By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — As Luzerne County, the nation and the world inches out of the coronavirus pandemic, the struggle to return to business as usual continues.
“If you had wanted to design something to destroy all dining, social and entertainment — all things people enjoy doing together — you couldn’t have designed something better than the coronavirus,” said Larry Newman, executive director at the Diamond City partnership in Downtown Wilkes-Barre.
The real issue is not reopening businesses, but how do those businesses accomplish one major stumbling block — restoring the public’s confidence to enter the doors without fear.
So how do we get to that level of comfort?
Newman was quick to note that he is a planner, and not an infectious disease expert.
“No doubt, the public health concerns are driving this recovery,” Newman said. “If people themselves don’t feel comfortable, they aren’t going to come back anytime soon.”
Newman said no matter what stage we are at in Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, some things are going to stay with us in this “new normal.” People will continue to wear protective masks and gloves, they will carry hand sanitizer everywhere they go and they will keep at least six feet away from others.
To that end, Newman said businesses are doing all they can to give customers a comfort level.
“We know that outdoors is better than indoors at this time,” Newman said. “And small groups are better than large crowds. The challenge is shaping peoples’ behavior and providing that level of comfort.”
But as Luzerne County exists in the yellow phase and approaches the green phase, popular venues like Movies 14, the F.M. Kirby Center and Mohegan Sun Arena remain shut to the public. And restaurants can only offer outdoor dining or take-out service.
“That leaves us in this sort of Twilight Zone — normal but really not normal,” Newman said.
Adding to the dilemma is the loss/reduction of household income, leaving less disposable income to spend in the community.
“I wish I had more optimistic answers,” Newman said. “But we can’t control what has happened. All we can control is our response and work to come up with innovative ways to adjust.”
Assessing the situation
Newman said because Luzerne County only entered the yellow phase on May 29, not enough time has yet passed for business owners to assess their sales.
“It’s simply too early to see trends,” Newman said. “Additionally, many businesses that received PPP, CWCA, or other public emergency loans are still utilizing those funds for their operations as they wait for consumer spending to increase.”
And while the anecdotes that Newman has received from individual businesses are positive, what he is hearing varies from business to business.
“With that said, a number of small retailers are embracing online marketing and sales to an extent they had not done before,” Newman said. “Of the sample of 14 small businesses who responded to the Main Street America survey in April, 70% had no online presence prior to the pandemic. An online presence is now vital for them, because walk-in traffic is still very slow.”
Newman said he has not heard from any retailers who have had difficulty with the social distancing guidelines — they’ve all modified their sales counters and traffic areas to accommodate those needs. He said everyone is being flexible and making adjustments as needed.
In general, Newman said customer traffic on downtown sidewalks will remain light until more of the major office users begin to return — and that is not likely to occur until July at the earliest. Many offices are taking a slow and measured approach to returning, and that will continue to tamp down walk-in traffic.
Boscov’s — which is a destination unto itself — reported very strong sales during the first days of its reopening, Newman said.
Newman said he has been encouraging all of downtown’s businesses to utilize the resources on the “Luzerne County Ready” website, where they can source PPE, obtain state reopening guidelines, and take the “Luzerne County Ready” pledge, which functions as a “seal of approval” telling the public that a business is doing what it should to keep its customers and employees safe.
“As far as closures go, one thing I know for certain is that we are going to lose some businesses,” Newman said. “Some 15% of the 14 downtown businesses that participated in Main Street America’s national survey in April said that they would not survive two months of closure — and the shutdown actually extended for three months.”
Newman said he hopes access to the various business funding programs (PPP, CWCA, the City’s emergency loans, etc.) will help some businesses weather this storm and lower the potential casualty rate.
“But again, it’s too early to tell,” he said. “Half of the Wilkes-Barre businesses in the survey saw their revenues drop by 75% due to the shutdown. Nationally, one projection is that 1 out of every 4 restaurants will not survive 2020.”
W-B Chamber primed
Wico van Genderen, president/CEO at the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, said clearly in some areas, the region is primed to move quickly.”
“There are no playbooks, road maps or historical perspectives to help us determine what a post-pandemic, post-recession, socio-economic recovery will look like,” van Genderen said. “While we are just beginning to re-open — and it is still too early to tell — one thing is for sure, we will rebound. The question is — what will it look like and how long will it take?”
van Genderen said the services, supply chain, e-commerce and manufacturing sectors are best set to recover — especially in those sectors where remote work environments allowed productive continuity thru the pandemic.
However, in jobs that require in-person connection, like retail, dining, arts, culture and entertainment, van Genderen said it will be a slower journey back. Especially in those sectors where the business model is based on “large venue/large volume” in-person connections like restaurants.
During the pandemic, van Genderen said some 80% of restaurant workers were furloughed and one national survey indicates that 1 in 4 restaurants will not survive. He said in these business sectors where margins are razor thin and volume drives the bottom line, seating at 50% capacity, prolonged dependence on take-out service and the requirement of socially distancing are going to make balancing the numbers a challenge.
Regarding the retail sector, van Genderen said the pandemic has accelerated an already ongoing trend to e-commerce.
“As we had retail diversity underway in NEPA with many established e-commerce businesses and distribution centers, we are somewhat diversified to the retail downside you will see in other areas of the state and country,” he said. “While signs of re-opening is having a positive effect on traditional retailers exemplified by the number of shoppers and cars over the weekend, we are also seeing some signs of a retail model shift with our more entrepreneurial local businesses creating on-line platforms alongside their traditional storefronts with the idea of building a ‘click to order’ online platform to work hand in hand with their ‘brick and mortar’ establishments.”
Concurrently, van Genderen said the pandemic has exposed an issue with global and national, centralized, “just in time” supply chains.
He said the region’s food and non-durable goods supply chain broke during the pandemic by centralized harvesting, processing and distribution issues noted by short supply in our grocery stores. This suggests an opportunity to better embed local businesses into localized B2B and B2C supply chains to help rebuild the local economy and change the supply chain model to be more sustainable locally.
“Think about farm-to-table and our agriculture/farm base, developing B2B shop local on sourcing and supply, or as exemplified by Luzerne County Ready, pledging to shop local for PPE and social distance suppliers,” van Genderen said.
Recovery speed has a lot to do with public health and safety confidence with consumers and the area’s labor-force, van Genderen said. And it is the prime impetus behind Luzerne County Ready, a proactive joint program between the County and our local businesses.
The Luzerne County Ready Pledge by local businesses helps to ensure that CDC, OSHA and the governor’s safety/health protocols are in place for workers and consumers to help restore a level of confidence as the region re-engages in daily routines.
Finally, van Genderen said while the stock market has rebounded quickly, the reality is that the unemployment numbers are devastating.
“These numbers represent real people who have lost their jobs and we need to get them back on-board for a real rebound to take place in the region,” van Genderen said. “We are working with CareerLink, the Institute, our higher eds, our legislators and our business community on NEPA Works to look at aligning jobs, matching skill-sets, up-skills training and looking at critical needs to ensure we are in front of a labor force recovery for our area.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.