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Charlottesville businesses continue to adjust to new pandemic normal

Ryan Hubbard said the last four months have been “daily unpredictable.”

Hubbard, who owns the Dinsmore Inn, Farm Bell Kitchen and Red Hub Food Co., said he’s focused on communicating with customers and employees about current operations, instead of worrying about possible future closures that are out of his control.

“The only word that I can think of to describe the last four months of my life is daily unpredictable,” he said. “That’s two words, daily unpredictable, so I’m not gonna spend a whole lot of mental energy on trying to guess and what happens next.”

As the state is in its third phase of reopening, Central Virginia business owners are working to instill confidence in customers and staff about health and safety, and informing both groups about what’s going on at their businesses.

“Letting customers know that whatever their situation is, that we want to support them in that,” Hubbard said. “If their situation is they don’t want to leave their deck at their house, we’re going to make it possible for them to eat our food on their deck at their house…. Hand in hand with that is this over-communication with our staff about, ‘Here’s where we are, here’s what we can bring back to work, here’s what we can’t bring back to work yet.’”

A local initiative led by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce released a report that helps map out economic recovery action steps for the business community. The report, part of the chamber’s Project Rebound effort, includes recommended actions based on data from meetings and interviews with more than 300 local participants.

The report identified the need to rebuild consumer, business and workforce confidence. Health and safety concerns, an uncertain business environment and confusion over guidelines were cited as some of the confidence barriers to economic recovery.

Chamber President and CEO Elizabeth Cromwell said some issues seen across industries were consumer confidence, access to childcare and the need for consistent protocols.

“That was a big issue — trying to make sure that as a group, we kind of agree on a general sense of protocols,” she said. “… I feel like this community has been a little better about that then some other communities.”

Cromwell said that there is a lot of work being done, but there’s not a lot of communication about that work.

“We really don’t want to duplicate efforts,” she said. “We want to make sure that we all know who’s doing that, and if somebody wants to pitch in in a certain area, that hopefully they can contact us and we’ll have enough information from around the community to be able to send them in the right direction.”

The report identifies six areas for immediate action including authoritative safety protocols, trustworthy information sharing and ways to access resources, facilitating access to testing, working with government on emergency policies, continued inclusive conversation and a buy-local initiative.

City, county, state and federal money has been made available to help businesses cover payroll and reopening costs, though there have been reports that grants and loans can be difficult and confusing to access. Hubbard received a microloan from the Community Investment Collaborative’s Business Recovery Fund, which gave loans of up to $10,000.

According to data from the University of Maryland COVID-19 Impact Analysis Platform, which is cited in the report, consumer confidence is gradually starting to return to baseline levels.

Despite the creeping return, a number of area businesses have closed, including Verdigris, The Impeccable Pig, Downtown Grille, Bluegrass Grill and Bakery, Wild Wing Cafe, The Candy Store, The Little Gym of Charlottesville and Impulse Gay Social Club.

Local Virginia Department of Taxation sales tax data, compiled by The Free Enterprise Forum, a local business advocacy group, shows that Albemarle County saw sales tax revenue increase in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the first quarter of 2019, while Charlottesville saw an increase in January and February, and a decrease in March.

Both localities saw a decrease in April compared with last year, with Charlottesville seeing a 29.7% decline, and Albemarle seeing a 17.4% decrease.

The Free Enterprise Forum suspects these localities were hardest hit due to the number of workers that commute into the localities, as well as the number of retail and dining options that were operating on reduced hours or closed completely.

But other area localities such as Augusta, Fluvanna, Greene and Louisa counties all saw increases in sales tax revenue in April compared with last year, according to the data.

The Free Enterprise Forum assumed that, as many Fluvanna workers travel into Albemarle and Charlottesville to work, the increase in sales activity in April is most likely tied to many of those workers staying at home.

Patrick McClure, the co-owner and operator of Citizen Bowl Shop on the Downtown Mall, said the last few months were “nearly devastating” for the fast-casual counter service restaurant, but now business is slowly starting to open back up.

“Our customer’s trust is paramount,” he said. “We are already in the business of giving you something that you’re going to adjust and put in your body and you have to trust us for that. Now we’ve taken it to a whole other level. So seeing our cleanliness practices, seeing our masks, seeing our gloves, I mean we refer to those as a badge of honor. We are doing everything we can to continue to keep our customers and you know, my employees and co workers safe.”

He said business owners, employees and customers need to follow public health protocols, like wearing a mask, and taking them seriously.

“They’re uncomfortable, but you do get used to it,” he said. “I’ve been wearing a mask for hours a day, nearly every day for weeks now, it’s become almost second nature for me. And I think that if we can all follow the guidelines and do this properly, that we can continue to reopen and try to get our lives back to as normal as possible.”


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