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Local businesses work for normalcy after COVID shutdown

By Megan Stewart
For Lebanon Local

When Gov. Kate Brown signed into law her unprecedented executive order on March 23 to stop the spread of COVID-19, almost every Lebanon business, organization, or other entity felt the blow in one way or another.
For some, Oregon’s shutdown and cautious reopening measures have been, at a minimum, inconvenient. For most, the past three months have had a drastic effect on them financially. Regardless of where each Lebanon entity falls on the spectrum, however, they all have one thing in common: gratitude.
Dan Shaeffer, who co-owns Big Town Hero sandwich shop with his wife Linda, said he is especially grateful for his customers, who he said have made a “deliberate point” to come in and support their small business over the past couple of months.
During the initial shutdown, Shaeffer and his staff had to resort to only take-out orders, which caused their income to “immediately” plummet. While business did start to pick up as Oregon drew nearer to Phase 1 of its reopening process last month, Big Town Hero had lost about 70 to 75 percent of its sales over that interim. That’s because the pandemic had hit the restaurant’s main demographic just as hard: other small business owners in downtown Lebanon.

Jocelyn Peters sanitizes a table at Big Town Hero. With Phase 2 of the coronavirus recovery process under way, local businesses and churches are regaining momentum – or simply re-opening.
Photo by Megan Stewart

“It was more the fear of the unknown,” said Shaeffer. “You don’t know what lies ahead. It’s just the worry, like ‘if we don’t pick it up, this is going to be bad.’”
With Linn County now in Phase 2, the Shaeffers’ business has improved tremendously, to the point where their sales are almost as high as they were before the shutdown, he said.
“We’re blessed we were able to make it through.”
Unlike many businesses, Big Town Hero did not have to lay off any of its employees permanently, due to some of the staff members quitting before the shutdown. Shaeffer praised the “character” of the remaining staff, who all chose to start working again as soon as he needed them. They could have easily stayed on unemployment benefits, a decision he would have understood, he said.
Schaeffer described feeling “touched” by how many strangers came in, bought food, and asked him and his wife how they were doing during the shutdown. He said he thought many other small business owners have felt the same way.
And they do.
Nancy Pance, owner of Anytime Fitness gym, described her members as “understanding, supportive, and compassionate,” and lauded their responsibility in following the new social distancing and disinfecting protocols. Due to the decreased building capacity, members have even come up with a workout schedule among themselves to fairly share the gym. During the shutdown, some people decided to continue paying for a membership.
Like many other businesses, Pance opened up for Phase 1 on May 15. While the shutdown did affect her financially, Pance said she would have struggled more if the pandemic had hit before or during her business’s first year and a half. Fortunately, she said, this is her fifth year and things are much more financially stable than they would have been earlier.
And while Anytime Fitness is no longer open 24/7 and has had to hire more staff to monitor members to make sure they are obeying the rules, Pance said she “can’t complain because everyone’s going through it.” She said she is “happy just to be open.”
Donna Gandee, owner of Country Style Pet Salon, said that while she struggled financially during the shutdown, her clients have made a habit of “tipping above and beyond.”
The support and generosity she has received from customers is in stark contrast to what she endured during the shutdown, she said.
Unlike restaurants, which could still serve food safely through take-out, all salons had to close. As Gandee lives in the country, and thus far away from her customers, she wasn’t able to continue working inside her home, as some groomers had. Combined with her inability to work, and several failed attempts to garner a small business loan, Gandee’s situation left her “financially in a bind.”
After two months, she’d used up all her savings. In order to pay for her utilities, Gandee had to open her doors a week before Linn County’s official transition to Phase 1. If the shutdown had continued, she said, she would have had to permanently close shop and find a different job.
Once she reopened, however, business immediately took off, as many pets hadn’t received a proper bath or grooming since early March. She’s currently booked three weeks in advance, just like in pre-pandemic times.
How she runs her business in today’s climate isn’t much different from the past, either. She described Country Style Pet Salon as normally “running on Phase 1,” as pet owners never lingered after dropping and picking up their animals to begin with. She’s quite familiar with using masks, which she always wears anyway, when a dog she’s grooming is losing a lot of hair.
The transition back to work hasn’t been so smooth for every salon in Lebanon.
Melissa Barnard, the owner of Pearls and Curls, said that while she’s busy, her financial situation is not much better than it was during the shutdown.
To make ends meet, staff sold gift certificates that clients could redeem once the county reopened. While these measures kept Pearls and Curls employees afloat during the non-working months, the gift certificates now mean less income and longer hours. Additionally, many of her clients, who, like Big Town Hero’s customer base, are small business owners themselves, have reduced their appointments or spread them further apart.
During the shutdown, Barnard said, she didn’t receive unemployment benefits or any loans, and had to go through the hassle of switching banks just to apply for a PPE grant. Now, she isn’t just struggling financially, but also to acquire various hair products that, in the past, have not been scarce. She often gets shipments a week and a half late or has to drive long distances to purchase products from places that are typically “picked clean.”
Jenny Casey, owner of the Current Trends salon, said her own experience has been “pretty rough and pretty miserable.”
Like Pearls and Curls, Current Trends’ independent hair and nail contractors, who pay Casey rent for their small business’s spot in the building, sold gift certificates during the shutdown. Some even worked other jobs to make ends meet. Everyone in the building applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, but only around half have received anything so far, and even then only after Current Trends partially opened again.
“We were not ready for it [the pandemic],” said Casey, adding, “how could we be?”
Casey said most of the health regulations, such as sanitizing surfaces and tools, were already in place before the pandemic. The only new protocol includes wearing masks and changing aprons after every client.
Additionally, each independent contractor can only have one client in the building at a time, which severely limits their incomes. In the past, they could work on multiple clients at the same time, moving back and forth while they waited for color to sit or hair to dry.
While the pandemic has taken a financial toll on Casey, who owns her own building, she is thankful that she had savings, which sets her apart from other people during the crisis. She also noted that her clients have all been understanding and “no one is upset” with the inconvenient new measures.
Like salons, churches also had to completely close their doors during the shutdown. However, most local churches have been able to move their services online. The pandemic has also not stopped many members from continuing to give offerings.

