Retailers Get to Work Preparing for May 12 Reopening

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Rob Komara has a busy day ahead of him.

The co-owner of Komara Jewelers will spend Wednesday installing Plexiglass shields throughout the Canfield jewelry store ahead of a planned reopening to the public May 12. 

The shields are just one phase of the work being done. Komara has already acquired masks for employees, and he is working with a company to acquire disposable masks and reusable ones that can be cleaned and reused for customers to wear when they are in the store if they don’t already have their own. Komara also plans on installing movable hand-sanitizing stations.  

“We are working diligently to reopen when we are allowed to at full capacity,” Komara says. “We’ll be fully ready.” 

Masks – required for employees and recommended for customers – social distancing and limits on the number of customers permitted in stores are just a few of the requirements Gov. Mike DeWine announced for retail businesses to reopen May 12 as the coronavirus pandemic continues.    

Retailers throughout the Mahoning Valley now are gearing up for that date.

Greg Bartholomew, owner of All American Cards and Comics, is hunting this week for masks in bulk, not just for his employees but also for customers who have been unable to find a mask, as well as finding hand sanitizer. Both his Warren and Boardman stores will get “another good cleaning” before May 12.    

“We’ve got plenty of bleach wipes and whatever we need to disinfect the high traffic areas of the counters and doors. We’ll be diligent with that,” he says. 

Though closed to the public, All American has operated during the pandemic with employees selling comic books on eBay and Magic the Gathering cards on a separate online channel. Sales have been enough to cover the business’ bills for April – mostly his employees’ salaries, which he paid up front at the beginning of the month. He plans to do the same for the first two weeks of May. 

“I was lucky enough to have enough reserve that I could pay in full up front and not lay anybody off,” he says.  

Limiting the number of people in the stores at one time shouldn’t be a problem once the stores reopen. Most customers come in to pick up their books and normally stay no more than five minutes, he says. 

“We never have more than three to five people at a time,” Bartholomew added. If the store begins to get too crowded, customers might have to wait outside until someone leaves. 

Part of the state guidelines for reopening limit retail and service businesses to a maximum of 50% capacity, using how many would normally be allowed under the fire code as a benchmark.

Also on Warren’s Courthouse Square, Thom Duma Fine Jewelers, is preparing for a May 12 reopening. The store has been professionally disinfected and portable sneeze guards are being purchased, owner Tom Duma says. 

He and his staff are in the process of outlining best practices to ensure the safety of customers and employees. That includes looking into curbside pickup for customers who prefer not to enter the store.  

Employees’ temperatures will be taken upon arrival and, if they have a fever, they will be asked to go home and follow up with their health-care provider.  After the temperature check, they will be required to wash their hands and put on gloves and masks. Customers will also undergo a temperature check and be required to wear masks and gloves. 

“We have strict protocols in place as to how we will handle customers trying jewelry on, as well as how we will handle the cleaning of their personal jewelry,” Duma says. 

Sales associates will remove the jewelry from the case and hand it to the customer, who will handle the jewelry while wearing gloves. If it’s a ring, the customer will be permitted to remove the glove to try it on. If the customer chooses not to purchase the piece, the item will go into an alcohol bath for 30 seconds, then dried off and returned to the case.

Sales staff will be required to wear a face shield to protect them during the steaming process.

YM Camera in Boardman, which has been conducting curbside and e-commerce sales during the pandemic, had a staff meeting Tuesday morning to discuss reopening plans for May 12. 

Among the measures it is taking to prepare for reopening is moving the two print stations that now are right next to each other, removing a pair of chairs to discourage customers from lingering and implementing a new cleaning regiment, says President Jim Yankush.  

“We’re listening to the governor and we’re going to follow the guidelines,” Yankush says. 

Sales staff will use the second floor of the store to work with customers who need to spend more time with their salesperson. The idea is to prevent customers from clustering at the sales counter, he says.     

When La Ti Da Boutique reopens, staff will be wearing facemasks, social distancing will be practiced and surfaces will be cleaned regularly with disinfecting wipes, owner Shelly Genova says. 

Genova says she closed the Poland boutique in mid-March and hoped for a possible reopening April 6, when the original state stay-at-home order was to expire. On March 30, she began adding her store’s inventory to her website.

“I put basically the whole store online,” Genova says. She also began doing live sales on Facebook Live. She selects the seller who makes the first bid in the comments, calls the individual to make payment arrangements and does touchless curbside pickup. 

“It’s not an optimal situation but at least I’ve done enough that I have expenses covered for May and June, and money set aside,” she says. She has also been taking people on virtual tours of the store, she says.  

Spruce Home Décor & Gift Store, which has conducted Facebook Live sales during the pandemic-enforced shutdown, is delaying its reopening until June 1, says co-owner Nick Giancola. Because its Boardman store shares space with a restaurant, OH Donut Co., “we decided together that would be best,” he says.  

