WILLMAR — Local businesses said they are taking the proper safety precautions following Monday’s reopening of some Minnesota businesses and that they’re thankful for the customers they have received.
“We have a lot of our customers that we’ve known for a long time,” Tracy Hein, manager at Petersons Shoes in Willmar, said. “So it’s nice to see them and seems like people are very positive and they’re ready to get out and do things.”
Hein, who has worked at Petersons Shoes for the last 23 years, said they have been able to bring five of seven employees back to work, with plans on bringing back the other two.
Those employees are required to wear masks as are any customers who come in — the store will provide one if a customer doesn’t have one — and they’re sanitizing the store while practicing social distancing.
Many retailers were shut down for weeks by the state's stay-at-home orders to stem the spread of COVID-19. Some businesses were allowed to re-open Monday at 50 percent capacity and with a preparedness plan in place.
Dirks Furniture in Olivia happens to be one of the stores where social distancing comes naturally, according to owner Steve Dirks.
The store has a designated door for employees, as well as multiple doors for customers to enter and a single door for customers to exit so that they can separate themselves from incoming traffic, he said.
“It would be unusual for us in this environment to have more than five or six in our store, which is at about 23,000 square feet,” Dirks said.” So people can have space to themselves to browse and to shop.”
Dirks said the business has been following the Centers for Disease Control guidelines when it comes to cleaning the store and is allowing customers to make the decision about wearing masks.
“We all have masks and we advise the customer ahead of time that they can tell us how they want to be, if they want to wear a mask and or they’d like us to wear a mask,” Dirks said. “We do that at the request of the customer.”
Dirks said customers can also make an appointment with the store if they wish to be the only customer in the store during their shopping.
Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said his members have been working to put together preparedness plans so they can reopen and that both employees and customers expect businesses to do the best they can.
“They know if they don’t, customers will have the opportunity to do business elsewhere,” Warner wrote via email. “They are doing their best to make the best first impressions that they can as they reintroduce customers back to their place of business.”
The financial impact of the shutdown is still largely unknown at this point, but businesses are hopeful that they'll be able to recover, despite the ongoing pandemic.
“I think we’re very optimistic that customers will want to get back out into a safe environment,” Dirks said.
This sentiment was echoed by Warner who said he’s heard traffic is good and that, despite masks, there are smiles underneath.
“I’m hearing that customers are being patient and understanding as everyone tries to figure all of this out day by day. As we all know and have seen, the big box stores have been busy and the traffic heavy, and now that is filtering out to the local businesses too,” Warner said. “At the end of the day, we hope it all balances itself out as we slowly start to return and start experiencing the new normal.”
Dirks said his company, which has been around for 107 years, has faced hardships before.
“My grandfather got this business through the Depression,” Dirks said. “We have a complete set of books from 1936 saved and I went back and looked at that.”
Dirks appeared optimistic of a recovery, saying that the Depression was a different situation and our country was not as healthy or as responsive as it is now.
Part of that responsiveness has been the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which was signed into law April 24. Dirks Furniture received a loan that allowed them to keep their seven employees on the books.
“We have very experienced staff people here and very talented ones,” Dirks said. “So it was important to me that we keep all of them.”
Todd Paffrath, who runs Paffrath & Son Jewelers with his son Jeff in the Kandi Mall in Willmar, said he’s been taking appointments by phone and has not seen a lot of traffic in the mall. A lot of stores in the mall aren’t open yet.
“It’s been a quiet opening, but I think that’s what the governor wanted to have,” Paffrath said.
Paffrath said his employees are cautious about coming back. Selling jewelry requires a personal touch, according to Paffrath.
“They don’t want to come in and I can’t blame them,” Paffrath said. “This is a one-on-one business, it’s hard to sell an emotional item as jewelry and not be close.”
Petersons Shoes missed their busiest month, April, but Hein said a lot of their customers buy products that are necessities: Petersons offers medical fittings and sells work boots.
“We’ll just have to see how it goes for a bit and to compare it to last year, I don’t know if people will be a little hesitant or they'll be just more excited to get out,” Hein said. “We’re a destination, people have what they need in mind so they come here. We don’t have a lot of browsers per se, we have some but they’re here specifically for an item.”
Paffrath said they have established a loyal customer base after being in business for 95 years.
“Moving forward, I think we’ll be fine,” Paffrath said. “We have a large customer base to draw from and it makes a difference.”