All (Mostly) Quiet on Business Front

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Traffic and pedestrians are few and far between. Open parking spaces along Federal Street – usually a rare commodity any day of the week – are plentiful. Workers tend to the sewer replacement on North Phelps Street – the most activity in town –  but the restaurants on the street itself are otherwise quiet.

It’s a similar scene around much of the downtown. The bar and dining area at Bistro 1907 – typically bustling with people for lunch or after-work socializing – sits dark and empty. The Covelli Centre, which only months ago was packed full by the likes of Hall & Oates and Ghost, sits idle and empty. It’s marquee still teases forthcoming events, while a mobile electric sign by its entrance repeats a sterner message: “Stay home. Stay safe. Wash your hands.”

To call it a ghost town would be misleading. But it’s hardly the center of business and community activity it was last spring. And this isn’t exclusive to Youngstown, as similar scenes  play out from downtown Warren to downtown East Liverpool, along U.S. Routes 224 and 422, and east into Mercer and Lawrence counties.

Here and across the country, even in times of great uncertainty, fear and frustration, people show their resilience and compassion. As grocery store shelves are emptied faster than clerks can fill them, despite their best efforts, community organizations have made it a priority to ensure underserved populations are properly fed.

On the Monday before Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order took effect, volunteers gathered at McGuffey Elementary School where they distributed packages of enough breakfast and lunch items to last three days to people in a line of vehicles that wrapped around the school. McGuffey was one of 35 sites for the distribution organized by Youngstown City Schools.

Later that week, by order of the governor, 120 members of the Ohio National Guard were deployed to assist in food distribution at food banks in the state. For the next 30 days, 20 National Guard soldiers will assist the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley by packing fruit and canned goods and breaking down boxes.

“We’re getting a lot of work done,” said Mike Iberis, executive director of Second Harvest. “Many of [the soldiers] are local and they just committed to making a more effective distribution and helping us do what we do on a daily basis.”

At the grassroots level, residents and businesses stepped up to try to maintain some semblance of normality amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With churches and places of faith canceling worship services, 898 Marketing, Canfield, partnered with WFMJ and Canfield-based tech company Drund to provide religious groups with live streams of their Sunday services. In the first week, three churches provided their parishioners with service and 20 have requested the streaming service since it was launched, says 898 founder Jeff Ryznar

Deemed an essential business, Clearly The Best Water, East Liverpool, is continuing its operations, delivering bottled water to homes, businesses, industry and retailers within a 60-mile radius.

“There is no higher priority than the health and well-being of our employees and customers,” says owner Chris DeSarro. “We have mandated preventive measures as prescribed by our health authorities, and continue to maintain our deliveries to help maintain stability of the public while we tread through these uncharted times.”

Other essential businesses have done their parts to maintain a safe and clean environment for their workers while providing as many of their services as possible. Offices and manufacturers still operating have employed social-distancing measures in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

One of the most common measures is allowing employees to work from home and maintain contact with customers via email, phone and social media.

HBK CPAs & Consultants, Canfield, has employed email newsletters, social media and a dedicated webpage,, to provide clients with the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, the disease spread by coronavirus.

“Readers can find information regarding the recent tax filing and payment due date changes, state-specific news and resources available to employers and employees, and tips to help business leaders lead and manage through this crisis,” says David Blasko, partner-in-charge for its northeastern Ohio region. “Our focus on finding solutions to those needs is more evident than ever.”

The firm has closed its offices to visitors and employees work remotely, adds managing partner and CEO Christopher Allegretti.

Real estate agencies, such as Howard Hanna and Keller Williams Chervenic Realty, have turned to social media to show listings in lieu of traditional open houses.

At Keller Williams Chervenic, agent Holly Ritchie and her team use smartphones to host walkthroughs of listed houses on Facebook Live. At press time, three listings the team has shown with live videos have crested 200 views, including a house in Poland with 472.

“Technology has been a wonderful thing,” Ritchie says. “The [multiple listing service] only gives us 2,000 characters to describe a home. … We had to think outside the box.”

To help keep business going as employees work from home, information technology companies are ramping up their own efforts to ensure their customers remain connected. NEO3, Canfield, has worked remotely since March 17 and will “continue to service all of our customers – the customers that are still able to operate – from our homes and will do so until we are past this disaster,” says its president, Jim Rosenberg.