The Niles shop will reopen June 1 as well, because its small size would make social distancing requirements difficult to meet, he says. “We thought it best to wait another 30 days and move forward then,” he remarked. 

Spruce has kept business going with Facebook Live and Instagram sales, often selling out of product. 

“Online sales are so strong that we really feel people will stay with us during that next 30 days, so we’re comfortable just waiting.”   

When the Mahoning Valley’s two largest retail centers – the Eastwood Mall in Niles and the Southern Park Mall in Boardman – will reopen remains up in the air. The operators of the malls would not commit to the May 12 reopening date.

“We’re being a little cautious about this. We really don’t know all the specifics of what we need to do,” says Joe Bell, director of corporate communications for the Cafaro Co., which operates the Eastwood Mall Complex. “We’re anxious to reopen but we’re reaching out to public health officials to understand all the different steps required to make sure we open responsibly.” 

Among the tricky issues malls face enforcement of the occupancy limit, which is now at 50% of the fire code, Bell acknowledged. Eastwood has multiple points of entry that include both general entrances and entryways that lead into individual retailers like Macy’s and Target. 

“We’re going to need some guidance on that because we’re a little different than a single, standalone store. We have roughly 200 different businesses here,” Bell says. “We’re working closely with government officials on how we’re supposed to implement this.” 

Washington Prime Group, which operates Southern Park Mall, was also noncommittal Tuesday about its reopening date, but says a news release with details regarding its plans would be forthcoming.  

“Southern Park Mall is focused on providing a safe and enjoyable reopening experience and plans to announce an official date soon,” says Brian Gabbert, general manager of the mall. “We are inspired by the resilience of our community and we look forward to safely welcoming back our guests.”

Youngstown Area Goodwill Industries, which has nine retail stores in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, is considering a possible simultaneous opening but may open the stores in phases, beginning with Boardman and Calcutta tentatively May 12, says Alyssa Italiano, director of marketing and business services. 

“We are looking forward to reopening our retail stores, but, as eager as we are to do so, we have, and will always, put safety first,” Italiano says.

The community’s well-being has been at the front of Goodwill’s decision-making process, she continued. That includes changing the donation process to implement a no-contact drop-off by providing bins at each site and requiring attendants to wear personal protective gear, regularly sanitize work areas and quarantine donations for at least 72 hours before processing them.   

Once the stores open, retail staff will be required to follow safeguards, including wearing face masks and gloves. 

“We will continue to follow enhanced sanitation procedures and increase the frequency in which areas and surfaces are cleaned throughout the day in addition to employees frequently washing their hands and using hand sanitizer, which will also be accessible to customers,” she says. “Social distancing is a must among our team and customers, and we will only allow a limited amount of customers in the store at a time.”

Maintaining mandated customer limits and keeping supplied with personal protective gear are among the challenges now facing retailers and other businesses preparing to reopen. 

SenSource, a Youngstown-based software engineering firm, has released its Safe Space occupancy counter, a product based on its existing system used to count traffic at churches, libraries, casinos and amusement parks.

Unlike that system, which uploads data to the cloud every 15 minutes, Safe Space provides real-time information on occupancy counts using proprietary software, says marketing director Andy Clutter. 

“We looked at what was out there and had some insight that if and when stores or other locations started to open, there was a good chance there was going to be limits on people coming in and out,’” Clutter says. “We pivoted the entire company to transform people-counting into a real-time application that allows businesses to count ins and outs.”

Safe Space offers an automated system with sensors mounted above doorways that can be tied to a display that will indicate when occupancy is approaching the proscribed limit and notify key personnel so they can take appropriate action. A less-expensive option allows a workers to download the Safe Space software to a smart device and manually count people entering and exiting an establishment. 

The system can generate reports that can be submitted to state governments that require reports on compliance. 

“We wanted something that was easy to implement and low cost in the grand scheme of things that would allow people to open as soon as possible,” Clutter says. 

The product has gotten inquiries from companies ranging from mom-and-pop operations to big-box retailers, he says. Though nondisclosure agreements prevent him from identifying the interested parties, “think of a big-box grocery store in your neighborhood and we’ve likely talked to them over the past three weeks,” he says.    

Columbus-based Facemasks for All reports it has seen an increase in requests for masks this week as businesses prepare to open. The company is selling masks in minimum quantities of 2,000 units and has access to up to 100,000 masks available for next-day delivery, with additional quantities available in four to 10 days,  says CEO Darryl Tanner. 

A portion of commercial sales will go to donations of masks to not-for-profit organizations and municipalities, Tanner says. The company already has distributed more than 430,000 masks to various entities, including firefighters, police departments and Ohio National Guard.     

“We’re looking to make donations across the state, and would love to support Youngstown businesses. Donations are prioritized for nonprofits and municipalities,” he says. 

Anyone interested in requesting more information about obtaining facemasks should inquire at the company’s website, FacemasksForAll.com

Pictured: SenSource, a Youngstown-based software company, has developed a tool that allows retailers to keep track of the number of customers in their stores and display that information on screens.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.