Pastor Ken Fent from Lebanon First Assembly said the church is doing very well and that “the Lord has been good” and “people have been faithful in giving.” After watching their finances for the first month of the pandemic, the staff felt confident enough in their funds to execute a pre-pandemic plan to hire a youth pastor.
Lebanon First Assembly uploads services every week onto YouTube, or burns them onto DVDs that are dropped off at elderly people’s houses.
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which held their first online service on Good Friday, was set to hold services outside on the church’s property after Phase 2 began. Pastor Zane Matthew Ridings said that since there are no outdoor gathering limits, and he expects only 20 or 30 people to show up each week, the idea seems feasible for the next couple of weeks. He admits, however, that “it’s going to be experimental” and “it will be what it will be.”
Like Lebanon First Assembly, First Christian Church has received a lot of financial support from its members and, because the church doesn’t have any paid administrative staff, hasn’t had to let anyone go.
The main struggle they endured as a church body involves part of the congregation itself: the elderly population. Ridings said most people don’t ever talk or think about it, but the shutdown has been especially difficult for senior citizens, who tend to be more isolated in general.
He and the church have tried to reach out to them more regularly through “good old-fashioned phone calls and emails” and grocery runs, including “keeping them stocked with their favorite drinks.” Ridings said sometimes “the little stuff” is “the most important.”
Additionally, the soup kitchen, which has a “reciprocal relationship” with Lebanon First Assembly, lost its manager, Randy Peterson, to a heart attack on May 12. Since his death, volunteers in the community have stepped up to share the burden.
“That’s what a church is supposed to do,” said Ridings.
Overall, he said of the pandemic: “Church was never closed; it just had to move to different spaces for a time.”
For a while, the only space in use at Barsideous Brewing during the shutdown was the room set aside for making beer.
In the beginning, owner Bill Bartman and his three other partners tried to provide a food take-out service, in addition to brewing beer on Saturdays, but they eventually realized they wouldn’t break even if they persisted.
The money they made from the beer paid the utilities, but little else. Despite applying for three loans, the government gave them only one grant, which paid for just one month of rent. Bartman said they had to furlough all their employees. If the shutdown had continued for much longer, they feared “going under.”
Once they could reopen during Phase 1, however, Bartman said their business received a lot of community support, and they’ve since been able to hire back at least four employees.
Mark Johnson, who has bartended at Merlin’s Bar and Grill for two years, remembers watching Brown’s live executive order announcement on the TV with customers. Upon hearing the news, Johnson almost immediately filed for unemployment benefits and received it from the start. He said he’s “still hearing horror stories about people not getting any.”
Merlin’s opened back up exactly two months after Brown’s order, and Johnson was there from day one. Johnson said he found it “very difficult” not to work, as he’d been active his entire life. Before the shutdown, when he wasn’t working, he and some friends liked to ride their motorcycles to different bars and restaurants. After the closure, Johnson said he mostly hung out on the backroads by himself or did some yard work.
However, Johnson was appreciative for the financial boost he received from unemployment checks and the COVID-19 relief fund. He was able to give his daughter and her husband “a considerable chunk” to help them support their children, as well as fix parts on his motorcycle. He also tucked $2,000 away as a “safety net.”
Still, after going back to work, Johnson said Merlin’s is “quite a different place” now.
For instance, yellow tape covers the bar and other areas that don’t allow social distancing. The poker booths, which have always been popular, are heavily restricted and must be cleaned after every use. No one can play pool because the felt can’t be cleaned. The stage, once alive with band music, now stands empty.
Johnson and the other bartenders often must separate customers, even sometimes asking people to leave, due to social distancing violations. Merlin’s can’t even serve pork or beef as of now because of the “unreasonable” prices.
Even with all the frustrating new aspects of the job, Johnson said “it’s worth it” for him to give up his unemployment benefits and return to work. He said it was “tough not being able to see everyone” with whom he has built relationships over the past two years. Johnson also said he has “huge respect” for doctors and other essential workers, who need to wear masks for much longer than he and his co-workers do at the bar.
“We’re going to get through this,” he said.