Local businesses float in COVID’s wake

By ELIZABETH LEPRO
Posted 12/30/20

Note: This is part of a series of stories about how COVID-19 is changing the area, particularly as it relates to population increases around the Upper Delaware. 

REGION — Kristina …

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Local businesses float in COVID’s wake

Posted

Note: This is part of a series of stories about how COVID-19 is changing the area, particularly as it relates to population increases around the Upper Delaware. 

REGION — Kristina Smith, owner of the Callicoon Theater, did receive a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, meant to buoy small businesses like hers during the coronavirus lockdown. 

But that $6,000 was specifically designated for operations and payroll use—not very helpful for a business that has only been allowed to operate 10 days in the last nine months.  

“What am I going to do, just have people come in and mop the floors for no reason?” Smith said. “If it’s against the law for me to operate my business, how am I supposed to spend this free payroll money?”

Smith will end up paying most of the loan back. To keep from going under, she’s relied on a couple of private grants and, most notably, the support of her community. A GoFundMe she set up to support the theater has so far raised close to $24,000.

“If it weren’t for [the GoFundMe], there’s no way we would have made it this far,” she said. “Being able to reach out for help and get such great support from everybody has meant the world. It’s the single reason during this time that we are still paying our heating bill.” 

Nine months into the pandemic, Smith isn’t alone in this struggle. According to Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit data organization out of Harvard, the number of small businesses open in New York has decreased by nearly 24 percent over this time last year, but dropped by almost 44 percent in the leisure and hospitality industries. The numbers are similar in Pennsylvania. 

In Honesdale, PA, longtime locales such as Tick Tock’s Restaurant and Fiesta on Main have shuttered since COVID-19 hit the area.

At the same time, the Poconos and Catskills regions have flooded with potential new customers as city dwellers bought property on both sides of the Delaware in historic numbers this summer. The challenge for businesses that remain in operation is meeting these newcomers safely.

Take Meagher Ellis Law in Honesdale, PA, which deals largely with real estate law. After a period of being completely shut down, Matthew Meagher suddenly had to figure out how to facilitate a massive wave of property closings from his front porch. “We’ve had to get very creative,” he said. 

Meagher put an inbox and outbox on the deck where he could watch clients sign documents through his front window.

“I would call them and say, ‘Welcome to Wayne County,’” while looking out the window. He laughed, but noted, “it was very hard when we were totally remote... [an employee’s] home wasn’t set up to be able to function as a paralegal, and they’re in their basement trying to communicate.” 

Meagher made it work—what Smith thought she would be doing when New York initiated its Phase Four reopening plan, which allowed gyms, shopping malls and outdoor professional sports to resume with limited capacity. She was “devastated” when movie theaters weren’t included.

“It was like a hamster wheel—I would gear up for reopening in July and then I would gear up [again] and, finally, at this point, it’s like, get out of the prediction game,” she said. Smith was allowed to open the theater this October, but by then, it was “too little too late.” Less than two weeks later, the case count rose above the designated limit and forced another shutdown. 

“It’s definitely a range of experiences,” said Nicole Vallance Orbach, president of the Callicoon Business Association. She said shopowners have expressed immense gratitude for local residents who continue to shop and dine in the area. Many have increased their accessibility. Peck’s Market employees are working in overdrive, Spruce Home Goods has started offering more staples and the Callicoon Pantry—an organic, low-waste grocer that offers monthly memberships—has seen new signups every week. Its owners have ramped up their online offerings to meet the need.

“[For] a number of retailers, this definitely fast-tracked their development of their online presence, so now they are better set up to be able to take orders 24 hours a day,” Vallance Orbach said. “People are shifting their perceptions about how they can live and work. Once the pandemic is over, I think some of those transitions will continue.”  

While some long-standing small businesses struggle, the U.S. Census Bureau released an ironic statistic: a 30 percent increase in new business applications in Pennsylvania and New York in 2020 over the same period in 2019. 

One business in Callicoon, the newly opened Catskill Provisions Tasting Room, was born into this changed world.

“Their entire business model is based on how a food-related business can function in the middle of the pandemic,” Vallance Orbach said of the raw honey-based craft distillery and food company, which opened its tasting room officially in August.

Claire Marin and Cathy Leidersdorff had been growing the company for 10 years, supplying local restaurants with honey and syrup as well as building the spirit selection of the distillery. 

In March, just after being awarded gold-medal recognitions as a distiller, Marin was picturing a ribbon-cutting celebration replete with local press, friends and customers at Catskill Provision’s new tasting room in the old fire hall—formerly the Callicoon Brewery. 

“It was like silence. The music stopped completely,” she said when she realized none of that would be possible. 

“I wanted to share the news with everyone, I was so filled with gratitude and pride, [and] I had to tone down the message constantly,” Marin said, adding that she was conflicted. “How trivial does that seem when people are struggling so much and there’s so much unknown? It was such a moment of inner turmoil.” 

After opening with limited capacity in August, Marin felt confident. “I feel like we made it!” she said in an email. Catskill Provisions is a big space—enough room to space tables six feet apart. Business was buzzing—pun intended. But with virus rates rising again, Marin recently pivoted back to takeout.  

Smith, who has taken a part-time job at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance, is taking the pandemic month by month, waiting to reopen the Callicoon Theater but “no longer making promises.” 

She’s been in contact with local legislators, many of whom say lacking federal funds has limited their ability to give aid.

“I want New York to focus on the pandemic. I want the state to use whatever money it has to keep people alive,” she said, “but that’s another issue with the pipeline... You can’t very well go writing to your state senator saying ‘Can I have a couple thousand dollars to get through the winter?’ because there’s nothing.”

The coronavirus relief package includes more PPP funding and $15 billion in relief specifically for struggling movie theaters.  

“I’ve done so far what has felt right in the moment,” Smith said. “Every month, I kind of assess the situation and make the choices I need to make to kind of stretch the thing a little bit further.” 

How is the pandemic and population change in Wayne and Sullivan counties affecting you? 

Let us know: liz.lepro@gmail.com

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