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Small business owners face challenges reopening

Since mid-March, Kim Wherley, owner of the two Lion in the Sun Tanning Salon locations in Fairmont, has worried whether she could keep the lights on at her businesses.

It wasn’t until May 13, that she learned the state was going to let her reopen her two tanning salons this week. Despite the good news from Gov. Jim Justice’s office, she’s worried about making up for the lost revenue. Half of her income comes from March, April and May.

“It’s been hard on all small businesses,” said Wherley, who has struggled to pay rent and utility bills during the time she has been closed.

“I’ve cut expenses and the landlords have been gracious,” she said.

But being closed for nine weeks and now being able to open in less than a week has left Wherley with a myriad of emotions, especially since she has been in business for 26 years.

“I am mad, hurt and upset,” she said. “This is my livelihood. I educate people to tan smart. It has been frustrating because we all want to be open.”

Welcome to the new reality. Small businesses want to be fully open, yet no one wants to come down with COVID-19. In response, some businesses have either changed how they operate or found new revenue streams.

Lefty’s Place on Burroughs Street in Morgantown, for example, is offering curb side service and reduced its hours. Sparkle Janitorial Services ramped up production of its hand sanitizer and City Neon segued into the production of sneeze guards.

It’s all about survival and entrepreneurship, said Russ Rogerson, president of the Morgantown Area Partnership, a consortium of 450 area businesses.

“For small businesses in particular, there is a great deal of unknowns,” Rogerson said.

“Our job is to make lemonade from lemons.”

When the state closed down in March, Stephanie Swaim, owner of Hoot and Howl on Walnut Street in downtown Morgantown, said she immediately moved the contents of her gift shop online. In addition, she offered customers pick-up, local delivery and shipping.

Swaim said her store is doing all right and doesn’t plan to reopen until the end of this month. She also did not apply for any financial aid from the federal government because she didn’t need it.

“It has been a different kind of challenge and a true learning experience,” said Swaim, who has been able to sustain her shop through online sales. “It has not been easy and some days are harder than others. I miss so many friendly faces and chatting with my regulars. Still, I try to keep the same mindset as I did when we were open; stay positive and community focused.”

Dale Sparks, West Virginia University’s full-time sports photographer, owns ALL-PRO Framing & Photography in the Chestnut Ridge Professional Building. He said the business lost about 75% of its income during the statewide shutdown.

“Not knowing when sports will return makes the future quite uncertain,” he said. “However, we have a great custom-framing business that is helping to pay some, but not all of the bills.”

Unlike Swaim, Sparks said he got some financial assistance from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

“We still will need more local support to be able to keep our doors open and staff employed,” Sparks said in an email. “The PPP money is a very short-term fix.”

In the interim, Sparks said he is allowing one customer at a time into his showroom and has made a waiting area outside the door. After a person leaves the showroom, the inside is cleaned and sanitized, he said.

Sparks said one lesson learned from the shutdown is to be better prepared financially.

“We will be setting aside more cash reserves for a rainy day,” he said. “I would also say I have learned that relationships are more important than material things. Our relationships with our customers have proved to be very important. They have continued to support us during this unprecedented time. I am confident God will see me and my business through this pandemic and makes us stronger and even more prosperous.”

Eloquence Antiques & Artisans owner April Black reopened earlier this month in her new location in the Mountaineer Mall.

“We have established a mandatory mask rule for all customers to ensure their safety,” Black said. “We also routinely clean surfaces in the store multiple times per day. While we were closed, we received many supportive messages from residents of the community letting us know they couldn’t wait to shop with us again.”

Malls are not opened, but stores with outside entrances — such as Eloquence Antiques — can open through the doors.

Laurie Nugent, one of the owners of Appalachian Gallery on Walnut Street, said she has not yet sure when the public will be allowed back inside the gallery. In the interim, she is taking orders by phone, social media and email while the storefront is closed. Nugent said the business received “limited” financial assistance from the federal government.

“We found we can still keep the business operational to some degree without being physically open,” she said. “We are looking into the possibility of selling some work online.”

Hoot and Howl’s Swaim said she is conflicted about the state opening more businesses and wonders if it may be too soon.

“I am relieved things are moving along again,” she said. “But, I am not naïve to the fact that our state is surrounded by others with continuously growing numbers and there is still a lot we don’t know about the virus.”

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