Nanaimo merchants struggle to find a new ‘business as usual’ during COVID-19 pandemic

Some businesses trying to make do with delivery, takeout or online sales

Society might have all but ground to a halt to curb the coronavirus, but you can still buy a cup of coffee on Commercial Street.

Joseph Lee, owner of Serious Coffee at Commercial Street and Museum Way, is trying to stay open for his regular customers with takeout-only service 8 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays.

He wonders if staying open is worth risking getting sick.

“I can’t afford to get sick,” he said. “I have a five-year-old son. For his well-being, I might have to shut down.”

Lee notes that people experiencing homelessness now make up much of the foot traffic downtown. He said it’s a challenge dealing with many who may have mental health issues and drug addictions and he worries about their vulnerability to illness and their potential to transmit coronavirus.

“You see all these street people, looking down on the street, grabbing all the smoke butts and they’re smoking it,” Lee said. “They don’t even know that is a problem. They’ve got a higher chance of getting the coronavirus like that and they’re just walking around.”

Red’s Bakery, at Commercial and Skinner streets, offers takeout too, but recently added a delivery truck service and even makes daily stops for set time periods at places like Departure Bay Beach or Maffeo Sutton Park, where people can make purchases.

“It was perfect timing for the truck and it seems like a lot of the people that are still open, we’re just trying to get the word out to them as well,” said Trish Brix, a Red’s employee.

Staff are also making local deliveries on foot, taking measures to prevent coronavirus transmission.

“Being down here we have to take every precaution necessary,” Brix said. “We had pretty good standards before all this. All of us down here are kind of OCD, but now we’re on heightened OCD. It’s been interesting, to say the least.”

Fascinating Rhythm and Bestsellers Books were staying open too, with owners reasoning social distancing isn’t a problem with so few customers through the door.

READ ALSO: Canada expands 75% wage subsidy to COVID-19 affected businesses of all sizes

Open or closed, merchants are catching up on the chores they finally have time to get around to and, like Tanya Streeter, owner of Artzi Stuff, at Commercial and Church streets, catch what trade comes by.

“There was this person who I think lives on the streets who came by yesterday and was pointing at scarves,” Streeter said. “I said, ‘Well, you can put some cash through the mail slot,’ and he did.”

Other stores, such as Guava Apparel, at Commercial Street and Terminal Avenue, are carrying on through online shopping, said the store’s owner, who asked not to be identified by her full name.

ScotiaBank on Commercial Street and 19+ Cannabis on Victoria Crescent have stayed open with social distancing.

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The Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce is co-ordinating information for businesses through its Stay Strong Nanaimo campaign.

“We’ve been running stories … about how businesses are getting through this dreary time, accompanied by stories about where you can access government support systems and government financing, tales of people doing good things for each other, positive stories,” said Kim Smythe, chamber CEO.

He said he’s spending up to 13 hours a day responding to questions and providing information updates.

“We’ve changed our front page on the web … it’s the daily stuff we’re putting out that’s really important,” Smythe said.

Stay Strong Nanaimo’s tips and articles are posted daily on the chamber site. The chamber is also sharing ideas businesses owners have come up with to keep business going and chamber staff are phoning member businesses to find out how they’re doing.

On March 21, Smythe went door-to-door checking on downtown businesses, photographing signs and speaking with owners who’d tried to remain open. It was a Saturday, but downtown Nanaimo was all but deserted as he approached the intersection of Commercial and Bastion streets.

“There was a couple walking a dog and all of a sudden the dog starts barking like crazy,” Smythe said. “I stop and look over at them and the lady says, ‘Look out, look out.’ I’m looking up and looking around and she yells, ‘Look down,’ and there’s an otter, about six feet in front of me, walking down Commercial Street.”

OPINION: Small businesses need our help right now
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Edwin Westergaard assembles framework for plywood to board up the windows of Fig Love Clothing Company on Church Street in downtown Nanaimo last week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Edwin Westergaard assembles framework for plywood to board up the windows of Fig Love Clothing Company on Church Street in downtown Nanaimo last week. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

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