As COVID-19 began its spread, Valley Office Solutions and Peak I.T. planned ahead of time by “ordering equipment and building VPN [virtual private network] connections for each of our team members who would be able to work from their homes in case a shelter-in-place order was enacted,” says its founder, Steve Blakeman. The companies provide essential IT services to law enforcement, emergency personnel, physicians and hospitals, and many businesses.

ECMSI, Struthers, has worked to get clients set up with same-day remote access, while maintaining guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep its workers and customers safe, says marketing and communication specialist Lauren Butka.

“We’re working tirelessly to keep the community and our partners in constant communication with our team,” Butka says. “We’re maintaining our adherence to our core values of empathy, communication, modesty, service and integrity at the forefront of our business operations.”

And although Armstrong has closed its office in Boardman and limited its installations and service upgrades to protect customers and its employees, the telecommunications company continues to service its infrastructure to keep its internet, television and phone services running, says community marketing and programming manager Gregory Rhoton

“Each Armstrong office has gone beyond the call of duty by making sure each technician in the field has the proper safety gear to keep them safe,” Rhoton says. “Even beyond this, our corporate team in Butler, Pa., spent days making homemade hand sanitizer so that every system in the Armstrong footprint would have enough in supply before running out.”

Health care is one of the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. A shortage of ventilators, respirators and personal protective equipment, or PPE, has those working in hospitals and first responders concerned for their own safety as they treat patients who test positive for COVID-19.

Penn Care, an EMS supply company in Niles, has watched the pandemic grow as it’s received orders from around the world.

“Early on, we shipped thousands of goggles and [personal protective equipment] to a company in China. As the situation grew worse, we stopped selling to anyone but the emergency services,” says President Don Bloom.

“We have been put on allotment for critical items and have been out of N95, PPE and now thermometers. Most of the products that we sell are either manufactured in China or the components to make critical products come from there. We are being told that China is only at 30% capacity. So we anticipate further shortages.”

Bloom says the company will operate “until our warehouse is depleted.” 

Institutions in the additive manufacturing industry are exploring ways to provide PPE that meets the needs of health care providers.

On March 25, America Makes launched to be a central repository of manufacturers and designs that are ready to help. In a statement, America Makes said it is partnering with the Food and Drug Administration to ensure the additive manufacturing industry can “effectively and safely meet the needs” of health care workers during the coronavirus outbreak. Eventually it will provide a pathway for product designs to be uploaded for review to ensure they meet medical standards, then downloaded for production.

Health care providers not on the front lines of combating the coronavirus pandemic have turned to telehealth to talk to and diagnose patients without in-person appointments. In addition to triage and diagnosing symptoms, providers are using telehealth for anything from physical therapy to mental health services to general health questions.

Care Excellence Primary Care in Youngstown relies on telemedicine to triage patients, says owner Carletta Williams. For patients who have a fever, cough or shortness of breath – the most common symptoms of COVID-19 – signs throughout the office, including the front door, ask them to call in advance. Appointments have been staggered to minimize the number of patients in the office at any given time. 

Churchill Counseling Services in Liberty Township is also employing telehealth to maintain its counseling and medication management services, says CEO Toni DiMargio.

“Current clients will be contacted by phone or email at the time of their regularly scheduled appointment. Anyone interested in obtaining services may call our office or email us,” DiMargio says. “Office staff will be working limited hours in the office to answer phone calls; and they will also be working from home. We expect this to continue until Ohio’s governor lifts the stay-at-home order sometime in April.”

The order, by some accounts, could last well into May, the month when the surge of COVID-19 diagnoses is expected to peak, according to health care professionals. If that’s the case, things could look very differently downtown and throughout the region in two weeks. Perhaps then, the best strategy would be to follow the advice routinely emphasized by elected officials and that electric sign outside the Covelli Centre. 

To that end, comments Mark Jubelirer, co-owner of Reyers Shoe Store in Sharon, Pa., sent us via email might be the measuring stick.

“I have been self-quarantined for three days already. My business is closed. My refrigerator is full,” Jubelirer says. “I have plenty of toilet paper and kitty litter to keep my household happy. I have no internet connection at home, nor do I have a cell phone. I am likely signing off now, as I leave my office and don’t expect to come back very soon. Wishing you all well.”

Pictured: Empty streets, empty buildings in downtown Youngstown illustrate this moment in time.