Open signs greet customers as some local businesses go yellow

 In Cambria County, News

[ Published in the Tribune-Democrat on May 15th, 2020 by Russ O’Reilly]

The flash of “We Are Open” signs leapt from the background of local streetscapes.

Cambria, Somerset, Bedford and Blair were among 13 counties that moved Friday from the red phase to the yellow phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

The yellow phase means in-person business operations can resume, except for dine-in service and personal care services including salons.

Mask wearing, social distancing and the option to shop by appointment are common protocol among business reopenings around the area.

In the retail sector, people took consolation in being able to visit their favorite stores Friday.

Even though a mask was covering her nose, Jessica Bennett was able to enjoy the aroma of soaps at Riek’s Country Store in Johnstown.

“It doesn’t feel like there’s an ugly virus out there anymore that you have to dodge,” she said. “It feels normal for me to come down to the store and find something that I can take home and be happy about.”

Sisters Annette Riek Noll and Marisa Riek Williams have owned the store for 33 years.

Its history reaches back to the 1800s when it was a general store.

Customer Jessica Bennett (right) takes a whiff of a bar of homemade soap during her appointment to shop at Riek’s Country Store in Johnstown as store co-owner Marisa Williams looks on Friday, May 15, 2020.

The sisters reopened Friday, but for individual appointments.

“There’s not much room to social distance in here, so we opened for appointments because we want customers to feel comfortable and safe

– and nobody has complained about getting a personal shopping experience,” Williams said.

The door was wide open at C. Gil’s Shoes on Scalp Avenue.

“It lets people know I’m open, plus outdoor ventilation, I read, is better to keep the virus down,” owner Gil Demos said.

But he’s also made arrangements for people who may be afraid of social distancing.

“They can call and make an individual appointment with him before or after store hours,” he said.

His store has been in business for 54 years.

“I love what I do. I love the challenge. I love my customers and I miss them all,” he said. “I was in good financial position before the pandemic. If I was a new business, I don’t know if I would have made it through the past two months.”

Some businesses, including YWCA’s Kuddle Korner Day Care in Windber, are organizing their reopening plan and waiting until Monday.

Director Chrisse Elliott met with more than a dozen of her caregivers Friday to brief them on what day care will look like.

Elliott stressed that the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which inspects day cares, considers mask wearing and social distancing as guidelines, not regulations.

“I think the department is expecting a lot of calls from people saying ‘I dropped my child off and no one was wearing masks,’ ” she said. “Of course, we have to keep due diligence, so we will have a mask on during meal preparation and changing diapers. In other times, if a child needs to see your face, you can take the mask off.”

The state’s guidance is specific that face coverings should not be put on babies and children under age 2 because of the danger of suffocation.

But the state advises that older children wear masks “when feasible.”

Chrisse Elliott, director of the YWCA Kuddle Korner Day Care, welcomes employees at the facility, 119 Hoffman Ave., Windber, on Friday, May 15, 2020.

“When is feasible? We want to do our best to keep caregivers and kids safe,” Elliott said. “Some parents said their children like wearing the masks. But if a child adamantly refuses to wear a mask, we’ll hang it up safely so that it is there.”

In day care, social distancing isn’t about keeping children six feet apart, she said; it means keeping groups of children in the same groups each day and not switching rooms. And setting up two tables for them to use during activities instead of one.

Elliott said there has been no reduction in the number of children day cares are licensed to have present. But she expects smaller numbers because of parental choices. About half of the Kuddle Korner’s usual 68 children are set to return next week.

“Many parents are ready to go. Others don’t have their jobs back yet so they don’t need child care. And others are holding back and being cautious,” Elliott said.

The Cambria Regional Chamber of Commerce represents hundreds of businesses in the region.

“The Chamber is excited to see some of our businesses opening back up. Obviously this is a process that is going to look a little different for everyone,” Chamber President Amy Bradley said.

“Each business and organization must approach it in a way that they feel comfortable in providing a safe experience for their customers and employees. This is definitely a start, some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Businesses such as restaurants and salons are not allowed to reopen until Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine review how the yellow phase is working.

“We look forward to the green phase and the days ahead when coronavirus is behind us and we are all fully back to business,” Bradley said.

An entrepreneurial coach for Startup Alleghenies, Blake Fleegle has seen how reopening in the yellow phase is affecting businesses in Cambria and Somerset counties.

“After some long, painful weeks my small business clients are excited to bring in some much needed revenue,” he said. “They’ve all been dipping into business and personal savings to stay afloat, so any money coming in at all is much-welcomed relief.”