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Reason to look ahead

Stay-at-home orders.

Social-distancing guidelines.

Mask or no mask, gloves or no gloves.

Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic have touched just about every aspect of the lives of each of us during the last two months. That’s especially true if you are the owner of an area business. Depending on which state a business operates in and exactly what goods or services they sell or provide, most have seen changes in the way they are allowed to operate — drastic changes for some.

And that’s forced owners to look for different ways to operate, on many levels.

“I think it’s been incredible to watch,” explained Tricia Maple-Damewood, president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. “Local business owners have been innovative and stubborn, but in a very good way. They have been creative while at the same time being very gracious.”

Maple-Damewood and her counterparts at the Weirton Area and Follansbee chambers of commerce, Brenda Mull and Debbie Puskarich, have been working diligently to help their members not only survive, but discover new opportunities and ways to grow.

“If you are in business, you have to be creative, no matter what your business is,” said Mull. “I have seen some people who have businesses that have been closed reach out through the Internet. It’s opened up a whole new avenue.”

All segments of the economy have been hit hard by the coronovirus, and that includes the hospitality industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, 8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed since the start of the pandemic, and the industry has lost $80 billion in sales.

The organization also reports 11 percent of restaurant owners and operators who were part of a recent survey said they would likely have to close for good in the next 30 days. And, by the end of June, Fast Casual reports, projected losses will be more than $225 billion and there could be as many as 7 million jobs lost.

Those statistics might be bleak, but area eateries are finding ways to reach customers who have been more than willing to pick up or carry out their breakfasts, lunches and dinners or have them delivered.

“Restaurants have become especially creative,” Mull explained. “For example, some have offered specially priced dinner packages. And, hats off to the communities for supporting them.”

Puskarich agreed that business owners are more willing to try new things.

“People are finding something they are good at and are trying to add to it,” she said.

She used the Three Bridges Restaurant on Main Street in Follansbee as an example.

Cinnamon rolls offered there have become a favorite throughout the area, Puskarich explained, and the owners of the restaurant have been promoting their lunch and dinner offerings to those who have stopped by to pick up a roll or two, which has led those customers to consider other purchases.

“Businesses have really come up with some great ideas,” Mull said. “There are businesses that actually are doing better because of their ingenuity. It’s definitely a learning process — no one ever expected we would have a pandemic.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Maple-Damewood.

“Businesses who are able to are stepping up to help employees and other businesses,” she said. “Those that might be struggling are pulling out all of the stops in terms of adding services and how they do things.”

Each of the chambers has been proactive in promoting local businesses, through newspaper advertisements and increases in their online presence, for example. All three presidents say they have had to field many questions during the last two months.

“We want every business to be successful,” Mull said. “The last thing any chamber wants to see is a business fail. Let’s face it, small business is the thing that drives the economy.”

Chambers themselves have suffered as a result of the pandemic. Many big events that have been community staples have been postponed or canceled, including the Jefferson County chamber’s annual golf outing, which has been moved to July 21; the Weirton chamber’s annual dinner, which could happen in August; and a concert series and regular meetings that had been scheduled by the Follansbee chamber.

“Our chamber has really grown in the last couple of years,” Puskarich said. “We had really built it up and had so many activities. Now it’s going in a different direction, with so many things canceled. Board members have stayed in contact through texting, and we’ve sent letters to individual members. Gradually, we will move over to Zoom for meetings, and we’re trying to help those who aren’t comfortable with the technology stay informed with our monthly newsletters.”

She explained her chamber has remained active by presenting gift cards to city employees and gas cards to funeral homes and is making plans for when businesses reopen.

“We’re trying to go forward, just without having that personal interaction,” she said. “We’re such a close group, and it’s going to be different.”

Mull agrees.

“Some businesses might face a rocky road, and they are willing to tolerate that,” she said. “The chamber is going to be there as long as we can help the business community. We’re here to answer questions — if I don’t have an answer, I will find it and get back to them.”

For Maple-Damewood, there might not be a clear vision about what the future holds, but there is room for optimism.

“I think it’s unrealistic to think some people won’t take a hard hit,” she explained. “There are businesses of a certain size, in certain industries and of certain ages — some of them won’t survive. But there are those businesses that will take some of the things they have put into place and will stay with them down the road.

“That should help increase the number of start-ups and lead to more innovation.”

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He is a former vice chair of the board of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.)

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