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Local businesses respond

How COVID-19 has reshaped the economy

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Richard Reinartz, an employee at Fareway in Fort Dodge, pushes a cart after unloading a customer’s groceries Friday afternoon. Reinartz celebrated his 60th birthday Friday. Grocery stores like Fareway increased sales throughout much of the pandemic to this point, especially in late March, according to management.

Some businesses increased profits. Others saw a decline in foot traffic and sales. Some adapted to change. And others folded.

Six months into the COVID-19 global pandemic, most businesses have not been left unchanged since March 17 when the state shut down schools and temporarily shut down some businesses.

Grocery stores

Grocery store chains like Fareway, 1231 First Ave. S., and Hy-Vee, 115 S. 29th St., have thrived in terms of sales since the pandemic began.

“Sales over the last six months have actually been out of this world,” said Luke Krause, Fareway assistant manager. “It’s hard to believe the number of people buying. It seems like they are buying extra food.”

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Lexie Arnevik, second year dental hygiene student at Iowa Central Community College, right, helps fellow Karlee Wiegert, prepare to obtain teeth impressions from a patient Wednesday at the Iowa Central Dental Clinic. COVID-19 severely impacted the dental industry, forcing clinics to close for a lengthy period of time in Iowa. Those clinics are now open again.

Krause said immediately after schools were closed in March, there was a mad rush of customers.

“It was complete chaos for the first week,” said Krause, who has been employed at Fareway for 16 years. “I don’t think I’ll see anything like it again.”

According to data from The Retail Coach, Fort Dodge grocery stores saw a 21% increase in visits for the month of March compared to 2019. From March through August, there was an overall increase in foot traffic at Fareway during the same timespan in 2019. The Retail Coach is a national retail recruitment and development firm.

Cleaning products, especially, have been difficult to keep on the shelves.

“When it first hit and there was product available to us, we set a limit of six cleaning products,” Krause said. “That included toilet paper, paper towels, wipes.”

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Mackenzi Brinkman, second year dental hygiene student at Iowa Central Community College, right, listens as Amber Elbert, instructor for the program, explains a patient’s dental records on Wednesday at the Iowa Central Clinic.

Krause said the store was out of toilet paper within the first few weeks.

“That has started to come back,” Krause said.

In terms of Clorox and Lysol brand cleaning wipes, Krause said those are still hard to come by.

“A lot of it has come down to what the manufacturers and companies can send us as far as production goes,” he said. “We have had some store brand replacements, but there’s still outages on Clorox, Lysol products on a national level — we cannot currently get.”

Procedures have changed in terms of sanitization.

Fareway requires its employees to wear masks. Customers are not required to wear them, but management highly recommends it.

Krause said employees have worked hard to keep the store clean.

“As you walk in the store first thing in the morning and through the day, there’s an employee sanitizing our carts and wiping those down,” Krause said. “Throughout the store, every few hours we are walking around wiping door handles, anything that our employees or customers would touch.”

Tim Flaherty, store manager of the Fort Dodge Hy-Vee store, said the company has increased its cleaning and sanitizing measures since the onset of COVID-19.

“We work hard every day making sure all check lanes and carts are cleaned and sanitized on a daily basis,” Flaherty said. “As well as all of our countertops and display cases around the store.”

Masks are encouraged but not required to shop at Hy-Vee.

“We have employees staffed in the entry ways assisting customers with clean carts as well as offering a free mask to wear inside the store if the customer would so choose,” Flaherty said.

During the strenuous times, Flaherty said he’s even more appreciative of both employees and customers.

“I am very humbled by all of our employees’ hard work over the past six months,” Flaherty said. “I can’t say enough in how much I appreciate their hard work and dedication that they are giving the store each and every shift.

“I appreciate all of our customers in the trade area that are shopping at the store and using our aisles online shopping program for their grocery needs.”

Flaherty said some items, like certain cleaning supplies, have been non-existent.

All of the customers have been great and very understanding and patient with us,” Flaherty said. “We are working very hard to get the store fully stocked and see improvements each and every day. Currently there are many sections in the store that have been on nationwide allocation and at times we are unable to get items.”

Rather than enter the store during the pandemic, there was an increasing base of customers who opted to use the pickup service at Hy-Vee, according to The Retail Coach data. There was an overall decrease in foot traffic at Hy-Vee from March through August when compared to the previous year.

“We have had a switch to more customers using our aisles online program for their grocery needs,” Flaherty said. “We appreciate their business as it has been growing each and every week for customers using the aisles online program.”

Bars and restaurants

Bars and restaurants were shut down for an extended period of time beginning on March 17.

Many restaurants either had to make adjustments by offering more carryout and delivery or suffer a loss in business.

Some restaurant owners like Corey Lombard used the off time to give their business a fresh look.

Lombard and staff remodeled Rides Bar & Grill, 723 S. 31st St., during the shutdown.

According to The Retail Coach data, the total number of monthly dining visits in Fort Dodge has declined every month during the pandemic when compared to 2019. April saw the largest decrease with 55% fewer visits than in April of 2019. In August, there was a 7% decrease in visits when compared to 2019.

In the early part of May, restaurants were able to open at 50% occupancy.

Jim Bird, an entrepreneur who owns four Fort Dodge restaurants, is pleased that his businesses and employees have weathered the storm to this point.

“It’s been pretty solid the last two months,” Bird said. “Going into COVID, all of our restaurants were getting ready for more carryout, more curbside, Door Dash. COVID kind of fast-forwarded things for us. When we did have to close down, we concentrated on how to do that right.”

He said Pancheros Mexican Grill, 3022 Fifth Ave. S., remained relatively steady because of its “fast-casual” method of service.

