Businesses cautiously optimistic during phase 3

Local leaders encouraged by low cases, concerned for future

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Rachel Hogancamp has lived in Ithaca for over 30 years and has owned her business, Rasa Spa, for nearly 15. While she’s seen Rasa grow significantly in that time - providing services in Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Aurora and elsewhere - everything changed when COVID-19 hit, shutting down the spa in mid-March.

“The only thing that we had to generate any revenue were if people purchased a gift card or if somebody wanted to buy something on our online boutique,” Hogancamp said. “We kept both of those things going the entire time, but ... we were doing less than 10% of our normal revenue.”

After a long three months of staff cuts and financial uncertainty, Hogancamp was finally able to reopen her business mid-June, when Tompkins County and the rest of the Southern Tier began phase three of the state’s New York Forward reopening plan.

On Friday, June 12, many area businesses breathed a similar sigh of relief, as restaurants, food services and personal care businesses joined the list of businesses allowed to reopen since initial shutdowns.

Just like when reopening began back in May, businesses who’ve reopened or expanded services thanks to phase three face a host of challenges navigating the “new normal,” but sources expressed that they’re hopeful for what’s to come.

Background

Thanks to phases two and three of the state’s reopening plan, retail businesses, restaurants, salons, spas and others have been able to reopen or expand for the first time since March shutdowns. Restaurants specifically got a big boost on June 4, when the state allowed outdoor seating. And phase three has allowed gatherings of up to 25 people.

Just as in phase one, phase two and three businesses have to adhere to certain public safety guidelines to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. To reopen, businesses have to study those guidelines and submit an affirmation to the state saying they plan to follow those guidelines. In addition, they have to create a safety plan and keep it on file.

Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order strengthening state enforcement during reopening, so businesses that violate these guidelines can face an immediate loss of their liquor license, where applicable, or shutdown.

Business reopening guidelines are available at forward.ny.gov. Additional local resources, like the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce (tompkinschamber.org), Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA, downtownithaca.com) and the Tompkins County Public Health Department (tompkinscountyny.gov/health), walk businesses through these guidelines and help residents know what to expect when frequenting their favorite businesses.

Visit our last reopening article for a more detailed description of these resources and guidelines.

Reality of reopening

Sources for this story reported that phase three has mostly meant an expansion of business all around the county, as many businesses had been able to operate in some capacity since last month.

“All businesses, whether they be retailers or restaurants, are coming back sort of at their own schedule,” DIA President Gary Ferguson said. “Some have taken their time and some have sort of staggered or transitioned back. But by far, most of our retail and food and beverage businesses are now back in business.”

Ports of New York Winery's Frédéric Bouché, who co-owns the business with his wife, Joanna Luks, said phase three was a welcome break from only offering pickup services.

“Phase three is back to ‘normal’ in the sense that we get a lot more calls than usual from people before they come,” he said. “They want to know what the situation is. But so far, we’ve had the normal amount of customers we have. So, it took just one weekend, not even, then it’s back to normal.”

Ports of NY set up signs and markings throughout the store to help with social distancing, partially aided by a redesign of the interior during the initial shutdowns.

Coltivare Director of Operations Jason Sidle has also been able to welcome people back into the business, implementing new practices to ensure the safety of everyone inside.

“Myself and our general manager are literally working every single night during dinner to be the people when you first walk in,” Sidle said. “We’re the ones that are greeting people, or the ones that will inform people of the rules and why we need to be followed.”

Sidle also expressed that having people back in the restaurant has created a new sense of optimism, a feeling shared by Nowhere Special Libations Parlor in Ithaca.

“It’s only been me here, so sitting in an empty bar for seven or eight hours a day only waiting for the phone to ring was a little disheartening,” owner James Dean said. “Just having now phase three where I can have someone sitting at the bar again and actually have a conversation with another human being face to face is just a complete change, which is nice.”

For businesses that haven’t been able to operate since March, the experience has been a little different. Cameron Ostmeier, general manager at La Tourelle Hotel, Bistro & Spa, said that while the hotel was dubbed an essential business back in March, August Moon Spa inside La Tourelle had to shut down completely. Understandably, then, phase three meant a huge change for the business.

