The pandemic has significantly impacted area businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues, many of which have lost revenue while others closed. As the community reflects on a year full of restrictions, local organizations consider the lessons they’ve learned and their outlook for the future.

Midland’s businesses have faced struggles this past year – some have shuttered their doors permanently – but the community support they have received provides a glimmer of hope. Jenny Bruzewski, vice president of marketing and communications at the Midland Business Alliance (MBA), acknowledged the sacrifices local stores have made and praised their innovation to keep operations going.

“The world has changed quite a bit and there have been a few people to use that to their advantage,” Bruzewski said.

Early on in the pandemic retailers modified their operations to accommodate the state’s restrictions by providing curbside pick-up and home delivery options while the restaurants that stayed open heavily relied on take-out orders. Companies including Savant Group, QuadSil, Dow, DuPont and Three Rivers Corporation pivoted operations to make hand sanitizer, antimicrobial gel/spray, personal protective garments and a face mask sterilizer. Other businesses including Orion Sports, Aster and Mi Element Grains and Grounds opened in 2020 and continue to serve customers.

However, there were some retailers that were too heavily impacted by the financial strain produced by the pandemic restrictions to continue. Local businesses including Old Town Gym as well as chain stores and restaurants including Family Video and Ruby Tuesday’s closed their doors permanently. Local retailers that remained open lost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars’ worth of revenue; in December, Ways to Wellness co-owner Jeff Currier reported his business lost $36,000 during the state-mandated shutdown.

MBA has approached different strategies to encourage residents to shop local. Around the holidays the organization created gift baskets with gift cards to and products from local stores as part of its “12 Days of Shop Local” promotion. Shortly after the holidays MBA received $25,000 from Consumers Energy and used the funds to launch a “Winter Blues Giveaway” on Facebook to give away gift cards to local businesses. Bruzewski explained MBA wanted to highlight as many industries as they could, from retail stores and restaurants to spas and salons.

“We were nervous that people might resort to online shopping. We wanted to do anything we could to make a push for local shopping. That money stays in our community and that’s really important,” Bruzewski said.

In February, 56 Midland businesses received $10,000 Michigan Small Business Survival grants. The grants were provided by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and its Michigan Strategic Fund and was distributed by MBA in partnership with the Middle Michigan Development Corporation.

Bruzewski made herself a commitment to shop locally for her Christmas presents. She discovered the personal touch given by area businesses. Throughout the pandemic and the flooding last May she has seen the Midland community rise up and support local businesses as much as possible.

“It made me feel good about continuing to support local businesses. You don’t get that when shopping online,” Bruzewski said.

With the promise of COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widely available, Bruzewski hopes that customers will become more comfortable venturing out. She praised businesses’ diligence with complying with the state’s restrictions and requirements for cleaning and social distancing.

“People have experienced a different way of doing business. I hope we’ll come out of this a lot stronger,” Buzewski said. “Once restrictions start to lift and the majority of people will be vaccinated, people will be supporting local businesses more than ever, if businesses can hang in there for the next few months.”

Restaurant industry recovers amid restrictions

Bone Daddy’s BBQ in Midland opened for the first time in months on Tuesday, March 9. According to the latest epidemic order issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the restaurant is now able to fill 60 of its 120 seats.

“Midland has supported Bone Daddy’s for many years. Opening day was a great opportunity to connect with customers and answer questions,” said owner Bill Wall.

Restaurants in Michigan have navigated multiple restrictions over the past year, going from being able to only provide take-out meals in March, partially reopening on June 8, closing once more on Nov. 18, reopening to 25% capacity on Feb. 1 and then to 50% on March 5. By the time eateries were able to reopen in February, many faced significant revenue losses along with an employee shortage.

Wall admitted the pandemic threw him off guard financially. Usually his biggest worries are about losing property or having a fridge breaking down. He has learned much about finances and credit these past months through making hard decisions. One of those calls was to close all operations for Bone Daddy’s in January and February to decrease the chances of the virus spreading among his employees and to save on costs. Even operating at 50% capacity brings just enough revenue to cover expenses, not enough to make a profit. Wall didn’t take any of the Paycheck Protection Program loans as he didn’t want the added expense of paying those back.

“When you start adding PPP loans onto the tab, those have to be paid as well,” Wall stated.

Midland has not only showed support for local retailers but also area restaurants. In January the Downtown Development Authority hosted a Downtown Restaurant Blitz social media campaign to encourage eating locally. In December, local restaurant and hospitality workers received 500 family food boxes as part of a food giveaway sponsored by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association Educational Foundation, the Michigan Hospitality Industry Relief Fund and Sysco of Michigan. From mid-June to late September, the City of Midland closed Main Street to allow more space for outdoor dining and social distancing.

Wall believes the restaurant industry is heading in the right direction and recovery is possible, but it may take a while. He hopes that with the vaccine rollout businesses will start going back to in-person operations which in turn increase the foot traffic into restaurants and stimulate the economy.

“We’re still in peril here in Michigan. We have a long way to go,” Wall said, adding that he expects his restaurant to make a full recovery by fall 2022. “I think it comes down to getting the confidence back and people back in the habit of going out.”

Show business slowly returns

Movie theaters were categorized with restaurants and are slowly, cautiously returning to business. Midland NCG Cinemas was closed for a majority of 2020, reopening for a brief period in the fall before closing once more. On Dec. 23, 2020, the theater reopened at 25% capacity but the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services forbade the selling or consuming of any food and drink until Feb. 2, 2021. On Friday, March 5 both theaters and restaurants could expand business to 50% capacity.

“When we were at 25%, some of our smaller auditoriums had eight to 10 people in there and then we were sold out,” said Luke Kelley, manager of NCG Midland. “Business struggled for a while. Customers had a hard time understanding why they couldn’t bring anything in.”

Midland NCG Cinemas, along with other theaters in the area, agreed to a nationwide set of safety protocols called CinemaSafe. The guidelines include socially distanced seating arrangements, modifying the concessions area, health training for employees, enhanced cleaning and mask wearing. Kelley stated that Midland NCG Cinema staff has always done an excellent job keeping the facility clean and the visitor experience as safe as possible.

Even when theaters were able to open, the selection of new movies was limited, as film release dates kept getting delayed. NCG Cinemas filled in the extra space by showing classic and children’s films. The Midland theater saw an increase in traffic around Valentine’s Day weekend; its biggest weekend up to that point was when “Tom & Jerry: The Movie” was released, followed by “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which arrived in theaters March 5. Kelley is looking forward to the end of the month when another anticipated film, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is released.

“We’re starting to make a comeback. Our entire business is starting to come back,” Kelley said. “The community is also ready to come out as well. They’ve got cabin fever not only from COVID but also the winter.”

Looking back on the past year, Kelley discovered that there are no guarantees in the entertainment industry. Although going to the movies provides a brief respite from the outside world for a moderate price, the pandemic closed theaters and caused delays in film releases. As a result of the lack of customers, revenue became a problem as the theater didn’t make enough to operate at full staff capacity.

“I always thought movie theaters were recession-proof,” Kelley said.

Midland’s theater scene has also had to adapt. Midland Center for the Arts’s building has been mostly closed since the pandemic began last March, only opening up the interior for its Winter Fest, a Midland Symphony Orchestra performance and, most recently, the initiation of its new Pendulum Lounge earlier this month. The center has instead relied on virtual programs and outdoor entertainment in the warmer months.

“It’s interesting to be able to experiment with the different spaces,” said Terri Trotter, president and CEO of the Center.

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