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Amid pandemic, small businesses struggle, await funding and get creative

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Joshua's Limousine isn't closed but there aren't many people looking for limo rides when both casinos are closed, the 38 proms on the books for April have been canceled and May weddings have been postponed.

Gary McKeon, owner of the Gales Ferry-based company, said Thursday that Joshua's did two airport runs this past week, whereas it usually averages about 115 a week.

"We're open for business. We can pick people up. We just can't stop anywhere," McKeon said. "I guess we can do date night and drive to McDonald's."

His company has gone from about 60 employees to four or five. He expects sales to be down more than 90% this month, after they were down 60% in March, 17% in February and 7% in January. Since McKeon was seeing decreases in business even in early January, he furloughed his employees on the early side, and said those who filed for unemployment got their checks 10 days later.

"The ones that I spoke with are pretty happy that I made that decision early," he said, considering people are now waiting much longer for unemployment benefits.

McKeon has applied for the Connecticut Recovery Bridge Loan Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, and the Paycheck Protection Program, but as many other business owners have said, he hasn't gotten any money yet.

For many small-business owners, life the past couple weeks has been a combination of drowning in paperwork, dramatically altering their model to bring in just a fraction of the revenue, and getting ahead on projects and improvements.

On Friday, Gov. Ned Lamont extended his closure of nonessential businesses through at least May 20.

"It's been a freaking roller-coaster," said Shelly Wilson, owner of Mystified Escape Rooms in Mystic. "Every day it's some new hoop or challenge to consider."

She has 11 part-time employees, and said they just started seeing their first unemployment deposits on Friday. Her property insurance doesn't cover the pandemic, but she said her landlord agreed to put rent on hold for a month or two.

Wilson's take on the loan programs to which she applied? "Right now, I don't know if I'm getting any money, ever."

Another issue is that, because she opened Mystified four years ago in the spring, her payments for insurance, workers' compensation and computer subscription services are all due around this time.

And once she decided to close on March 16, she "had to cough up $2,000 in refunds to customers who had games booked on the calendar, so I was like, ouch," Wilson said.

Whenever she is able to reopen Mystified, Wilson feels nobody will want to go into a shared game, so she'll have to make all of them private. She also will have to add time to disinfect between games, meaning fewer games each day.

In the meantime, she is trying to get creative, such as by offering a print-at-home scavenger kit for kids that can be done from the safety of the car or on walking trails.

Timing wasn't great

Tom Vignato had been planning to reopen Fields of Fire Adventure Park in Mystic earlier than usual, with April 4 as the first day. With schools closed and Bluff Point State Park packed with people, he figured there was a good market for his outdoor ropes courses. But then Lamont ordered nonessential businesses to close.

Vignato said the timing is horrible: As a seasonal business, this is the time of year when accounts with money from the previous season run dry.

In the meantime, Vignato is working on expanding from a place known for climbing to one that offers a bike park with trails and jumps, camping and an event space for live music. Once the shutdown is over, he plans to hit the ground running, and he hopes that the music festival planned for July 31 and Aug. 1 can still happen.

One company that hasn't seen much of a negative impact lately is Media Design Solutions, a 1-year-old business that does signage and audio-video services. Owner Jay Harman had been working out of his home but decided before the pandemic to move into Foundry 66, a co-working space in Norwich, on April 1, and he stuck with that date.

"Now that I have a visual location, and people are talking, the business has actually picked up. Working inside your home, it's hard to present yourself," Harman said. He is meeting people by appointment only, and said Foundry 66 requires visitors to sign in, but most of his conversations happen over the phone.

Music and book stores offering pickup and delivery

Tara Wyatt said her apparel shop Indigo Niantic is "kind of at a standstill until we get some kind of funding." She's spending an average of 10 hours every day of the week at her other Niantic store, Tumbleweeds Music Shop and Boutique, filling out paperwork for loans and filing her taxes.

Wyatt has found the Connecticut Recovery Bridge Loan Program application the most confusing because of all the attachments required.

