Though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the globe and governments issue lockdown orders and shutter businesses to fight the virus, Hancock County remains relatively unscathed in terms of the impact on area businesses. While several of the local factories enacted short-term layoffs earlier this year, most are now at full production.
Hancock County lacks a large retail base, and most of the retail establishments that exist are considered essential businesses, and remained open. Though Hancock County weathered the storm, some negative impact did happen.
When the pandemic first hit, Governor Andy Beshear ordered automobile dealerships to close, and it hurt Brown’s Automotive in Hawesville. “We were closed for two months,” owner Larry Brown said. “Naturally that is going to hurt.”
The shut down not only closed automobile dealerships, it also closed down automotive auction sites, which made it impossible for the business to purchase new inventory.
“It caused everything to get screwed up because they shut all the companies down,” Brown said. “Nobody could get them (vehicles) in or out.”
Brown said the shut down reduced sales dramatically the first part of the year. He said if he could have brought in more vehicles over the summer, the dealership could have sold them. The last part of the year has been better, as sales have improved.
“We have been busy October through November,” Brown said.
Healthcare COVID also affected the medical field at first, with all health care except emergency and urgent care suspended. Mary Beth Morris of Emmick Eyecare in Hawesville spoke about the impact of COVID-19 on the practice.
“While we had to postpone routine visits, we were still able to help those with sight threatening disease and injury,” Morris said. “Because we had to postpone routine care, that caused our normal patient load to be backed up and patients had to wait a little longer for an appointment than we would have liked.”
COVID has changed how the practice operates. In the past, people could simply walk in to medical offices. COVID guidelines forbid such practices now.
“We are requiring patients to wait in their vehicles until we can call them back, and guests are limited,” Morris said. “When patients are selecting frames, every pair they try on has to be sanitized in a specialized UV cleaning system before another patient can try them on.” Employees frequently sanitize the office each day, and they and the patients must also wear masks.
Travel and restaurants affected
When the country went on lock-down, and with restrictions still in place in most of the country, travel is down all across the country. This slowdown in travel caused business to slow at the Choice Hotel in Lewisport, owner Sumit Patel said.
“My business has really been affected,” Patel said. “I am not doing as well as I used to.”
Patel said due to the pandemic, he must rent his rooms at half the price as usual, which really crimps his income.
“I am barely making it,” Patel said.
Patel said he tried to apply for financial assistance through the Small Business Administration, but the organization turned down his application. Patel said he reapplied three times, but keeps getting turned down.
“I really need some help from the government and local government if they can,” Patel said.
Hancock County Judge/Executive Johnny “Chic” Roberts said he is concerned about the impact the virus is having on small businesses like Patel’s hotel.
Restaurants “Small businesses have been hit, not only in Kentucky, but everywhere,” Roberts said. “We have to find a balance where we can open the economy, but do it safely.”
Roberts said the closing of Riverview Restaurant disturbs him, as well as the continued closing of Main Cross Café. He said restaurants have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s fury.
“It has been such a hardship on those businesses,” Roberts said.
Grace Burk, owner of Main Cross Café, said the current COVID restrictions prevent her from reopening her restaurant, though she wants to reopen it. The governor’s seating restrictions make it economically unfeasible.
“We cannot financially afford to keep supplies ordered with such a limited capacity of people being able to sit in the restaurant,” Burk said. The restaurant tried to offer curbside service when the pandemic first hit, but the number of carryout orders was too small to keep the business open.
“We plan on reopening once everything clears up,” Burk said. “We will reopen once we can get people in the restaurant at 100-percent capacity.”
The pandemic did force several of the county’s factories to enact layoffs earlier this year, which does hurt the county’s finances somewhat. Judge/Executive Roberts said with the factories now back to basically full employment, the county’s unemployment rate dropped to 5-percent, which helped the county’s financial situation.
“We have been fortunate with our large employers,” Roberts said.
Even with the financial crunch caused by the pandemic, Roberts said the county continues to provide the essential services to the community.
“We are still able to do the work on roads and maintain our services,” Roberts said.
