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Businesses look ahead to reopening

Vehicles travel on Broadway, Saranac Lake, Friday afternoon. Although area streets may not be as busy as they have been in the past as warmer weather entices more people outdoors at this time of year, traffic and activity appear to be picking up somewhat. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

North Country businesses are preparing for Phase 1 of the state’s plan to open regions of economies amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some are celebrating, some are struggling, and some say that even if the state gives them the green light to reopen, they will not be able to yet.

As long as the region keeps keeps meeting state criteria for keeping the new coronavirus in check, it will graduate to a new phase every two weeks, allowing more businesses to open and returning life to a more normal state.

However, if infections spike again, the region will return to the restrictions of the “New York State on PAUSE” orders.

Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, sits on the North Country Regional Control Room, along with other officials including the chairs of seven county boards. That task force will monitor statistics with state officials every day and determine what progress, or backsliding, the region is making.

McKenna said this will be done by taking an average all seven counties, so if one region sees more infection, that does not necessarily mean the “PAUSE” will be reinstated yet.

If all goes well, the North Country should reach Phase 4 by June 26 at the earliest. Building residents’ confidence in returning to the “new normal,” though, is a different matter, according to McKenna.

During an online meeting about reopening, hosted by the town of Keene on Thursday, McKenna said business owners have to read guidelines found on forward.ny.gov for their specific industry and digitally affirm they have read them before they can reopen. Then they will have to fill out templates and post them for the public and state Department of Health staff to see.

“Christmas morning”

Sarah Galvin, who co-owns the Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid with her husband Marc, said the last couple weeks have been “a lot” as the two of them were the only ones working in the store.

Starting in early March, their staff of around 11 began shrinking. Some employees who were at risk for COVID-19 took an offer to be let go. Then the state said only one person could work at non-essential businesses, which includes bookstores.

Sarah said they still had bills to pay, so for the past few weeks the Galvins have taken turns being the only one working in the shop, only taking Easter and Mother’s Day off. Sarah was excited to bring back an employee Friday.

“I really felt like it was Christmas morning this morning, being able to have an employee come back to the store,” she said.

Even with two employees, they are very busy.

Shopping for books is usually a very physical experience, with readers wandering between the store’s shelves, browsing. Sarah said this has all had to move online, and they’ve developed some unique ways of bringing the book-browsing experience to customers’ web browsers.

She’s shown a customer around the arts supplies on a Facetime call, sent inquiring readers pictures of the shelves and taken orders over text message.

All orders need to be collected by the employee and delivered to the front of the store, where customers pick them up. Sarah said this means each transaction takes at least twice as long.

She’s enjoyed her time working this way, though,

“We made some really nice friendships with people that we wouldn’t have made typically, because we’re typically in the back room,” Sarah said.

She said sales have been down around 50%, which is a “struggle” for the store.

April and May are usually their quiet season, she said, but they are also usually hiring more summer help now. And while they don’t have much help right now, Sarah said she is grateful for what they have.

“We really wake up each morning, drink our cup of tea and take it one day at a time,” she said.

Brewery may wait

Mark Jessie, who co-owns Raquette River Brewing in Tupper Lake, said he is making plans to open when Phase 3 comes around, which allows for restaurants and bars. The soonest that could come is June 12.

However, he is not sure if it will be worth it to reopen the beer hall right away, as he said reopening amid an ongoing effort to reduce the spread of the virus may require more workers than he can afford to hire. He initially had to lay off most of the staff when all restaurants were ordered to switch to take-out or delivery, but he said five employees are back at work.

However, the business would need a lot more workers to open, as they would need to provide table service, bathroom disinfection once a hour and curbside service, on top of their normal duties. Jessie estimated this would take triple the employees.

They would need to enforce social distancing within the beer hall, too, which would be difficult because it is usually a social location.

“It’s hard to imagine trying to keep a hundred or a couple hundred people social distancing all day, staying in their seats and not moving tables around,” Jessie said.

For now, Jessie said the brewery is focusing on beer-to-go sales, increasing its canning capability and shipping beer wholesale to convenience stores.

Theater trouble

Sally Strasser, who owns the State Theater in Tupper Lake, said though movie theaters are set to open in the last phase — which could feasibly be reached by late June if infection numbers stay low — she will not be able to show any new movies until at least late July, as the movie industry has stalled releasing first-run films until then.

Strasser said there had been concern in the cinema community that flicks would start being debuted on streaming platforms before theaters, but major companies decided to hold their biggest films until they can be shown on the big screen again.

Until then, she does not have much to show. Some independent movie companies have been partnering with theaters, allowing them to receive a portion of streaming revenue, and Strasser said old movies and documentaries are being circulated. However, she said these are not sure-thing audience attractions in Tupper Lake.

She said when the theater reopens it will start with limited seating, online ticket purchasing and regular disinfection.

“I don’t want to be the cause of anybody getting sick,” she said. “I would never forgive myself for that.”

Strasser said she may do a pop-up popcorn sale soon, to give families movie-theater popcorn they can eat at home and bring in a bit of revenue for the theater.

She is currently paying bills out of her own pocket, she said.

“All those bills are still coming,” Strasser said. “It’s not good.”

Strasser said she has applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan — which helps employers keep employees on their payroll when they’re not open due to the virus — but hasn’t heard anything back from the government.

At this point she said she’s not even sure she would be able to use the funds if they came in. She had to furlough her one employee, a full-time manager, after the cinema was closed for a bit.

“I feel bad,” Strasser said. “I really value him. He’s a really good employee.”

She said she kept him on health care but couldn’t keep paying his wages.

If PPP money came in, she would have to spend it within two months, and she said she likely won’t be open before then.

Strasser said the federal government should extend the time limit on when the PPP loans need to be distributed to employees so businesses like hers can still use it.

Champagne celebrations

Tim Robinson, who owns Terry Robards Wine & Spirits in Lake Placid, has been busy for the past 61 days. His shop, deemed essential, has been open this whole time.

Some of his employees who were laid off are not able to come back yet, as they are vulnerable to the virus, so Robinson has been working long days as business has been as busy as ever.

He said there was a bit of a rush on champagne late this week, and he said some customers were buying the “bubbly” to celebrate returning to work.

Robinson said many of the town’s seasonal residents, who usually only vacation in the Adirondacks for a few months a year, came early, so he is seeing “July and August numbers” of customers instead of April and May numbers.

Robinson said store staples like wine tastings will have to hold off for now, but he is looking to make new hires as the area gets back to the “new normal.”

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