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No longer business as usual during the coronavirus pandemic

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“Hello, this is Jesse Straight with Whiffletree Farm,” said the voicemail message. “I've been getting lots of calls to see if we are open and if we have food, and the answer is yes to both. Please come on by.”

Every small business storefront, website, social media account and answering machine is letting customers know what to expect during the coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, it’s a plea to return in better times. For others, it’s a reassurance that their work continues. 

Thanks in part to food shortages at grocery stores, the store at Whiffletree Farm has been bustling for weeks, said farmer Jesse Straight, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton. It’s helped make up for lost sales to the restaurants they used to supply. “(Restaurants) are in really rough shape and most of them don’t have many good alternatives for sales outlets,” said Straight. So he’s partnering with some of those chefs to sell the frozen meals they create.

Straight also is strategizing ways to get more food directly to customers if the restaurant industry doesn’t recover quickly. “We’re trying to think about our future with the idea that restaurants being back at full swing is probably a long time away,” said Straight. 

Getting clients working from home has been the goal of Georgia Graves, president of Bridgman Communications, Inc., a company that sells, installs and maintains telephone systems. She and her employees have spent several hectic weeks helping churches, law firms, doctor’s offices and other customers transition to remote work. It hasn’t always gone smoothly.  

“It was difficult to get people set up remotely because of how their houses were configured, but the workaround that we have been very pleased with is the Allworx telephone system app that mirrors your desk phone,” said Graves, a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Herndon and a former president of the Northern Virginia Catholic Business Network. “It's rewarding to know you've (helped) a business continue functioning.” 

It wouldn’t be possible for hairstylist Jennifer Unglesbee to be more than 6 feet away from her clients, so she closed her shop, Shear Rock N Roll Salon in Arlington, before it was mandated. 

“I had a client that was sick the week before things started to close, and it made me so nervous having three kids and not knowing at that time how serious this virus was,” said Unglesbee, a parishioner of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria. 

Some loyal customers have bought gift cards for the future, and Sola Salon Studios, who rents her the space, decided not to charge rent for a while. Still, Unglesbee has applied for unemployment assistance and she hopes to apply for a loan as well. 

“Every single person I’ve talked to that owns (an affected small business) said it’s been really challenging because there’s been so little information out there for us,” she said. “It seems like every day things change and it’s hard to know if we're doing the right things.”

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Outdoor hand-washing stations, air scrubbers, hospital-grade germicidal disinfectant and plastic walls with zipper doors have kept the employees of Foster Remodeling Solutions Inc. safe while working on construction sites, according to David Foster, company president. “We are considered an essential business, so we are allowed to keep operating,” he said. “We’ve found most of the people that have projects under way were like, ‘Please don't leave.’ They didn’t want us to leave their home half-finished or torn apart.”

Other customers whose projects were scheduled to start this spring have pushed start dates back to June, said Foster, and the company has continued doing remodeling consultations via videoconferencing. They think business will pick up after the pandemic. “A lot of people, now that they’re stuck at home for a while, they’re thinking about all these spaces, realizing how much they dislike their kitchen or bathroom or that they need a home office,” he said. 

But when that new business will flow in is hard to predict. Right now, “we’re trying hard to keep all of our staff with a job and paycheck and doing as much as they can,” he said.

John Tagnesi of Global Catholic Tours has to worry not only about when the United States will reopen for business, but every tourist destination and pilgrimage site he visits. He’s already canceled trips to Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal this year. “I’ve got one group that is going to the Holy Land in September/October with 17 people and we’ll probably have to cancel it too,” said Tagnesi, a parishioner of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester. “So 2020 will be a bust.” 

As the assistant manager of computer services for Christendom College in Front Royal, Craig Spiering has been busy dealing with IT problems of professors and faculty. But his weekend gig as a wedding photographer has dried up — seven weddings have been postponed already.

“I did have one wedding that was supposed to happen in a couple of weeks and they saw the writing on the wall and moved their wedding up,” said Spiering, a parishioner of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal. “They were able to have a church wedding and only 10 people could be there. Then the reception was at her parents’ house where they danced in the living room and cut the cake at the kitchen table.”

As Spiering uses his newfound free time to work on marketing his photography business, his family is embracing an entrepreneurial spirit. “We have a little homestead and we had a goat that just had kids so we have goat's milk now, which is phenomenal. We’ve had an excess of chicken eggs so we’ve been able to sell eggs. My wife’s been baking bread for people who can’t find bread in the stores,” he said. “One son has been making and selling (wooden) swords, another son makes bird houses and little fairy houses and I have a daughter who breeds and sells rabbits.”

Pauline Books and Media in Alexandria went mail-order only in March. They’ve checked in on patrons who call to order, said Sister Magdalena, a Daughter of St. Paul. “We try to very intentionally ask how they’re doing and it’s really amazing how much people now want to tell you how they’re doing,” she said.

In Fairfax, the Catholic bookstore the Paschal Lamb is open three hours a day. While the shop’s online orders have doubled, in-person sales have plummeted. “This should be our very busiest time of the year, between first holy Communions, Easter, confirmations, Mother’s Day, graduation. So this is not the best time for something like this to happen,” said co-founder Cecilia Balog. 

She’s been gratified to see how appreciative her customers are that she can still provide them with books, icons and candles during this time, and she’s hopeful they’ll be back in full force once this is over. “We are actually in our 33rd year of business and I think that’s significant because Christ was 33 when he was crucified. But he rose again,” she said. “We like to think that’s kind of a metaphor for the Paschal Lamb. We will rise again.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020