Hancock County Public Library Director Tina Snyder said the pandemic affected the library system in a variety of ways, but people continue to utilize the services offered by the library. When the pandemic hit the library, like almost every facility open to the public, enacted protocols to limit the number of people inside the building and started a rigorous sanitization program.
The pandemic altered the way in which people use the library. Several years ago the library began to offer patrons the ability to check out book selections digitally. When the pandemic struck, this particular method of accessing the library’s selections increased.
“Digital selections are available through a tablet or a phone via the internet,” Snyder said.
The library also began to offer curbside pickup options, and even porch delivery. These two methods of accessing the library’s services prove quite popular with library patrons.
“We have people contacting us and saying we have helped them keep their sanity throughout all of this because they have been able to access books, movies and other material and services through our curbside services or coming in and getting it themselves,” Snyder said.
Due to the pandemic, governments have made various assistance programs available to help people cope with the severe economic impact of the virus. With person-to-person contact limited, many agencies started to offer online access to their assistance programs.
“People are coming to the library to use our computers and Internet to submit forms,” Snyder said. “They are very appreciative of us being available for them to use our services for free.”
Snyder said people download the forms off of the Internet, fill them out and then the library scans the document and emails it to the appropriate agency for them. She said it proved to be a lifesaver for many families.
“We had one lady almost in tears when she left one day because she was able to come in and do what she needed to do,” Snyder said. “She said it saved her family.”
Snyder said no other way existed for the lady to access this program. The library’s free computer and Internet access allowed her to get the assistance her family needed.
Interestingly, several area businesses said the pandemic, except for the first couple of months, actually helped their business. Two businesses realizing solid growth are Hancock Farm Supply and Rob’s Heating and Air.
Hancock Farm Supply
“It has been good,” farm store manager Gordon Gaynor said. “Early on it was because of the stimulus money and the extra unemployment money.”
Gaynor said people took advantage of extra down time and extra money to work on various projects around the home. He said people bought lumber, wood products and other such material. Gaynor said the increased demand caused the prices of lumber to spike, which slowed down the purchase of the materials later in the year. He said lately the sale of lumber started to increase again.
The bread and butter of Hancock Farm Supply is farmers, and the pandemic did not force them to shut down for two months. Crops were already in the ground, which meant farmers needed the various services offered by the farm store.
“The farmers keep me going,” Gaynor said. “It still has been the same business as usual for farmers; they have not slowed up any.”
He said the only thing that changed at the farm store is how the staff interacts with customers. When the pandemic first hit, the store closed to lobby traffic, and created a service window in which staff waited on customers.
“We would gather people’s order and take it to the door,” Gaynor said. “We did that for awhile.”
Now the store is open to lobby traffic. The only change is the business installed Plexiglas around the cash registers to provide a virus shield between the staff and the customers. He said customers must wear a mask now when entering the store. If they do not have a mask, they must use the service window by the cash register on the U.S. 60 side of the lobby.
“Customers can buy a mask if they do not have one,” Gaynor said.
Rob’s Heating and Supply
Rob Head, of Rob’s heating and Supply, said his business actually increased during the pandemic due to people being at home. He said part of the reason is people are using their H/VAC systems with them being at home more, and because people are working on projects they put off for a while.
“Usually people are so busy they forget about stuff,” Head said. “We are a lot busier with cleanups and service.”
The pandemic did change how he and his crew interact with customers. Head said they try not to enter homes unless absolutely necessary. Head said since they are in so many homes each day, they could spread the virus if not careful. He said when the pandemic first began, he and his crew wore masks only around the elderly. Now it is standard procedure to wear masks whenever they go into any home. He and his crew also use a lot of hand sanitizer each day.
“It has changed how we do things a little bit,” Head said. Sometimes, unable to go into a home, Head said he and his crew have talked to customers on the phone and went step by step how to install a part, or perform a specific service. Head said last week a customer needed a part installed on his air unit. Head said he placed the part on a picnic table outside the home, the homeowner came out and retrieved it, and Head called him on the phone. “We talked him through it,” Head said.
Head said sometimes he and his crew need to wait before servicing a central air unit. He said when the pandemic first started, a customer went out-of-area for surgery, which required him to fly on an airplane there and back. When the man returned home from his surgery, he called head to service his unit. Head told him he would, but if it was an inside problem there would be a delay.
