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Signs of Life, but Businesses Need More Help

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Outdoor dining at Sarducci’s. Photo by Carla Occaso.

It’s been more than a week since the City Council ordered the wearing of face masks for employees and visitors to downtown shops and restaurants. The flower beds have been planted, restaurants are allowed to have limited indoor dining, stores are open (also with limited capacity), and more activity is generally observed.

While many business owners are feeling a sliver of optimism, the reality for most is that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and each beautiful summer day without tourists and out-of-town workers represents a loss of peak-season revenue. But for now, any step forward is better than a step back, and the limited reopening and the mandatory mask ordinance are a positive sign, they say.

Sarducci’s owner Carol Paquette was feeling hopeful after seeing a large outdoor tent going up. After being limited to curbside pickup for weeks, the additional outdoor seating, coupled with 32 socially distant indoor seats, was enough to bring back about 75 percent of her staff and lift her spirits after a very dark spring.

Sarducci’s co-owner Carol Paquette. Photo by Tom Brown

“It’s the most hopeful that I’ve felt,” Paquette said. “With the tent and indoor dining it felt totally the same as it used to—the tables are farther apart and the waitstaff was wearing masks—but it was the same food and felt like I was home.”

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Paquette, who has been an owner of the restaurant for 25 years, said the business makes 60 percent to 70 percent of its revenue in the summer months.

“I would say that ostensibly, because summer doesn’t last that long, that if we don’t have tourists by July 1 a lot of people aren’t going to make it,” she said. “That’s when we make our money—July and August—and October is kind of like a bonus.”

Paquette was able to land some of the loan money from Congress’ Paycheck Protection Program and thanked her landlord, Pomerleau Real Estate, for foregoing some rent. The experience has also brought her closer together with fellow Capital City restaurateurs, a source of support and brainpower.

“We were flying high and then all of the sudden it was just gone,” she said of the rapid events surrounding the pandemic. “I never thought in a million years that I could lose my restaurant just like that. It has been very emotional and difficult and I still cry sometimes, but my chef (and co-owner Jeff Butterfield) kept looking at me everyday and saying we are going to be the one that makes it and I finally started to believe it.”

Making Masks Work

Montpelier became the third municipality to require the wearing of masks by employees and visitors to public establishments but the executive order is more of a statement of solidarity than a blunt instrument. While the order is meant to send a unified message to shoppers, it lacks any penalty or enforcement.

“It’s nice to have the Council behind us and to have everybody know that whatever store you go in you know what to expect and to have it be the same anywhere you go in town,” said Sarah DeFelice, owner of Bailey Road.

The rule lends a bit of authority to owners who might confront a patron who refuses to wear a mask inside the store, but most people are happy to comply and do some shopping, owners say.

The topic of masks has sparked debate on social media sites with the local Shaw’s grocery store often identified as a place where some shoppers don’t wear masks. There are several exemptions to the CDC guidelines and the city ordinance that allow shopping without a mask.

The local Shaw’s manager deferred comment to the corporate office. Spokeswoman Teresa Edington said in a statement: “We urge our customers to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines and any state and local mandates for masks, social distancing, and other safety procedures when they shop at our stores. Throughout our stores we have signs, floor decals, and other educational materials reminding our customers of safety precautions.”

Anecdotally, the mask ordinance appears to be well-received.

“Customers seem receptive and understanding and seem to be following the rules,” said Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive. “There is some education that is still happening, but in general people have been respectful and if they come without a mask they seem understanding about why they are being asked to wear a mask.”

Groberg said the city acquired 1,000 face masks to provide to businesses that need them and is in the process of securing more.

DeFelice opened her Main Street store last week for the first time since March, although she was operating her online store. She said shoppers seem enthusiastic to be back in the store and are buying, versus browsing, at a higher rate than usual.

“We were very lucky that we were able to flip to online very quickly,” DeFelice said. “That was our phase 1—how to survive when you’re closed. Now phase 2 is how to adapt to survive with limited hours and limited people coming in, and now I have to have a full store of inventory. But we’re figuring out as we go along.”

More Help Needed

Congress recently relaxed some of the rules for small business owners who were fortunate enough to secure a loan in the first rescue package and has added more money to the program. Among other things, the changes give borrowers a longer time to spend the money and still be eligible for loan forgiveness.

But more money is needed if businesses are going to survive the crisis, Groberg said, and the Legislature needs to move more quickly and more generously in allocating the federal CARES money that it controls.

Gov. Phil Scott had proposed about $250 million in grants ($200 million) and loans ($50 million) for small businesses from a $1.25 billion federal pandemic grant. The Legislature late last week passed a measure that offered only about $70 million in grants.

“There is a lot of concern that the recovery package being considered by the Legislature is inadequate,” Groberg said. “The dollar amount being considered is far less than the governor had proposed and the qualifying business needs to have suffered a 75 percent loss in any month. Of the Montpelier businesses we surveyed, about 30 percent would meet the 75 percent level and another 50 percent of businesses suffered losses between 50 percent and 75 percent.”

Without tourists and sufficient government help it could be a lost summer for many local businesses.