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Struggle ongoing for area businesses in pandemic: ‘I am about to lose everything I worked for’

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Last Thursday afternoon, Debbie Sharp made a trip to the cemetery at Fort Indiantown Gap, to say goodbye to a woman for whom Sharp had been cutting hair for the past 45 years.

Sharp, who owns Sharp Cuts at 124 W. Main St. in Middletown, has a lot of senior citizens in her clientele.

One of the things that has become special to her over the years is that when one of her longtime customers passes away, Sharp does their hair one last time to make sure they look good for their journey to the hereafter.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed that, as it has changed so much else for Sharp, whose business was ordered closed near the end of March because it is deemed non-essential by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Sharp hasn’t been able to cut their hair since then and even when customers die, she can’t do their hair because everyone is getting cremated because of the COVID-19 restrictions, she said.

So she went to the cemetery at Fort Indiantown Gap, where she could say goodbye by driving past where her friend’s urn is. Right now it’s all she can do, she says.

She has good days and bad days. Sometimes she cries. She gets upset talking about having to cancel the ad she has placed in the Press & Journal for the last 38 years.

“It’s an extra expense, it’s money I don’t have. I just feel awful, but I can’t afford [it].”

In the beginning of April, she applied for the new unemployment that the state said it was providing to employers. They told her the system was backlogged and she would have to try later. She was finally able to apply later but says she still has not received “a cent.”

She hasn’t received a stimulus check. Sharp said she has applied for seven types of loans but was denied. Even if she gets a loan, she worries that at 63 she is too old to pay it back.

Her husband works at a beer distributor so that income is still coming in. Sharp owns her salon and also collects rent from two apartments in the building. They both get a pension, so Sharp figures their income is secure.

Still, when a daughter of one of the tenants moved back in and the water bill went up by $20 a month, Sharp said she had to go to the tenant to collect it, because “$20 is like a thousand dollars to me.” Before, she would have let it slide.

“I feel bad because I can’t give them a break,” Sharp said of her tenants, but she feels she has no choice. She needs the rental income to cover her own electric, water, phone and insurance bills which haven’t stopped coming.

“It’s thousands of dollars a month to pay. My account is drained. It scares me to death, it just scares me to death.”

While some other small business owners in Middletown whose business has been shut down believe they could safety reopen now if allowed to, Sharp doesn’t feel that way.

Most of her clients are 60 and older, and therefore among those most vulnerable to getting the virus. Sharp said her own immune system is compromised, and she watches her grandchildren three days a week for her daughter, who is a corrections officer at Dauphin County Prison. She can’t take the chance of catching the coronavirus and then possibly passing it on to her grandchildren.

Sharp said she hopes she can make it until the county makes it to the green phase. She says she will have all she needs when that time comes. She bought a thermometer, hand sanitizer, throw-away capes, face shields and masks for people who don’t have one of their own. It all cost her over $500 of money she doesn’t have.

She won’t be able to take walk-ins, like Penn State Harrisburg students who like to just show up. It will all be by appointment only, and only one customer will be able to be in the shop at one time. The rest will wait outside. Sharp doesn’t see these rules changing anytime soon.

Sharp typically would handle two perm customers in her shop at one time. Now with the new rules, she may only have six customers in a 10-hour day, or eight.

“Is that going to pay the bills? God only knows.”

Forty years ago when she first started out working for someone else, Sharp was getting $65 for a perm. Today, she still gets $65.

“Will people be able to handle it if I have to raise them $5? I don’t know.”

 

‘We are the ones that are suffering’

Jeff “Shake” Cleckner was all ready to reopen his Faded Edge barbershop at 115 E. Main St. on May 8, when it had appeared earlier that the shut down that has had him closed since late March would end.

Then Wolf came out with his announcement that the shutdown for counties still in the red phase like Dauphin would last until June 4.

Cleckner says he has no doubt he could safely reopen today, if only they would allow him to do so.

He will keep all his customers 6 feet apart for social distancing, which may mean just one in the shop at a time. Both he and his customer will wear masks. He’ll probably have to wear rubber gloves and will spray-sanitize everything after every cut.

“It’s stuff that you should be doing everyday — cleaning, washing your hands, sanitizing. Who wants to go into a dirty barber shop?”

He doesn’t understand why businesses like his can’t reopen.

“It seems like it is a Democrat-Republican thing. They can’t get along they are just p***ing each other off and nobody wants to listen to either party. We are the ones that are suffering.”

He knows Brad Shepler, the barber in East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, who chose to reopen his shop in defiance of the governor. He also knows that officials have threatened to pull his license and fine him $10,000 a day.

Cleckner could reopen too and probably make a lot of money over two or three days until he figures he too would get slammed.

“They are not playing around with this stuff,” he said. “Is it worth losing your license and the license for your shop? That’s 18 years down the drain.”

Cleckner filed for unemployment the first day he was shut down. He is expecting to get money this week. He said his neighbor is a bartender who is owed $4,000 in back unemployment.

Cleckner isn’t the sole breadwinner in his household, but his income from the shop accounts for most of it. They have a 10-year-old child to look after.

Cleckner said the landlords from whom he rents his shop have been working with him.

He gets almost 20 calls a day from regular and new customers. Many of them seem to think he is closed because he wants to be.

“I am closed because the government shut me down. I want to be there. I’m ready to rock and roll. As soon as the governor says we are in the green, I will” be open.

 

‘It was a dream I had, to do this’

On the wall of the living room in Kerri Meyer’s home is a framed photo with the inscription “Believe in your Dreams.”

It’s a picture of Let’s Pretend, the business Meyer and her husband Rick Bryan co-own, taken when the business first opened on Brown Street in Middletown in 2012. It’s a reminder of her dream, even as Meyer says she’s not sure what is going to become of that dream.