“It was an inside problem,” Head said. “I told them I would see them in two weeks when their quarantine was over.”
Businesses over the entire county needed to adapt to the new realities created by the COVID pandemic. One industry that needed to adapt the most to the pandemic was the real estate market. It took some time, but the industry adapted.
Hancock Real Estate
“We were struggling with how to show houses and how to meet with people for contracts and signatures,” Hancock Real Estate and Auction owner Tim Gooch said.
Gooch said the industry figured out how to adapt to using electronic signatures, and how to show houses safely. He said around May of this year the market turned around and began to grow.
“It has turned out to be a good year,” Gooch said. “The real estate market is continuing to go forward with the momentum that started back in 2019-2018.”
Like most business, Hancock Real Estate enacted safety protocols to keep the staff and customers safe. Gooch said the office is closed to walk-in traffic. People need to make an appointment to meet with the staff. Gooch said there is low inventory on the market right now, which makes it a seller’s market.
“There are a lot of buyers out there,” he said.
Gift stores also needed to figure out how to operate with the pandemic raging. Like other businesses, for approximately two months these businesses needed to close their lobby to customers, and offer only curbside or delivery services. One local shop used its creativity to survive the pandemic
“Surprisingly, we have done really well,” A&B owner Lisa Jarboe said. “We started making wreaths and putting them on Facebook.”
Jarboe said in four weeks the business sold over 100 wreaths. She said selling the wreaths helped keep the business going during the shut down earlier this year. As part of the measures to combat the virus, the state restricted the operation of funeral homes. Providing flower arrangements and other such items for funerals is the bulk of the store’s business, and this revenue stream dried up.
“The first month or so we were not doing hardly any business,” Jarboe said. “The wreaths and other things we put online that people were seeing helped; they made up for all the losses then some.”
Jarboe said the restrictions on funeral homes loosed up the middle part of the year, which helped, but with the recent surge in cases funerals are again limited to no more than 25 people at a service. When funerals were limited earlier in the year, most services consisted of simply going to the gravesite for the burial.
Another local gift shop opened this fall, and has enjoyed early success.
Larry and Monie Sosh opened Truly Gifted in the Lewisport Holland Shopping Center in September. Despite the pandemic, sales are going well.
“We opened the last quarter, where sales are usually good for Christmas and things like that,” owner Monie Sosh said. “The community has welcomed us.”
As a small craft store, Sosh said the business does not have large groups of people come into the establishment at the same time. She said the store requires people to wear masks upon entering, and she sanitizes the store quite often.
“I think people feel pretty comfortable coming in knowing we do those things,” Sosh said.
When the pandemic hit, people flocked to grocery stores to purchase cleaning supplies, food and other items in anticipation of those things becoming hard to find. As a result, grocery stores fared well during the pandemic.
“Our business has held up,” Bill’s IGA co-owner Wayne Stephens said. “It might have increased a little bit.”
Stephens said due to the pandemic, their costs have increased significantly to keep the store properly sanitized and safe. The store installed Plexiglas at the cash registers to keep staff and customers separated and safe, mandate the wearing of masks, and also perform other forms of sanitization to make the store as safe as possible.
“We flood our store each night with ozone, which kills all the viruses,” Stephens said. “People feel safer in our store than they do in a lot of the big box stores.”
Otherwise, it is business as normal at the store. The same goes for Crossroads IGA in Lewisport.
“It has been about the same,” closing manager Bridgette Howard said. “It really did not change a whole lot here.”
Like Bill’s IGA, Crossroads installed Plexiglas around its cash registers to protect the staff and customers. The store also provides free masks and hand sanitizer for customers. Howard said the store’s customers have adapted to the changes without complaining.
She did say how people shopped changed though. People do not convenience shop as much.
“We get heavier shopping,” Howard said. “They get mass quantities instead of smaller amounts.”
Howard said people purchase more when they visit the store because they limit the number of times they go out shopping. She said customers purchase items to make meals at home, versus buying snacks and prepared meals. She said people purchase things like flour, cornmeal, beans and other such items.
“Otherwise, things are going smooth,” Howard said.
By Ralph Dickerson