“Phase three has been an interesting phenomenon for us because the hotel thrives on offering amenities,” he said. “And once we were able to offer the bistro and the spa, we were able to promote ourselves as a luxury hotel with these amenities again, instead of just a hotel.”

August Moon Spa, like some others in the county, chose to reopen gradually, opting to wait until a week into the new phase to open to the public again so the staff could better adjust to the many safety guidelines for personal care businesses.

Hogancamp, like La Tourelle, took care to prepare Rasa for new operations.

“It’s rare that we would have days on end that we could just get in here and clean and take things apart,” she said. “So, we took our time over these last couple of weeks leading up to us opening up to get into every nook and cranny and make sure we did everything we could.”

For the most part, business owners said that customers have been so glad to have the businesses reopened that they’re happy to comply with the new guidelines.

"I was asking a lot of our guests, ‘Would you be comfortable getting a massage while wearing a face mask the entire time?'” Ostmeier said. “And to my surprise and delight, most folks really wanted a massage so bad, it didn’t matter that they had to wear a mask."

Challenges & concerns

One of the larger challenges businesses faced in the most recent phases was simply meeting the guidelines set by the state. One of the state’s requirements for restaurants, for example, is that the inside can only be filled up to 50% capacity, so many restaurants are experimenting with expanded outdoor seating for the first time.

“It’s certainly still difficult to be operating in the scenario where you have limited total occupancy allowances, you have all these new policies and procedures in place, new supplies and equipment that you need, training and retraining of your workforce and then really figuring out how to set all of the appropriate customer expectations,” Tompkins Chamber President Jennifer Tavares said.

On the other side of that issue is a concern that consumers won’t properly follow the guidelines businesses have established, as Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer explained.

“People, I think that they’ll go back to the way things were last fall a little too quickly,” he said. “In Tompkins County in particular, we’re actually doing really well. … So, I can see why people are feeling like, well, maybe we don’t have to follow all these rules.”

And while, as mentioned earlier, consumers have been largely cooperative, it can still be a challenge for them.

“Especially dealing in the food and beverage industry, once people have a drink or two, everyone feels a little more comfortable,” Dean said. “So, they might forget to have the mask on. So, it’s just kind of a training period for people to really learn how to be in public.”

The county has created a poster to help businesses and consumers be on the same page as far as what to expect when they enter the business. As county Communications Director Dominick Recckio explained, the poster was created after consulting with the Tompkins Chamber, DIA, Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD) and others and has so far reached over 480 businesses.
Recckio stressed the importance of having the poster and otherwise creating safety plans that are clear to consumers.

“There’s a lot more businesses that exist in Tompkins County in those different industries that have reopened, and we need more businesses to go online and fill out the application form and create their reopening plans,” he said. “The affirmations are really important because they show well-researched industry guidance.”

The Ithaca Promise Campaign – a message and promise of commitment among the city of Ithaca, Tompkins Chamber, Local First Ithaca and the DIA – serves a similar purpose of helping downtown businesses establish a consensus between owner and consumer.

“Ithaca Promise is basically sort of an informal contract,” DIA Communications Manager Darlene Wilber said. “It lists out that as a business, here’s what we will do for you. … And then there is another part of it that says in return, here’s what we ask of you, the consumer.”

Sources said following those guidelines helps address another concern - businesses being shut down due to non-compliance complaints.

“What we don’t want to see is anyone, any type of business or organization, having any complaints filed against them,” Tavares said. “We don’t want anyone to have an unfortunate visit from either the Public Health Department or another agency that has to have a difficult conversation with them or ask them to close back down again.”

The above concerns are exactly why many area business owners have taken such care in preparing for reopening and following state and county guidelines, said DIA Business Outreach Coordinator Kristina Thelen.

“While people are excited, they’re also trying to take the proper precautions, and they really want to reopen safely and to do it at the pace that they feel comfortable with,” she said.