In May 2019, Kerri and Rick moved Let’s Pretend to a much larger and much more visible location in the Westporte Centre on West Main Street, close to where the new Amtrak train station is to be built.

As Meyer wrote in an article posted in the Press & Journal on March 25, “We were finally getting the exposure we have hoped for” when Let’s Pretend was shut down as a non-essential business to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

Meyer’s business is unique. It thrives on the very things that are not to be allowed because of the coronavirus. Children are encouraged to play together, to pretend together, to act out what their imaginations create.

“How do you come in and play if you are supposed to be socially distant?” she asks.

Otherwise, Let’s Pretend doesn’t have a product to sell, nothing you can pick up at curbside to show your support for a local business.

Even if Wolf allowed Let’s Pretend to open tomorrow, Meyer said she doesn’t think she could.

“I don’t think I would do any business. They aren’t going to come to play” because of concern over the virus, she said.

“I am not against the governor” keeping businesses like hers shut down. “I don’t think he is an awful person. I don’t dislike (Secretary of Health Rachel) Levine. My aunt is a nurse at the medical center. I don’t think it is a made-up thing or a conspiracy.”

Meyer said she has been able to work with the people she rents the space from. However, she worries that if the shutdown is lifted too soon, the landlords will want her to reopen. If no one comes, as she fears, she’ll have no money coming in but her utility bills will increase because of the doors being open.

She has not applied for unemployment. She has not applied for any loans or grants or payroll protection money. She doesn’t have any employees and figures she would not be eligible for any of the programs.

“I might apply for something, but it has to be right. I don’t want to get myself in a worse financial situation.”

They still have Rick’s income, as he is a supervisor at a convenience store and considered an essential worker.

It’s hard for Meyer to see light at the end of the tunnel. She doesn’t see people wanting to come to Let’s Pretend until the county is in the green, at the earliest.

Part of Meyer wants to quit now and cut her losses with the landlord now, before she gets into more debt from not being able to pay the rent and other bills for the space.

But she worries that if she does that, things will eventually get back to normal and people will again want what she has to offer, but it will be somebody else somewhere else providing the service.

“I know it won’t be like this forever,” she said. “I don’t want to give up. It’s mine. Let’s Pretend had been in my brain for years and years and years even before I actually opened it. It was a dream I had, to do this.”

 

‘I am about to lose everything I worked for’

Bridget Grant owns three tattoo parlors, including the Inkcredible Tattoo Factory 2 on South Union Street in Middletown. The other two are in Elizabethtown and in Lancaster.

All three have been shut down since March 17.

The busiest time of the year for tattoo parlors is March through June, when people have money to spend because of income tax refunds, and the warming weather encourages less clothes and “showing off ink.”

Typically, the money she makes during this season gets her through the slow period that starts in the fall and runs through winter.

But this year, that’s all been lost. Grant fears that by the time she can reopen, she’ll have no money to get through the lean time.

She applied for grants but nothing has come through. She said she doesn’t qualify for payroll protection money, because the 14 people who work for her at the three shops — including four at the shop in Middletown — are all subcontractors and not employees.

She applied for unemployment for self-employed people. Three days ago she finally got $254. She hopes to receive the special $600 payment and her lump sum of back pay.

Otherwise, Grant figures by next month all her savings will be gone to cover the $11,000 to $12,000 she owes each month for rent, utilities and expenses at her three locations.

She has no other source of income and “I am about to lose everything I worked for.”

The people who work for her are worse off. She has bought groceries for some of her artists, because they did not have enough money for food.

What bothers Grant the most is that tattoo parlors like hers can’t open until counties are in the green phase. Yet Grant says her business is more sterile and clean than her doctor’s office.

Her artists have worn face masks for years, they wear gloves and use sanitizer, and pass every inspection from the health department. They only handle one customer at a time and everything is by appointment. She is “100 percent” certain she could open and safely operate all three locations.

She doesn’t understand how Walmart can be open with hundreds of people walking through the store each day, and she cannot.

Grant said she is trying to talk to officials in Lancaster County to see if they would be willing to allow her to reopen, regardless of whether Wolf permits it. She’s willing to risk it. She hasn’t talked to anyone about reopening the location in Middletown.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it if it lasts too much longer,” Grant said of the shutdown.

 

‘I want to be open but I want everybody to be safe’

With Kidz In Mind has been a staple of the Middletown retail community for 14 years. Amy Ebersole started the business at her first location near Karns, before moving to her present site at the corner of North Union and West Water streets.

For the first month and a half after Wolf ordered her closed as a non-essential business, “I did nothing,” Ebersole said.

“Then I said, I have to have money coming in” to cover her equipment, pay the rent at the store and help feed her family.

Her husband has continued working through the pandemic. She has no employees, but is getting unemployment for herself. She took some of her equipment home and started advertising on Facebook. She also relies on word of mouth.

She began making T-shirts at her house and selling them by mail. T-shirts are a big part of her business. She makes T-shirts and other clothing items for sports teams and other small businesses in the area.

Right now, she estimates she’s making maybe 20 percent of the business she had been getting, before she had to close her store.

Ebersole thinks she could safely open if permitted to by the governor. She doesn’t rely on walk-in traffic.

“I understand we are looking out for the safety of everybody. I’m not sure where I stand” regarding when the county should reopen. “I want to be open but I want everybody to be safe.”

Ebersole said a big worry is the  impact this will have on the sports teams and other clients that she depends upon for her business.

She does work for four swim teams, none of whom will have a team this summer.

“If they don’t last, if the sports teams don’t come back, I will have to look at new markets and I hope I can make it,” Ebersole said.