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State College Businesses Brace for Uncertain Times

by on March 13, 2020 8:57 PM

Downtown State College was relatively quiet this week, a typical atmosphere for this time of year when Penn State students and faculty are on spring break. In years past, things would start to pick up again by the weekend as students returned and the normal routine resumed.

But these are not normal times and, as concerns about the novel coronavirus pandemic grow, State College businesses are faced with uncertainty about what's to come.

On Wednesday, Penn State announced it was suspending in-person classes and moving to online instruction for at least three weeks, urging students not to return to campus or their local apartments. Events and activities of all kinds around the region have also been postponed or canceled.

Every local business owner and manager StateCollege.com spoke to this week said they understood the university's decision — one made by colleges all over the country — and that their chief concern is for the community's well being.

But many are also left wondering what is about to happen with an unexpected absence of regular customers and visitors.

"The unknown is scary, so we’re just trying to figure out how to react to make sure we’re doing what’s right for the community and all of our employees," said Curtis Shulman, director of operations for Hotel State College, which owns the Corner Room, Spats at the Grill, Bill Pickle’s Tap Room, Zeno’s Pub, the Basement Nightspot and Chumley’s.

"Financially speaking it’s fairly devastating. There’s definitely going to be a lot of lives impacted by this financially, on the employee side locally. I’m not sure all businesses in town will have the wherewithal to stay open if this were to push through [beyond early April] and basically create seven months of summer. We’re seasonal businesses in downtown State College so when you take away most of our customer base, it’s a challenge."

Like Shulman, Dante Lucchesi, manager of Champs Downtown, 139 S. Allen St., said with circumstances continuing to change, it's difficult to predict how much business will be impacted.

Part of that stems from whether or not Penn State students who live off-campus will stay at home or return to their local residences.

"We’re proceeding with caution. We really don’t know what it will do for our business, because we think a lot of kids who live off campus, especially the upperclassmen, they’re going to come back," Lucchesi said. "We’ve already had a lot of students reach out to us on our social media asking if we’re going to be open. We’re not 100 percent sure what it will do as far as our student business goes.

"Certainly we will be affected by the general tourism of State College, the people that come to town for sporting events on the weekends. That’s obviously not going to be there."

Elaine Meder-Wilgus, owner of Webster's Bookstore Cafe, 133 E. Beaver Ave., said she expects a decrease in business and is working to reduce the impact on her employees.

"I feel it’s imperative that we flatten the curve [of spikes in COVID-19 cases] and part of that is reducing contact, maintaining a distance between all of ourselves, washing our hands, not touching our faces," she said. "And closing the campus is the right decision, as much as the hardship is going to be felt."

Employee Concerns

Webster's is planning to maintain its spring break hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. over the coming weeks, but Meder-Wilgus wants to lessen the financial burden on her employees who would be most affected by a reduction in hours.

"We’re doing what we can to keep full-time people staffed at full-time," she said. "We’re taking it week by week and really making the choices to keep people working who would have the greatest hardship if they weren’t working."

Shulman said the Hotel State College businesses plan to keep regular hours and give employees as many work hours as they can. Lucchesi added that he's kept in mind that people will still have bills to pay.

"Life is still going on and regardless of what’s happening with this outbreak there are still mortgages to be paid, still rent to be paid, still tuition to be paid," he said. "I have had talks with some of our staff, at the beginning of the week before everything was canceled, and I do have a couple of employees that have been putting away money just in case we had to shut down at all. We’re trying to keep perspective throughout all of this and think of everyone involved."

There's also the matter of student employees. JP Mills, director of Dante's Restaurants and Nightlife, said that students not returning for three weeks or longer will be a challenge for his company's businesses and others in town.

"Many retail and service industry businesses have already faced constant challenges this past school year with filling many of the needed positions, especially downtown locations," Mills said. "We rely on students to fill many of those positions. Their absence makes it even more difficult, but we are resilient.  We will take each day as it comes and hopefully adjust accordingly."

Lions Pride, 112 E. College Ave., has a mix of student employees who live locally and out of town, said Danielle Stemple, assistant manager and marketing communications director.

"The majority of our student employees that live out of town won’t be returning obviously until Penn State makes a decision as to when students will return," Stemple said. "Our local employees are sort of trickling back in from spring break and do plan on working."

Lucchesi said it's important to remain flexible in these unique circumstances.

"We’ve reached out and are still trying to contact everyone," he said. "We’re being extremely flexible with everyone, saying, ‘Hey are you coming back, and if you are are you available and willing to work? If not that’s fine. If you’re not coming back that’s fine.'

"We’re just being as flexible as we can. Just throughout this pandemic we’re just controlling what we can control. We’re kind of scrambling right now just to put together staffing for next week, but we have a fantastic staff."

At Freeze-Thaw Cycles, 109 S. Allen St., it's a bit of a different situation from some other downtown businesses, with the bicycle shop comprised of five career employees and not as reliant on student and visitor traffic. Co-owner Justin Wagner said the shop will provide paid sick time for any employees who need it.

