Local Businesses Attempt To Rebound In Wake of COVID Shutdown

Jack's Liquor
Jack's Liquor

While Toni Hladky talked business Monday afternoon, a woman came in and requested to cancel her membership. Hladky, the owner of All-Dimensions Fitness, said this has happened a lot this year.

“Our membership is down by about a third,” she said. “But it’s picking back up.”

Hladky and her husband Mike purchased the 24-hour fitness center this past December, just around the time the world fell apart, she joked. She’d retired from her job teaching high school chemistry this May, and since then, has questioned the wisdom of that decision. Between the pinch of the COVID-19 shutdowns affecting so many local businesses during the first half of 2020, they’ve lost members, many of whom had moved to Gillette for work. When COVID forced businesses and industries to shut down, she estimated they’ve lost about 20 members who no longer had a reason to stay.

All Dimensions
All Dimensions has seen a slight loss in membership as new owners try to weather the storm.

That said, in recent months, things are starting to spring back.

“We had a good May,” she said. “Then, things slowed down again, because June and July are traditionally a little slower, since the weather improves and people spend more time outdoors.”

Given the public health restrictions, the gym has taken many steps to keep members safe, such as closing every other treadmill to facilitate social distancing and providing each member with their own spray bottle of disinfectant to clean equipment once they’re through with their workouts.

“People have been great about everything,” she said. “I think everybody was just glad to be able to come back in and work out again, so they’ve been cooperative about the new rules.”

Hladky says she’s glad to see things open back up, but she’s nervous about another shutdown.

“The Thursday before (Governor Mark) Gordon was to speak, Arizona announced it was rolling back,” she said. “I got nervous that he would announce some new closures. He didn’t though.”

For businesses that were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, help is available. Governor Mark Gordon’s office announced Wednesday that he has signed emergency rules for two new waves of funding under the COVID-19 Business Relief Fund. The governor signed the new rules Tuesday, making an additional $225 million available to Wyoming businesses and non-profits that have experienced hardship related to the crisis. Per Governor Gordon, Congress allocated $1.25 billion of the total $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act to Wyoming.

Vicki Lueras is hoping her family business can weather the storm as she waits for funding.
Vicki Lueras is hoping her family business can get through unsure times.

Some local businesses, like Action Lock and Key, have taken a bigger hit than others.

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Vicki Lueras and her family bought Action Lock and Key from her father in April. Dave Lueras started the business in Wright in the 1980s, and Vicki looked forward to continuing as a second-generation business owner. COVID-19 almost derailed her plans.

In what employee Tad Johnson calls a “perfect storm” of bad luck, the business has also had to contend with street construction in front of the East 4th Street business, which has left customers unable to easily access the location.

The company, like many others in Gillette, missed out on the first round of funds from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act but were able to received funding during the second round.

“We finally received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, and it really helped get us through a rough couple of months,” Johnson said. “We weathered the storm, and now, if they’ll complete construction, I feel like we’ll be okay.”

Despite the challenges, Johnson says the business sees some light at the end of the tunnel.

While all businesses need customers to survive, Seconds on the Avenue, a thrift store on Gillette Avenue, needs more than shoppers. The store relies on donations for all of its inventory. The COVID shutdown affected all facets of the business.

Run by the Council of Community Services (CCS), the non-profit store sells clothes and other goods to consumers and also provides vouchers for their goods to low-income families in the area.

Heather Lackey became manager of the store in May after serving as an assistant manager for three years. She said things are busier than normal now, but that wasn’t the case just a few short weeks ago.

“We closed for six weeks altogether, and reopened the first week in May,” Lackey said. “We couldn’t accept donations at all during the shutdown.”

Seconds on the Avenue
Seconds on the Avenue is looking for donations.

Lackey said many people in the community didn’t realize they’d reopened, and donations were almost non-existent the first week.

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“I think many people spent the weeks when things were shut down cleaning out their closets though,” she said. “The past couple of weeks things have really picked up. It’s a good problem to have.”

Masks are not mandated in the store at present, but Lackey said most employees wear them when they’re on the sales floor, and many customers wear them when they shop. The register area is surrounded by clear shields to mitigate any risk to employees or customers. The store will follow any mandates put out by the Governor, she added.

For Anne and Pete Scherr, owners of Stagecoach on South Douglas Highway, the COVID-19 pandemic was actually good for business.

Anne and Pete Scherr, owners of Stagecoach
Anne and Pete Scherr, owners of Stagecoach, say the shutdown brought customers in that they might not have had otherwise.

The Scherrs had operated Stagecoach from a trailer for two years, selling at local events and various locations in the Campbell County area. They were in the process of opening their dine-in restaurant when COVID hit.

“We had planned to open in March, then things shut down,” Anne said Thursday. “At first there was panic. We didn’t know what to do. Then we decided to do what we’d been doing all along.”

The couple had the same portable operation they’d always had, and now they had a physical address. They set up shop in their future parking lot.

“We never closed for COVID. And, as much as I don’t like to say there’s anything good about it, it helped our business,” she continued. “People who maybe wouldn’t have tried us were suddenly looking for new options. People would pull in, order their food, and sometimes eat right there in our parking lot. We stayed very busy throughout the shutdown.”

The dine-in restaurant opened May 12, and business has remained brisk. There is no mask requirement for customers or employees, but social distancing is encouraged.

Trevers Chapman, owner of Rapscallions Barber Shop on Gillette Avenue, says another shutdown wouldn’t surprise him.

 Rapscallions is slowly coming back after a six-week shutdown.

“We were shut down five-and-a-half weeks,” Chapman said Monday. “You might as well say six weeks, because even when we opened back up people were scared.”

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Chapman understands the fear.

“This disease is fatal,” he said. “It’s serious. But for the first time in history, we quarantined the healthy.”

Rapscallions reopened on May 1. Despite a slow start, soon it was hard to keep up.

“I think people missed the therapy,” Chapman said. “I think they missed coming here, just like people missed going to the gym. They missed the interaction.”

Chapman, like Hladky, wonders if it’s all over, or if rising COVID-19 case numbers will lead to a mask mandate or even another shutdown.

“We’ll do what we have to do,” he said. “But you have to wonder who gets to decide what’s essential and what’s not.”

Roxanne at Jack’s Liquor on 2nd Street says she’s unsure if fear is to blame, or if people just don’t have as much expendable money, but business has suffered during the pandemic.

“For the first time in 26 years I sat in an empty bar from 9:30 p.m. until closing last night,” she said.

The bar, which also offers drive-in service, has had to rely on that the past several months. People just aren’t coming in like they used to, she said.

Roxanne applied for and accepted the first PPP loan that was offered to her, but turned down the second. She cited fear of too much debt to easily pay back and the fact that, while she’s surviving, other businesses might need the money more as reasons she refused the money.

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Jack’s has also had difficulty keeping employees since the COVID shutdown.

“I’ve advertised for help and I have it on my sign that I’m hiring,” Roxanne said. “I get phone calls but then nobody will come in and put in an application. I wonder if they didn’t overpay.”

Roxanne clarified that she was referring to the extra $600 per week unemployment benefit scheduled to end July 31. She said she’s received applications over the past week, so she’s hopeful things will improve.

“I think things will get better,” she said. “But it’s sure not like it used to be.”