CHATHAM – On Monday, the first day in more than seven weeks that nonessential retail shops were allowed a limited opening, there was a light but steady stream of people downtown, and many businesses had thrown open doors and set up tables to provide curbside service.
No one expected sales anywhere near the level of past Memorial Days, but many merchants saw it as a glimmer of hope in what has been a devastating spring. Most are looking forward to June 8, when, if all goes according to Gov. Charlie Baker's plan to reopen the state's economy, customers will once again be allowed in shops and a slow but steady return to normalcy will begin.
With high unemployment and many people reluctant to travel, merchants anticipate a slow summer but hope for a strong fall, provided the trajectory of coronavirus cases continues downward.
“If we have a strong fall, we can save things,” said Susan Dimm, owner of Barn Hill Pottery and president of the Chatham Merchants Association. Many weddings and other events scheduled for the spring were postponed to the fall, lifting expectations for that season, she added.
“The prospect for a strong fall is good,” agreed Chamber of Commerce President Scott Hamilton, “and that is vital,” but also needs to follow some semblance of a summer season. “It's just going to be a different year. We've never had anything like this.”
Just how different the summer will look like remains uncertain. The cancellation of major events like the July 4 parade, Cape Cod Baseball League games and Friday night band concerts will cut down on crowds, and there's concern that downtown's narrow sidewalks could pose problems with social distancing. Merchants are divided over some proposals, like making sidewalks one-way or limiting parking or travel lanes along Main Street to provide more space for pedestrians and even outdoor sales. Selectmen were scheduled to tackle those issues at their meeting Wednesday, after The Chronicle's deadline.
And there's uncertainty over how to handle retail sales under the first phase of Baker's reopening plan. As of Monday, retail shops that had previously been closed were allowed to reopen for “remote fulfillment” and “curbside pickup,” according to the plan. Many have been doing that for much of the past two months, and it was unclear if selling items through open doors was permissible.
“It was very confusing, in my opinion,” Sandy Wycoff, who owns three clothing stores in town, said of the governor's plan. At both the Chatham Clothing Bar and Chatham T Kids, the front doors were open and a table was set up with a rope across the entry way. Customers could point to items in windows, which staff, wearing gloves and masks, could retrieve. Online and phone orders could also be picked up.
“This is actually a really nice segue into what we ultimately will be doing” once customers are allowed in shops, she said.
Many other shops adopted the same procedures on Monday, and some had been doing curbside pickup during the closure. Calls about retail stores operating over the past several weeks led to several verbal warnings being issued by the town, according to Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson.
One of the shops that received a warning was Ducks in the Window. Owner Colette Cummings said she only did a handful of curbside pickups and stopped after being notified by the town.
“I actually had no idea I wasn't supposed to do it,” she said, adding that she then switched to delivery. It remains vague whether curbside delivery means leaving items out for customers to pick up or, like many are doing, providing service via an open door.
“A little clarity from the town would be helpful,” she said.
The way some businesses have set up may violate local bylaws, such as the ban on outdoor display of goods downtown without approval by selectmen. Likewise, some signs announcing curbside service are in violation of the town's sign code. Currently there is no way to temporarily waive any of these provisions, according to a memo from Town Counsel Patrick Costello. The governor's emergency orders and reopening plan do not provide any means of suspending zoning or local bylaws, he wrote. However, regulatory boards and commissions do have some discretion in waiving or modifying regulations, he added.
Members of the planning board and historic business district commission favored a “relaxed review for temporary changes,” Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan wrote in a memo to selectmen, and town staff suggested exploring board of health powers to provide businesses some flexibility to allow dining outdoors, displaying and selling merchandise outdoors and temporary signs. Selectmen were scheduled to discuss the issues at their meeting Wednesday.
While they attempt to do at least some business under the curbside provision, many shops are preparing for opening to customers the second week of June. Last week the chamber of commerce and merchants association provided members with disposable face masks and bottles of hand sanitizer donated by Dirty Water Distillery in Plymouth. Under the reopening plan, businesses must develop protocols to ensure the safety of both employees and customers. In some cases, that will mean one-way traffic in shops and physical alterations such as sneeze guards at counters.
Display cases were removed from Yankee Ingenuity to create more space, said co-owner Sharon Hayes. Customers will enter through the main door and exit onto the store's deck. “Hopefully that will reduce the amount of contact between employees and customers,” she said.
Cummings is applying floor decals marking out six-foot distances and will provide masks to customers who do not have them. Only one register will be open at the Chatham Clothing Bar, said Wycoff, and staff, who will wear gloves and masks, won't handle customers' credit cards. Lines marking proper social distancing will be placed along the sidewalk in front of the store if customers must line up to gain entry.
“We're trying to make it as safe as possible,” said Hamilton, who runs Chatham Jewelers. “Nobody wants anybody to get sick, least of all our staff, and certainly not our customers.”
As of this week, however, the state has provided no guidance for opening of retail stores, such as occupancy limits. Hayes also worries about the local order passed by the board of health last week mandating the wearing of face coverings between the rotary and School Street. Shops are not going to allow people inside without face masks, but she worries that without enforcement, the order will be ignored.
“I have to cross my fingers and hope that people will be respectful,” said Cummings, who voiced similar concerns.
If summer businesses doesn't meet the meager expectations, even with a good fall there may be local businesses that won't survive. “I think everybody's on the line,” said Dimm, who usually does half of her annual business in August. If there isn't at least a reasonable amount of business this summer, “come September, [some businesses] won't be existing,” said Hamilton.
“It's reality. We're a discretionary downtown. And as such, it's always been the summer that gets us through the winter,” he said. “If we can't have a summer, there's nothing to fall back on.” This highlights the importance of the debate over how to handle downtown traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, he added.
“I hope they don't do anything too Draconian,” said Hayes. “I think that would be the death knell for a lot of seasonable businesses.”
She's confident, however, that local residents, both summer and year-round, will support businesses; many have been calling and placing orders online. “We can work with that,” she said. Cummings said her website, too, is busy, doing double the business it did in the past, thanks to promotions and an expansion of offerings. “But that's only a fraction of the volume we do in the store,” she said.
“It absolutely will hurt us,” Cummings said of a slow summer, “but it won't crush us. We'll come back on the other side of this just as strong.”