Aside from public health concerns is financial concerns. Many sources interviewed for this story said that complying with safety guidelines, while crucial for public health, can get expensive and can create a significant loss for a business.

“The constant cleaning, it is just extra money,” Sidle said. “We’ve actually hired somebody to literally be a cleaner during dinner service. So, they go and they constantly just do a giant loop of the facility. … And it is literally a six-and-a-half to seven-hour work shift in which that person is really just kind of going around and cleaning just anything people can touch.”

This financial strain is especially true for owners who are still waiting on federal aid, like Bouché.

“It’s just incredibly sluggish,” he said. “In our case, nothing has happened. So, it’s very frustrating and for us, we are so small that basically we survive or we don’t, period. Taking huge loans to survive is not always a solution.”

Strategies

By far, sources said the best way to ensure a smooth reopening is for residents - both business owners and consumers - to continue to follow health guidelines outlined by the state and the county and to be patient with each other.

“We can open up business, we can do it safely, and we can protect the public,” said Senior Public Health Sanitarian Skip Parr. “So, we just need to remain steadfast in wearing masks and putting into place some precautions to ensure that we continue to operate in a safe fashion to keep our numbers down.”

County leaders are also adjusting practices to help area restaurants accommodate more outdoor seating. In Trumansburg, for example, village administration amended regulations on June 22 to allow for more seating outside. And in the city of Ithaca, Mayor Svante Myrick announced the city will be closing the 100 block of North Aurora Street to vehicular traffic starting on Thursday, June 25, so businesses can use that block for seating.

For residents, sources said the best way to support local businesses is simply to patronize them - eat out at your favorite restaurant or schedule that long-awaited haircut. Thelen added that residents should make sure they’re only doing what they’re comfortable with.

“Downtown businesses are there for them. They are willing to do whatever the customer is comfortable doing at this point,” she said. “You can shop local online if you don’t feel comfortable with being downtown for whatever reason. We’re not going to ask you to go outside of your personal comfort level.”

Above all, sources said that the best path forward is one where everyone supports each other through these challenging times.

“More than ever, it’s important that we work together as a community, lifting each other up, sharing information, having empathy and compassion for the strain that we’ve all been under and really helping everyone navigate this new environment,” Legislator Anna Kelles said.

Looking to the future

As reopening proceeds and the county heads toward phase four, many sources expressed optimism for what’s to come. Most, like Dean, hope that the county’s success will carry on well into the future.

“When we opened back up, we opened up for the right reasons because the numbers were there, not because we were just tired,” Dean said. “So, I’m hoping that because we opened up for the right reasons, we can continue moving forward, do it safely and responsibly, so hopefully we can stay open.”

Phase four includes education and entertainment, both sectors that will bring lots of people back into the county, whether for college or leisure activities. As such, sources are hoping that phase, when it arrives to the county, is handled just as carefully as previous phases.

“Because [students] are going to come back from all over the country and sometimes all different parts of the world, whether or not we really get a second wave in a second depends on what the students do,” Leifer said. “And as long as they’re prepared to cooperate, I think we’ll be fine.”

And for many sectors, COVID-19 has created an opportunity to rethink business practices and possibly create better systems to outlast the pandemic, as TCAD President Heather McDaniel described.

“We’re starting to move from emergency response and into recovery,” she said. “We’re starting to, with our partners, talk about planning for that longer-term recovery period and how we might be able to capitalize on some opportunities or address some challenges as time goes on.”

Conclusion

Overall, sources said they are appreciative not only of the arrival of phase three but also for the cooperation of the county and residents to work to prevent new spikes of COVID-19. Many leaders have seen the county’s response to reopening and have been impressed by businesses and residents alike.

“Businesses are essentially having to reinvent their entire business model,” Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart said. “And I think they’ve done a tremendous job. And it shows how adaptable people can be and how business owners, entrepreneurs, by nature tend to be people who can adjust.”

Parr shared that sentiment.

“This has been a community effort,” Parr said. “The community as a whole has really responded in a way that it has led to us keeping the infection rate down. And it’s just a testament to how resilient that this community is.”

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