“Pancheros is a little different,” he said. “They already had online ordering and things like that.”

Bird said Mineral City, 2621 Fifth Ave. S., bounced back quickly once the carryout service was improved.

“We are at about 60 percent occupancy, but our carryout has improved,” Bird said. “We got up to about 35 to 40 percent of our regular sales from carryout and curbside. In pre-COVID, that was less than 10 percent.”

Sports Page, 2707 N. 15th St., has also done well with their carryout, he said.

Olde Boston’s Restaurant and Pub, 809 Central Ave., has struggled a little more because of how it relies on catering.

“A lot of our work is catering there, and people are still not doing the big groups,” Bird said.

According to Bird, the increase in carryout business has been the biggest success in recent months.

“We knew our business was starting to change anyways,” Bird said. “Especially the 18- to 30-year-olds, they like to have nice dinners brought in. That’s the Door Dash, the Grub Hub, that trend. We were thinking of pushing that harder, anyways. And it’s been really successful for us. It’s got us on the other side. We are over that hump.”

Bird said management and employees continue to take the virus seriously.

“We are still social distancing and doing six feet between tables and taking this as serious as we can take it as far as sanitization,” Bird said. “I think we have done a good job of keeping our restaurants as safe as we can keep them.”

Bird reported that staffing at his restaurants are almost back to 100%.

“We got PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money,” Bird said. “We didn’t lay anybody off. We had some seasonal or part-time and junior college kids who went back home. Three months ago we had 60 or 70 percent of staff and we are close to back to 100 percent of staff.”

Dental clinics and health care

After being shut down in March, dental clinics were also permitted to reopen on May 8.

The shutdown impacted dental hygiene students at Iowa Central Community College, according to Renee Piper, interim dental hygiene coordinator.

“Closing all dental offices put some stress on the graduating students and current students this last March and this summer,” Piper said. “But as of today (Wednesday), students were able to graduate, many of them have successfully completed their examinations and are practicing dental hygiene.”

The Iowa Central Dental Clinic is open, she said.

“Our clinics are open and we are practicing under the new protocols,” Piper said. “Iowa Central is doing a great job protecting students and faculty.”

Masks are required of everyone in the dental clinic.

A dark room in the Applied Science and Technology building was repurposed as an area for students to set up instruments and equipment.

Normally, the clinic was able to see 12 patients at time. Piper said that has been cut in half.

“So that doubled our clinics because they have to have a certain amount of time that they are in practicing with patients,” Piper said.

Fourteen second-year students are currently enrolled in the dental hygiene program at the college.

Piper said Iowa Central decided not to bring in a first-year class because of the pandemic.

The Iowa Central Dental Clinic offers teeth whitening, athletic mouth guards, oral hygiene services and education.

According to data from The Retail Coach, The total number of monthly visits to medical and health facilities in Fort Dodge declined in March, April and May, compared to 2019. The number of visits increased in June, July and August, compared to 2019.

Businesses

Other than a temporary change in hours, Janna Gilbert, manager of The Station, 2320 N 15th St., said business has remained constant at the store.

“Some days were slower than others,” Gilbert said. “When it first started we changed our hours so we weren’t open as late.”

Gilbert said she noticed more customers wearing both gloves and masks in March, April and May.

In recent months, Gilbert said she’s seen fewer customers wearing them.

“A lot of customers wore masks the first few months and slowly after that stopped wearing masks and gloves,” Gilbert said. “The older generation are wearing them or people who have health issues. But I’ve noticed the younger generation doesn’t wear masks or gloves as much. Some do, some don’t. It just depends how they feel about COVID.”

Mornings have been quieter during the pandemic.

“Normally in the mornings we have our coffee group, which is about 10 older people who come in and chit chat,” Gilbert said. “That was the biggest impact on my store. They can’t come in and socialize and talk. I still have all my regulars come in. Those that get their coffee refills. They come in; they just can’t sit down yet.”

Closing doors

Family Video closed its Fort Dodge store about six months into the pandemic.

According to District Manager Matt Rose, the impact of COVID-19 was detrimental to the business.

“COVID killed the video store,” Rose said. “No new releases. Hard to bring customers in with nothing new coming out and you do that for six months, it’s hard.”

Family Video, the last video rental chain in the U.S., is keeping its Mason City and Waterloo stores open.

The Fort Dodge store employs five people.

The store will be selling nearly everything it has in the coming weeks, Rose said.

At the movies

CEC — Fort 8 Theatre, 1417 Central Ave., began showing movies again on Aug. 28.

It marked the first time since March that the local theater was able to show anything on the big screen.

Being closed has been tough for the industry, said Greg Carter, CEC operations manager. “CEC did receive some help through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

“Initially, we received some help through the PPP and that’s helped us through this closure,” Carter said. “We have had popcorn sales, but certainly that doesn’t pay taxes or bills. Property taxes is a lot of money to have businesses sit there. That (PPP) did help keep employees staffed, but now we need movies to do business.”

Home improvement

Home improvement stores like Menard’s, 3319 Fifth Ave. S., and Bomgaars, 3112 Fifth Ave S., appeared to benefit from the pandemic.

The total number of monthly visits to those types of stores was up from March through August compared to 2019.

The biggest increase in visits from 2019 to 2020 occurred in May.

Unemployment

The pandemic forced some companies to make staff reductions.

As a result, more people have been out of work and looking for employment.

In April, Webster County’s unemployment rate hit 11%, according to IowaWORKs data. As of August, the county’s unemployment rate was 6%.

About 16 Iowa counties had higher unemployment rates for the month of August.

The state average unemployment rate for the year in 2019 was 2.7%.

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