She also is taking record orders; she can do roadside pickup, some delivery, and shipping. Her advice is for people to shop local and, if they're not already, to get on social media, since that's the only way many businesses can reach out.

Wyatt said her stores are about the experience of coming into the physical space, but she is doing "digital digging," in which she films a video flipping through records "so you can dig at home and tell us what you want."

At The Bowerbird in Old Lyme, a customer called to say her husband wanted to send a birthday card to a friend turning 86, so owner Chris Kitchings photographed about 10 cards. The customer chose one and picked it up curbside. An employee recently FaceTimed with another customer to show what was available in the toy department.

Someone is in the store, which features everything from home and garden accessories to jewelry, almost every day fulfilling online orders and bringing out purchases for curbside pickup. They also have been delivering some local orders.

Customers have been ordering lots of puzzles, which have become more popular as people have had to stay at home; Kitchings said she's probably selling 10 times as many puzzles as usual. She has furloughed all but one employee, but she plans to bring all of her staff back after the pandemic passes.

At Mystic Disc, owner Dan Curland says he is "doing enough business to pay the rent — so far," mostly through online orders. His friend Maddie Britto volunteered to set up Facebook and Instagram links for the admittedly computer-awkward owner, and Curland will see customers by appointment.

"They show up, I let them in the store and wait outside," he explained. "If they find something, they leave it on the counter; I go in and ring it up, then take it outside for them. It's all done safely."

Being in business for 38 years has taught Curland a few things, so he doesn't owe distributors and doesn't buy things he can't afford.

"We obviously consider music essential to a healthy lifestyle," said Rich Martin, owner of Telegraph Records in New London. "But we've been happy to comply with Gov. Lamont's directive to close all nonessential businesses in these crazy times."

The Telegraph is fielding some online orders, and Martin said he recently launched an upgrade to the business website so customers can directly order titles including new releases and exclusive indie titles. He's looking to offer curbside pickup in the near future.

"We've applied for everything that we can for support, including the Small Business Administration Disaster Relief Loan and Payroll Protection Program, as well as some grants that corporations are offering to small businesses," he said. "At this point, the most we've received is confirmation emails of our applications and interest."

But he said this "newfound space affords us some time to rediscover artists we've loved in the past, explore the catalogs of our current faves, and discover some that are new to us altogether."

Customers go through withdrawal

Annie Philbrick, co-owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic and the Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, has added to her job title.

"I'm now the car delivery person," she laughed this past week. "Both stores are closed to the public, so I've been doing local delivery of our online, phone and email orders. I've found neighborhoods in Mystic, Groton and Stonington I didn't know existed. Today I made a delivery for a little girl's birthday party. That felt really good."

More than 30 employees have been furloughed from both stores but three booksellers handle orders coming in — they offer delivery, free shipping media mail and curbside pickup — while a bookkeeper and event coordinator/social media specialist help keep things going.

"We aren't by nature a virtual bookstore," Philbrick said. "One of the pleasures of this business is seeing old and new customers come through the doors to look at books."

Along with applying for state and federal funds, Philbrick has reached out to Spanx founder Sarah Blakely's Red Backpack Fund to help support female entrepreneurs, and author James Patterson, who donated $500,000 to help independent bookstores. She also started a GoFundMe page and has raised more than $29,000 of her $100,000 goal.

Longtime Book Barn employee and frequent spokesperson Glenn Shea, now furloughed, said the Niantic-based Book Barn doesn't make enough money on mail orders to justify staying open, so owner Randi White was prescient in his decision to close.

Voicing a similar opinion to Gary McKeon of Joshua's Limousine, Shea commented that "because Randi closed so early, on March 16, we were all able to apply for unemployment and beat the tidal wave because I've already gotten my card and benefits."

Customers have inquired not only about the staff but also about the animals on the petting-zoo grounds, and Shea said some have confessed to going through "Barn withdrawal."

Day Staff Writer Kristina Dorsey contributed to this report.

e.moser@theday.com

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