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May 28, 2020

Many businesses in downtown Rhinelander had their signs switched to “closed” on Monday, March 23, due to concerns regarding community spread of COVID-19. Photo by Stephanie Kuski/River News.
Many businesses in downtown Rhinelander had their signs switched to “closed” on Monday, March 23, due to concerns regarding community spread of COVID-19. Photo by Stephanie Kuski/River News.
3/28/2020 7:27:00 AM
A changing landscape: Local businesses confront uncertainty amid COVID-19 pandemic
Stephanie Kuski
River News Feature Writer

In a time of unparalleled uncertainty brought on by a global public health emergency, local business owners are facing a minefield of decisions, knowing that their choices will have a long-term impact on their customers, their employees and themselves.

In the wake of Gov. Tony Evers' "Safer At Home" order, which went into effect the morning of March 25, local business owners are deciding whether or not they can continue to function and, if so, in what capacity.

As part of our effort to chronicle the local impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the River News is planning to publish a series of feature stories looking at how local businesses are adjusting to this new world.

Mel's Trading Post

While Evers' "Safer At Home" mandate didn't hit businesses until Wednesday, Mel's Trading Post owner Mitch Mode closed his doors on Sunday, March 22, to keep his employees and customers safe.

"We made the decision, based on a couple different factors, to close for two weeks," Mode explained. Among those factors, Mode said six of his own employees were at high-risk due to age alone, so it was a no-brainer to shut his doors for two weeks.

However, there were also some very real consequences associated with that call.

"We basically have no income for the next two weeks, and yet the bills still have to be paid," Mode said soberly. "It's a difficult thing, because we're not made of money, but it was the right thing to do." "I felt it was the right thing to close and take care of my employees; without them, I have no business at all," he continued, "and I certainly didn't want to talk to them on a Thursday and tell them by Sunday they won't have a paycheck."

Mode said he will ensure his employees are taken care of despite these unstable times.

"I did tell my employees I will pay them in full out of our pocket for salaries for the next two weeks we're closed," he said.

Mode described the situation as a "changing landscape" in which there is uncertainty as to whether grants or loans from the government will be made available to small business owners like himself to combat the financial hardship so many are facing.

"Closing my store was, I think, simply the right thing to do," Mode said. "I knew when we made the decision, it would be difficult financially. I knew it would cost us business. I knew not everyone would agree."

"But I also know closing things down and minimizing face-to-face contact is simply the best way to prevent this from spreading," he continued. "I'm doing what I can do, and I felt that was best achieved by closing the store and dealing with the repercussions as we have to."

While the future remains unclear, Mode said he is confident Mel's will reopen once the restriction on non-essential services has been lifted. He is already placing orders for the fall and winter season and has high hopes his Brown Street business will continue to serve the community as it has for the last 70 years.

Although Mel's will be closed through April 6, Mode said he still has a skeleton staff taking phone calls at the store and (for the meantime) exchanging equipment for repairs.

For more information on services offered, call (715) 362-5800 or visit their website.

Tom's Drawing Board

Thomas Barnett, owner of Tom's Drawing Board, said he will most likely close his doors following the governor's Wednesday order.

"It's slowed everyone down to pretty much a halt," Barnett said. "It just kind of shut everything down for me as far as my classes go."

While Barnett usually hosts painting classes two or three times in a normal week, prior to Evers' executive order, he was holding one-on-one workshops while keeping his studio clean and limiting the number of people allowed in his business. But now, even those classes must be canceled.

"All I can do at this point is to keep my art out there, whether it be a live Facebook feature of me painting or what have you," Barnett said. "I think at times like this, artwork and creating art is one of the most beautiful releases we can have... Doing artwork for me is pretty much therapy."

"It's not a good situation we're in as businesses," he continued, "but what are you doing to do?"

While the predicament is problematic, there are ways to help support local businesses.

"We can support local businesses," Barnett said confidently. "Come down, buy a gift certificate. A lot of people like me, artists and stuff, we have online stores you can buy from. We'll get it to your house."

During these financially uncertain times in which so many are struggling, supporting local businesses and artists is a means of supporting our friends and neighbors, he noted.

"Every little bit helps at this point," Barnett said. "You think your $5 purchase of a gift card or something else isn't going to go far, but at this point, it does. It's going to go a long way."

In the midst of these unstable times, there is intense concern regarding the fate of the small businesses in our community.

"After this, we're going to have a huge financial downfall with a lot of businesses not being able to open their doors again. That scares me... a lot," Barnett said. "Brown Street and Downtown Rhinelander were just turning a corner and coming back, and after this, I fear half of these stores will be closed for business again."

"Some people call it a pandemic, I call it a crisis," he added solemnly. "It's a serious thing."

Hanson's Garden Village

While there are many exemptions and considerations as to which businesses are considered "essential" under the "Safer At Home" order, co-owner of Hanson's Garden Village Brent Hanson said their business will stay open since it's considered a sector of agriculture.

"Under the current rules, our workforce will be able to continue coming in and working," Hanson explained. "Our system is going to be considered exempt unless things get really horrible out there and they basically tell everyone to stay home."

Hanson said he relies on his family members and employees at this time of the year especially, since vegetables need to be seeded and transplanted if they want to have flowers and other supplies in stock for the spring season.

"If people miss the spring planting time, that's definitely going to affect your ability to grow," Hanson said. "If all the employees were not allowed to come into work I don't think we'd have many vegetable transplants for people in the spring, let alone the flowers and stuff like that."

The Hansons have to accommodate not only the finicky growing season inherent to their agricultural business model, but on top of that they now have to combat the changing landscape in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Just from a financial standpoint, we have to have hope that there will be people wanting our plants in May and early June," Hanson said. "We hope our employees can continue to come into work [...] but if we found out today none of our workers could come in, that would really put stress on things."

"The outlook is concerning, both in the short-term and in the long-term," he continued. "But if everybody pulls together, we can hope for the best."

While COVID-19 is presenting a variety of challenges for so many across the community, it may also cause some to rethink some of their lifestyle choices.

Along those lines, Hanson mentioned a renewed interest in food security in the midst of so much instability.

"There's definitely renewed interest in people growing their own food and people will probably be looking at canning again," he explained. "If this country got back to being a little bit more self-reliant, as far as each of us having our own plot of land, I think we'd all be better off in the long run and also feel more secure."

Hanson also cited studies which have shown how important flowers can be to our psychological well-being, and how getting one's hands dirty and caring for plants as they blossom can be a rewarding experience for many, especially during stressful times.

While the fate of planned classes in April and May remains up in the air, Hanson said he is looking at possibilities to provide alternative options to individuals who have already registered for those classes.

In addition, Hanson said they are currently accommodating phone orders and curbside pick-ups for customers who know what they are looking for or have pre-ordered arrangements.

For more information, call Hanson's Garden Village directly at (715) 365-2929 or visit their website.

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