If there is any agreement about what happens next for Havre’s small businesses, it seems to be that the future is an unwritten book.
“I don’t know what new normal is,” said Steve Neiffer, owner of two Havre businesses. “I don’t think anyone knows.”
Neiffer owns Bergren Transmission, an auto repair shop, and Old Station Brewing Co., a craft brewery in downtown. On Thursday, he took a brief break from brewing to speak with The Havre Herald.
Unlike his auto shop, which has stayed open because it was deemed essential, Neiffer’s brewery was closed to the public for nearly seven weeks. Gov. Steve Bullock’s March stay-at-home directive meant to stave off the spread of COVID-19 closed all Montana breweries, bars, and restaurants, including Old Station.
The belief is the lockdown worked. On April 22, the governor released a three-part reopening plan to get Montana out and working again.
During the closure, Neiffer sold growlers — to-go beer — and hosted virtual trivia nights.
Since reopening on Monday, he said he’s already seen an uptick in business. However, he was quick to point out, business is nowhere near what it was, including as it pertains to sales.
“People have changed their habits,” he said, adding that it will take time for many to get comfortable with being out again. During Old Station’s trivia night on Wednesday, some teams played in person, while others still played virtually, he said, adding that everyone’s comfort level is different.
Before the closure, he had six employees, the same number he’s brought back now that he’s fully opened.
Neiffer hopes some good comes out of this period of history. He hopes people will work together to better their community and strengthen local businesses.
“I hope that happens,” he said. “Maybe we’ll buy a little less stuff from China, buy our own stuff.”
Taking Stock Of The Lockdown
Bullock’s order in March was part of a whirlwind of closings around the state and across the country. A new virus from China was spreading through the U.S. with the swiftness of a Montana pronghorn. Some argued that news and fear of the virus spread far quicker than the actual disease. However, within a week’s span in March, schools, restaurants, churches, sporting events, theaters, and concerts were shut down.
Around March 17, on the cusp of Bullock’s shelter-in-place order, we spoke to Havre business leaders about how the threat of COVID-19 was affecting them and what they anticipated going forward.
We recently caught up with them to see what’s happened the last seven weeks.
One of the first signs that the coronavirus was affecting people’s thoughts and actions was when grocery store shelves were being emptied at an alarmingly quick rate.
Tracy Job, manager of Gary and Leo’s Fresh Foods IGA, said in March that whatever people were buying, they were getting a lot of it, and that especially applied to toilet paper.
The bulk buying seems to have “subsided,” Job said Wednesday.
People’s shopping habits are reversing toward normal, but they aren’t there yet, he said. Customers are making fewer trips to the grocery store, and they’re still buying more than they have in the past, Job said.
As for operating his store, employees are working longer hours as they did during the lockdown. And they’re cleaning a whole lot more, too, Job said. Every other hour, a crew of employees goes on a scrubbing and cleaning mission. Shopping carts, doorknobs, cooler handles, and more — they all get the Mr. Clean treatment.
Store management also has installed shields between cashiers and customers at the registers. Store officials have asked people to leave early hours shopping for older folks, Job said, and are encouraging customers not to hang out and chat.
Auto Sales & Repair
“We’re still here,” Charlie Steinmetz, co-owner of Havre Ford, told The Herald Thursday.
Steinmetz has not had the luxury of giving his employees more hours. Fortunately, he hasn’t had to lay them off either, a concern he expressed in March.
Steinmetz was worried then about how COVID-19 would affect business, and on Thursday he confirmed that business took a hit during the lockdown.
“There’s definitely been an impact,” he said. At the time of the lockdown, people were canceling service appointments left and right. Sales have been affected, too.
Ford is implementing some programs to help move cars, Steinmetz said, including 0 percent financing.
In addition to dwindling sales, other issues have included a disruption in the parts supply line.
Steinmetz anticipates his business won’t have an easy climb back, but he believes the year still could end on a positive note, so long as “the government would get out of the way and let us do what we do.”
Steinmetz sticks to his previous notion that, in some ways, the reaction to COVID-19 might do more damage to Americans’ well-being than the actual disease.
Like Steinmetz, Dottie Wilson didn’t have the luxury of offering her employees, the small staff at Infinity Bake Shoppe, extra hours.
She went the other direction.
Two of her employees who were high risk for COVID-19 and related complications volunteered to stay home during the shelter-in-place order. She couldn’t pay them during their absence, she said, but they returned just in time for her first week of having the dining area open again.
Since reopening Tuesday, patrons have come in, but, echoing what’s becoming an apparent narrative, things are not like they were before.
Despite business being down, there’s more work to accommodate the patrons who dine in. As per social distancing and sanitizing guidelines, she’s got fewer tables set up but has more to do in the way of cleaning and sanitizing.
Other changes include throwaway or disposable salt and pepper packets and a restriction on people making their own salads. Now an employee, donned in gloves and a mask, has to do it.
During the closure, business wasn’t what it had been, Wilson said. But, all things considered, she said she more than made it through.
“We did OK, honestly,” she said. “We didn’t do great.”
While her lunch items dipped in sales, she saw the baked goods increase. She admitted that she had an advantage, given that she was already doing lots of to-go business on cookies, scones, tarts, and other sweets.
Wilson took a moment during her interview to comment on what an “amazing” community she lives in. She said people who still worked — businesses and organizations that were still operating — intentionally made an effort to support local businesses, including hers. From the banks to the hospitals, “so many people bought things to send to people.”
Wilson said she applied for a federal payroll protection grant with the help of Stockman Bank staff. She doesn’t know if or when things will get back to what they were, and that uncertainty is what prompted her to seek the grant.
Michael Garrity, co-owner of Triple Dog Brewing Co., said he also sought a grant for his business.
Garrity’s popular brewery employed nine other employees before the lockdown. During it, he only needed two. He temporarily laid off the others, who applied for unemployment. He has since brought them back, now that he’s open again. During the lockdown, like Nieffer, he brewed and sold to-go beer.
Garrity has a glass-full outlook of the future.
“There’s a reason I live here,” he said. “I think people in Havre are just totally optimistic.”
As far as he’s concerned, people are ready to move on and get back to living. And it doesn’t hurt to have some Montana grit to help grind through a tough time.
“I think people in Havre are just kind of ready to get out and get back at ‘er,” he said. “We’re all Montanans. We’re freakin’ tough, we’re stubborn.”
Write to Paul Dragu at [email protected]