-time and 12 part-time employees were immediately furloughed, although a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan allowed them to start working from home soon thereafter, populating the website with daily activities for remote learning.
While Landis says the free online tools were a useful way to stay in touch, they didn’t do anything to make up for the lost revenue from museum visits and programs. To help close an estimated $350,000 budget shortfall, the museum has launched a special fundraising effort that has so far brought in about $150,000. The museum has also applied for a federal grant through Recovery Lancaster, which is overseeing a $25 million grant program for small businesses.
For Landis, a silver lining to the financial blow from the coronavirus pandemic is a new appreciation for science and science careers promoted at the museum.
“We’re all getting a crash course in science,” Landis says. “Science is our guiding light these days.”
‘Forced to pivot’
A wedding and special events florist, Marla Bixler saw the demand for her services evaporate as large events were canceled and then prohibited by state mandate because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously that is at a standstill, so I was forced to pivot,” says Bixler, who has spent 25 years in the floral industry and now has her one-person Bixler Blooms from her home near Maytown.
With events put on hold, Bixler began promoting a flower delivery service, to which she soon began offering the option to customize with a song. Dubbed “Blooms and Tunes,” Bixler has serenaded some recipients of her flowers with a song, including ones crooned through a courtesy phone for nursing home residents.
“I don’t know anybody else that is doing that in the floral industry,” Bixler said.
In addition, Bixler is now selling flowers from a roadside stand at her house along Colebrook Road and has begun making and selling paper flowers through Etsy, an e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items and craft supplies.
Bixler says all of the changes may not last when her normal business resumes, but she thinks she’ll continue others, including the paper flowers she expects to offer as part of her weddings service.
And while she would have qualified for the expanded unemployment benefits for self-employed people with income reduced by the coronavirus pandemic, Bixler says she was more inclined to figure out alternative ways to make money.
“I was raised to just pull myself up by my bootstraps, and that’s just the direction I’ve gone,” she said.