"If anyone is feeling sick they’re not coming in and we’ll pay them," Wagner said. "A big barrier is people have to go to their job. They have to feed their families; they have to pay their bills. We have a five-person operation here. We can handle if one or two people get sick. We can even shut down for a little bit. We’re not going to risk people’s safety for that."


Photo by Geoff Rushton | StateCollege.com

Varied Effects

At Barefoot, 130 E. College Ave., manager Alex Burdette said it's been a typically slow spring break week and he expects that to continue over the coming weeks there and at its sister stores, People's Nation, 126 E. College Ave., and Metro, 320 E. College Ave.

Burdette said the store will continue with reduced hours, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. He also expects Metro, where business has been slower, will be closed a few days a week.

Doggie's Pub, 108 S. Pugh St., expects an impact but is planning to stay open.

"At this time we anticipate staying open," co-owner Kelley Trosko said. "We do see there will be an impact and we are literally taking one day at a time."

Cafe 210 West, 210 W. College Ave., is planning to stay open normal hours, but is postponing "55 Days of Cafe," a tradition among Penn State students to finish off the spring semester by going to the bar and restaurant on 55 consecutive days.

Champs has contingency plans for all of its programming for the remainder of the spring semester, Lucchesi said.

"Right now we plan to continue with all of our programming, but everything has a contingency plan in case things worsen and if things shut down further," he said.

Stemple said Lions Pride management has discussed how to proceed and is also planning to keep regular hours.

"Right now we are planning to stay open during our normal business hours," she said. "While we are concerned about the impact to the local economy, obviously the health of everyone that this is impacting is first and foremost on our minds."

With events being canceled around Centre County, Lion Country Lodging — which in State College operates Carnegie Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Days Inn, Quality Inn, Nittany Budget Motel and Super 8 — is allowing guests to change or cancel reservations without penalty through the end of March.

"Our properties understand that you may need to change your travel arrangements and we stand ready to assist in rebooking your reservations," Chief Operating Officer Edward Tubbs wrote in a letter to customers. "Any reservations between today and the end of March may be changed or cancelled without penalties. We will have further guidance on future dates as the situation continues to develop."

Mills, who emphasized community health and safety is the top priority for his company's businesses, said the service industry downtown is especially reliant on Penn State's economic influence and that each of Dante's establishments likely will be affected in different ways.

"Venues such as Bar Bleu, The Saloon, and The Hopshop Beer Market are very much student driven. The impact to those locations is enormous. No students means very few customers," Mills said. "Liberty Craft House and HiWay Pizza Pub Downtown will significantly be affected, but we will work to encourage visits at those two locations from local residents and others that are still here who happen to work or live downtown. 

"HiWay Pizza Pubs West and North will still see very significant effects, especially with take-out and delivery as these options are very popular with students through third-party ordering platforms. The greater challenge we face at those two locations will arise from the social distancing we are experiencing as a community living in the day-to-day of this pandemic."

Health and Safety at the Forefront

For food and drink establishments, redoubling cleaning and sanitation efforts has become paramount amid growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

"We have been thinking and preparing for over a week now with new policies, procedures and training...," Mills said. "We are also actively working on several different creative ideas to continue to provide our customers with food and drink experiences with health and safety in mind during these turbulent times."

In a letter to customers this week, Dante's outlined a number of additional procedures its restaurants are undertaking beyond normal cleaning protocols. They include twice sanitizing tables, wiping down when one party leaves and again when the next party is seated. Silverware will be wrapped in banded napkins and stored in closed drawers until customers are seated. Communal items like salt and pepper shakers will be wiped down in between customer use. Customers will be seated at suggested distances whenever possible. And there will be even more frequent checks of bathrooms for adequate soap and water and frequent wiping down of touch-points throughout the establishments.

The restaurants also are prepared to modify operations if needed, though any potential disruptions — like limited seating or moving to mobile/phone-only pickup and delivery options — would be brief.

Wings Over Happy Valley, 244 W. Hamilton Ave., is only serving via delivery, pickup or takeout and all orders must be prepaid by phone or online. Delivery drivers will wear new gloves for every delivery and orders will be in a tied bag.

Meder-Wilgus said Webster's is adjusting its protocols and making changes to its food service.

"As an example, our buffet will not be a buffet but we will be doing plates to order," she said. "It will still be all you can eat but we’re not doing the open buffet so people aren’t touching tongs and things like that."

Lucchesi said Champs is being proactive to make the environment as safe as possible for customers and staff.

"We ordered and have in now a peroxide-based sanitizer that’s safe on every surface," he said. "We also have hand sanitizer stations that have been ordered. We’re trying to proceed with business pretty much as usual but we’re taking as many precautions as we can to keep it as safe an environment as possible for everybody."

Shulman said that while cleaning has always been a priority for Hotel State College businesses, "more than ever we’re going to put that on the front burner, whether that be wiping down our check presenters more, wiping down our point of sales more, handles, doorknobs, everything.

