Delaware small-business homeowners shut down by state brace for chilly spring

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Connie Maglio keeps a positive outlook on the trials ahead for local business owners out of work.

Delaware News Journal

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With a single day’s notice to shut down their operations, small-business owners across Delaware are scrambling to hash out survival plans for the next several months amid the coronavirus pandemic.

All nonessential businesses in Delaware will be closed starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, as ordered Sunday night by Gov. John Carney. 

Clothing stores, real estate offices, car dealerships (repair shops will remain open) and many other public-facing businesses will be shut down until May 15 or whenever the virus is no longer a public health threat.

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Connie Maglio, owner of Around Again & Again Books closes up her shop Monday afternoon in Wilmington. All nonessential businesses in Delaware will be closed starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, as ordered Sunday night by Gov. John Carney. (Photo: Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal)

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Some local shop owners already last week started to adapt their businesses when foot traffic declined, abandoning their calling card of personalized assistance and face-to-face interaction in favor of online sales or curbside delivery. 

Others are just now grappling with the uncertain future of their businesses — some many decades old — and how they will respond.

“I don’t really have any answers right now,” said Ryan Wolf, the 13-year owner of Wolf’s Elite Autos on Newport Pike. “I would’ve never thought they could shut down my business.”

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Detailer Drew McLaren with Wolf’s Elite Autos cleans the windows on a truck before closing shop and heading home Monday afternoon in Wilmington. All nonessential businesses in Delaware will be closed starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, as ordered Sunday night by Gov. John Carney. (Photo: Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal)

Delaware’s restrictions are now more consistent with New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, which have each closed nonessential businesses as the number of known cases in the region continues to grow.

The restrictions are designed to slow the spread of the virus — which people can transmit without showing symptoms — to avoid a spike in cases that would overwhelm the health care system.

Cindy Handloff is unsure of the next move for her fifth-generation family business on Newark’s Main Street, National 5 and 10. With the University of Delaware campus shutdown, there has been very little traffic passing the store and browsing its collection of UD apparel and merchandise.

National 5 and 10 has shifted to online orders, but Handloff doesn’t have a gauge of how successful it will be. There hasn’t been a statewide shutdown of this nature in the store’s almost 90-year history.

“We’re taking it one day at a time,” Handloff said. “We’ve weathered a lot.”

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National 5 & 10 in Newark sits empty, closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak on Monday, March 23. (Photo: Jenna Miller/Delaware News Journal)

Tyler Jacobson, owner of Switch Skateboarding in Newark, has started thinking about getting other part-time employment to keep his business alive. He closed Switch on March 13 and laid off about 10 employees.

“Pretty bleak,” Jacobson said. “I can’t really think of a way to put that into words.”

Jacobson has lost his edge against Amazon and the titans of e-commerce: his staff’s ability to make recommendations and explain the value of products. In-person sales accounted for about 90% of Jacobson’s business, with online sales making up the rest.

With tightening budgets, Jacobson also is wary that his market will return when the shutdown is lifted.

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A sign hangs in the window of Switch Skateboarding in Newark, informing that the store has been closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak and urging customers to shop online.  (Photo: Jenna Miller/Delaware News Journal)

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The number of unemployment insurance claims filed in Delaware last week already reached a historic level, according to the Department of Labor. Full figures will be released at the end of the month.

Delaware small-business owners, who don’t qualify for the state’s expanded unemployment insurance, can apply for low-interest loans designed for disaster recovery through the U.S. Small Business Administration. Many small businesses will have until July 15 to pay owed income tax up to $1 million.

Bob Older, president of the Delaware Small Business Chamber, is hopeful the federal government will allow debt forgiveness or provide other financial support to small businesses in addition to the low-interest loans.

“None of us expected this here,” Older said. “It’s hard to plan for something you didn’t know could exist. … I don’t know how much we can survive this.”

According to Older, some businesses may have interruption insurance but many run margins too thin to afford it, including his own travel agency, which has lost roughly $200,000 in the last month.

The Delaware Division of Small Business said last week it’s working on a plan to help local restaurants and retailers. Michael Chesney, a spokesperson for the agency, said those plans are still in the works and the agency is looking into expanding existing programs.

Many of Delaware’s small businesses define the character of their businesses as meeting places for people of common interests. Owners argued there is a benefit to investing in their success that can’t be quantified.

Miranda Brewer, co-owner of Rainbow Records on South Main Street, has already seen the local music scene rally behind her store. After shifting to curbside pickup and delivery last week, sales have remained steady.

“Hopefully the spike will be not as bad and we’ll get through this and … we don’t go under in the meantime,” Brewer said with a helpless chuckle.

Should Switch close, Jacobson will lose more than a paycheck. He took over the business in 2009 after serving as an employee in high school and college.

“The friends and relationships I made through skateboarding and through Switch are still my best friends,” Jacobson said. “It’s more than just the store itself. It’s a family of sorts.”

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Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @holveck_brandon.

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