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Downtown shops open, eager for more business

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Lisa Dunlap Photo Steven and Tanna Johnson, owners of Rustic Essentials Soap Co. on North Main Street, say they consider themselves fortunate because they did not have to shut down due to their product lines, but Steven Johnson shares the sentiment of most other downtown merchants that all businesses should be open without capacity restrictions.

A range of thoughts and emotions were expressed Saturday by downtown Roswell retailers of all types as they were allowed to reopen their stores to customers.

Revised public health orders by the state allowed retailers to open their physical stores up to 25% of building capacity Saturday for the first time since business closure orders were put into effect on March 23 to shutter all but those categorized as “essential.”

Some business owners are angry and hurt over the financial difficulties they have experienced and what they consider to be unreasonable orders. Others say they have been able to survive or even do well in spite of the challenges. All say they are eager to be allowed to operate normally.

Rustic Essentials Soap Co. has been fortunate, said Steven Johnson, who owns the business along with his wife, Tanna.

They have been able to stay open throughout the situation because they manufacture soap. They also began to make hand sanitizer and face coverings during the COVID-19 emergency to meet public needs.

“We have done very well,” he said, “so we are trying to give back.”

They are among the organizers of the Food Truck Friday event, which merchants said drew a substantial crowd Friday and a pretty good crowd the Friday before that. Because people cannot go to restaurants, they are enjoying going to food trucks, so the food trucks park in front of downtown retail stores each Friday night, which encourages people to shop at the same time, even if by curbside service.

“It was good to see people back out after they have been scared for so long,” he said.

Another business owner, Dominic Batista of Alien Jerky, which also has been operating continually, said the crowd felt like Disneyland to him, while Jennifer Whitcamp of Casa Bella Boutique said shoppers kept her busy until around 9 p.m. during the Friday event.

Johnson said he is eager for all businesses to be open.

“Everybody should be allowed to open,” he said. “We are still using paper money. It makes zero sense. If you understand anything about viruses, someone from New York could have passed along some coins and then it could be here.”

He said that he is upset that a public health issue has been politicized and said that officials do not necessarily understand that even brief interruptions for start-ups can be harmful.

“It is like riding a bicycle uphill. You can’t stop,” he said. “If you stop, you are going to go downhill and you will crash.”

Since the public health orders went into effect — described as a necessary way to minimize in-person contact and the spread of the coronavirus — at least five downtown stores have closed or moved to online-only operations.

Whitchamp and Toni Pemberton, owner of Finishing Touches, say their customers have been very loyal to them during the store closures, calling in orders. Finishing Touches has been in business for 33 years and a large part of its work is custom frames for artwork and photography. While frame supplies have sometimes been difficult to obtain, she said, business activity has remained strong.

But she said she was happy to be able to open the store doors Saturday for the first time in more than six weeks. “Today, I took the (open) sign off the door and cleaned it,” she said. “It felt strange.”

Some store owners are experiencing a great deal of difficulty and are openly hurt or angry by the experience.

Terry Lindberg, owner of the Hippie Chicks apparel and accessories store on West Deming Street for the past 17 years, said she did not open her store doors to customers Saturday because she is having to renovate her store so that she can rent out a portion of it to another tenant.

“No prom is what hit us the hardest,” she said. “We had to refund all the money on the prom tuxedos.”

The relief assistance she was able to secure cannot make up for the lost revenues. “But we are not giving up,” she said. “We are still going and hanging on. It is day by day.”

She said she doesn’t agree with the business closure orders, but added, “I am happy that places are able to open up and hope that people will continue to support local business.”

Calico Cow Fabric and Gift Shop owner Angel Mayes, also a real estate broker and insurance agent, said she cannot hire back any of her three employees if she can only operate at 25% occupancy. And more to the point, she said, unless most people are back at work full time, she doesn’t expect to see a lot of business activity.

“We can’t sell hobby merchandise when people don’t have jobs and aren’t getting paychecks,” she said. “You can open me up 100%, 200%, but what good will that do us unless people are earning money?”

She said her opinion is that the governor overstepped her authority. While she understands what has been explained about the health risks of the coronavirus, she said that she considers a lot of the discussion about the COVID-19 to be “fear-mongering.” But she said perhaps there is a silver lining in all the turmoil.

“I think it is going to prompt people in this country who are entrepreneurs to make products,” she said. A lot of the fabrics she carries are made in Asia, she said, and “we need American products.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, asked about lawsuits filed in objection to public health orders and rules, said so far courts have found her administration to be on “sound legal grounds and footing.” She also said that the Economic Recovery Council she established is working to develop relief packages for restaurants and tourist-related businesses, which she said are among the hardest hit by closure orders and the economic slowdown.

She also said that she is aware that the Small Business Administration Payroll Protection Program loans required hiring back of employees within a certain time for loans to be forgiven, but she said her administration will work with the U.S. Congress and lenders to fight unreasonable time schedules. She said her administration is not expecting a full phase-one business reopening until early June.

“We have a long way to go so that time frame is being too narrowly defined, and we will be advocates for those businesses that are concerned,” she said.

Many local business owners are thankful for the progress that has allowed at least a partial reopening, but most spoken with Saturday agreed with the thoughts expressed by Mayes of the Calico Cow. “Get the stores open and the money rolling,” she said.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.