"We’re definitely going to go beyond the normal scope of acceptable to make sure people are comfortable and confident they can come here and take a break from the everyday stress that’s going on around us with this pandemic," he said.

Sanitation is also priority for non-food businesses like Freeze-Thaw Cycles.

"We’re going to be operating pretty much business as usual, but with more hand-washing and asking folks not to come in if they’re feeling poorly. Hopefully they understand that," Wagner said. "We touch people’s handlebar grips all day long, their bike seats and we take their money. That’s like three of the dirtiest  things you can touch. Two contact points on a bike where you’re dirty or sweaty and then currency, so we’re spraying our hands down constantly. We work with a lot of different chemicals so we’re constantly cleaning our hands anyway but we’re upping the safety factor."

Lost Weekend

Though the decrease in business over the next several weeks will be hard, perhaps even more concerning for many downtown businesses is the cancelation of Penn State's Blue-White game, the annual spring football game that was scheduled for April 18.

"Spring break, plus three weeks of no classes, plus no Blue-White weekend, it’s extremely damaging for our downtown locations," Mills said. "I often say we operate like a beach town, but in reverse. We rely on seasons and large events to help us bank money to even things out over the course of a fiscal year. The home Penn State football games fuel us through the fall and supply needed revenue for the winter and bumps like Blue-White weekend and Arts Fest help us make it through the spring and summer."

Shulman said that the Blue-White game is one of the four biggest weekends of the year for Hotel State College.

"On the financial side, 25 percent of our revenue typically is from eight to 10 key weeks throughout the year. This is one of them," Shulman said. "It’s a struggle when you’re going into summertime. Cash flow is the name of the game in this business. We’re trying to survive slow summers, and then we have a huge revenue opportunity that’s out the door. We have a lot of employees that rely on that tip money. It’s a big weekend for them, so that’s a sad thing."

Blue-White weekend is important to Lions Pride, but Stemple said the store has been preparing in case it was canceled.

"The Blue White game is always an important part of our spring business, as I’m sure it is for most of the businesses in downtown State College," she said on Thursday prior to the announcement of the cancelation. "Right now we want to focus on the health and safety of the community as a whole. If canceling that keeps people safe and healthy, that is what is most important to us. Right now we’re reviewing our inventory and making buying decisions so that we’re not impacted greatly when the decision for that game is made."

Lucchesi added that most downtown businesses will likely feel the pinch from the cancelation.

"That’s going to be the big economic impact for everybody in town," Lucchesi said. "That’s the one real moneymaking weekend of the spring and that’s going to be tough for a lot of businesses. But like I said, we control what we can control, like everyone going through it."

The Hotel State College businesses on the corner of South Allen Street and West College Avenue. StateCollege.com file photo

"Position of Positivity"

Despite the uncertainty, business owners are trying to keep an upbeat outlook and do what they can themselves to help the community.

"It’s going to be a challenge," Shulman said. "I’m hoping in some capacity we can help people through. I don’t know how our role is going to fill in that gap yet but I’m definitely hoping we can be, it’s corny, but a beacon of hope and provide some relief to people in some capacity."

Meder-Wilgus said she and her chefs at Webster's are working on identifying some people nearby who may need meals brought to them, such as residents at the senior-living apartments in Addison Court across the street.

"We’re taking it day by day and recognizing that as bad as it may seem on an economic level, the impact of a widespread spike in this infection is something none of us want to see," she said.

She also noted that the Penn State Graduate and Professional Student Association and Coalition of Graduate Employees are coordinating assistance for students and community members in need of food, housing and other resources. Those with a need can fill out the form here, and those who can offer assistance can fill out this form.

Maine Bay & Berry, 201 Elmwood Street in Lemont, is offering free delivery service to customers over 60 or who have chronic health conditions — the two populations most vulnerable to severe effects of COVID-19.

"In general, we are not designed to be a seafood delivery company but given the current situation, we’re very focused on getting nutritious food out to our customers who are at risk and need it most," owners Christa Stofferahn and Shaun Knight wrote in a post on the store's Facebook page. "While we will openly admit this service will be an unrecovered expenditure on our end, it’s the least we can do to support those who have so greatly supported us."

The Wings Over chain is also providing free meals daily to K-12 students during school closures, including at its State College location.

And not all downtown businesses, meanwhile, are anticipating a significant downturn. Wagner said he empathizes with businesses that rely on students and visitors, but he is not expecting Freeze-Thaw Cycles to be hit as hard.

"The spring is a pretty good time for us with the weather and people getting out. We’re just going to hope that they still want to do that," Wagner said. "If anything that may be a good activity – get out in the woods or out in the country riding a bike instead of being around a bunch of people. We’re optimistic. We’re cautious, but we’re optimistic."

Shulman also remains hopeful about the Hotel State College businesses for the coming weeks.

"We’re trying to stay in a position of positivity," he said. "There’s a lot to be determined yet. The unknown is scary for everyone. We hope we have plenty of visitors. We’re going to make sure we have the safest environment we can and hopefully through all this we can at least deliver some smiles along the way."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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