Dennis James hopes his business is a bellwether for Mercer County retailers set to reopen in the next week.
“We opened in late March,’’ said James, owner of DJ’s Greenhouse & Gardens in Delaware Township. “And our April sales surpassed what we did last April.”
On Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that businesses in 24 counties, including Mercer, in northwestern and northcentral Pennsylvania will be allowed to resume limited operations May 8 after eight weeks of restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 24 counties will move from “red” to “yellow” in the governor’s “red-yellow-green” procedure for reopening the state.
In Mercer County, businesses were open, or eagerly anticipating their own restart.
As he walked among his plants neatly displayed on tables, James said he took the view his nursery could open because it was selling vegetable plants – which he considers to be necessary products.
“When I saw Amish nurseries opening and others in the area I figured I could too.’’ he said.
Reopening couldn’t come soon enough, he said, because the shop’s financial reserves were getting critically low heading into what is normally one of the year’s busiest times.
“We have a lot of expenses in growing our plants like seeds, heat for the nursery and employees,’’ James explained. “I’m very lucky my vendors were willing to extend the time for me to pay the bills.’’
He said the business would have been devastated if he had to wait until May 8, especially with Mother’s Day falling just two days later.
“The whole week prior to Mother’s Day is one of our biggest selling times of the year,’’ James said. “And people want to buy their plants and flowers for Mom early.’’
Kraynak’s in Hermitage also opened near the end of March and consumers responded, said Dan Zippie, store manager.
“People have been coming up to us expressing their thanks that we’re open,’’ Zippie said. “They’ve been cooped up inside their homes for a long time and they want to get out and do some landscaping and planting.’’
Zippie said Kraynak’s was allowed to open the nursery and greenhouse because it offers starter vegetable plants.
“This year I’m seeing more people buying the vegetable plants because they say they’re not sure if there will be enough vegetables in grocery stores,’’ he said.
Kraynak’s main retail store along East State Street has been closed but will be ready to open May 8, he said.
Retail coming back
The Shenango Valley Mall will be opening May 8, said Brenda Duncan, a manager at the Hermitage shopping center.
“I’m working on this as I speak,’’ Duncan said. “I’m in the process of letting our tenants know we are opening that day.’’
Each of the mall’s retailers will be making its own decision on whether to open, she said.
“You may see stores opening but they might have different opening and closings times than before,’’ Duncan said.
Mall management is ordering hand sanitizer stands, which will be placed around the shopping center for customer use.
Grove City Premium Outlets in Springfield Township also will be opening May 8, said Carmen DeRose, general manager. Mall hours are initially being modified to tighter hours with the schedule of Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
The state has a range of standards and recommendations for businesses to resume operation.
Retail establishments will be permitted to begin allowing shoppers while maintaining social distancing of six feet between customers, but the state Department of Health recommends curbside service.
Restaurants, for example, under the order will still not be able to allow inside dining. But they can continue to offer deliveries and take-out dining.
Car sales in question
Car dealership owners like Steve Godfrey of Phil Godfrey Ford in Greenville were left wondering Friday if they would be allowed to finalize in-person sales.
For weeks after the pandemic restrictions went into place, car sales operations crashed to a halt. Pennsylvania prohibited face-to-face vehicle transactions and the state had no provisions for allowing electronic communications for title transfers through a notary public.
Last week, the state passed a law allowing notaries to complete transactions remotely, which allowed dealers to start selling vehicles again. Now, Godfrey said, they are looking for guidance on whether customers can return to the showroom floor, while maintaining the 6-foot social distance.
The Pennsylvania Automobile Association, a trade group, sent a blast email to its members they were tying to nail that down too.
“They’re telling us the government is supposed to provide us guidance on Monday,’’ Godfrey said. “I would think that we are retail.’’
Resuming in-person operations is vital, he said.
“We can’t even let people take a test drive,’’ he said. “That’s extremely important to car buyers.’’
Ohio has allowed its car dealers to conduct regular business, which has made it tough on Pennsylvania dealers.
“I want to get back to selling cars,’’ he said.
Under the state’s order, private campground sites will be allowed to open.
RV Village Camping Resort, which sits on 100 acres near Mercer, is gearing up for that, said owner Brian Candela.
“We’re going to do this slowly and phase it in,’’ Candela said.
No tents or pop-up campers will be allowed, he added, and campers will have to provide their own bathroom facilities. But the most difficult thing might be maintaining the 6-foot distance.
“Camping is naturally social,’’ Candela said. “You want to have fun sitting around the campfire with your friends.’’
But even after the private campgrounds reopen, Pennsylvania will maintain its ban on state and municipal campground operations. But Mercer County’s largest public campground — Shenango Lake — might be exempt from the order because the Army Corps of Engineers oversees the park.
As a result, the lake, land, park and campgrounds are all located on federally controlled land , said Carol Vernon, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman. The corps could decide to resume campground operation before the state allows other public sites to open.
“But that would only be done with great care and in the best interest of public safety,’’ Vernon said.
Visitors have been allowed in the park during the pandemic – with restrictions.
Bathrooms, fishing piers, the visitors center and the Chestnut Run swimming area will remain closed. But people can still hike, fish and take their boats on the lake, Vernon said, and social distancing rules remain in place.
While business owners yearned to open for bottom-line reasons, the reopening gave many consumers sorely needed contact with the outside world and a chance — albeit a limited opportunity — to mingle with others.
At DJ’s Greenhouse on Friday, Buck Gill of Mercer took his time searching for tomato plants. The 85-year-old thoroughly enjoyed his outing.
“I’ve been outside of my home only twice in the past two months – once to my doctor and the other to get a stent put in my heart,’’ Gill said. “I couldn’t take it any more, I had to get outside.’’
But Gill wasn’t being reckless. During his entire time at DJ’s, Gill donned a face mask, and said he planned to wear it anytime he left the house.
“I still want to stick around awhile,’’ he said with a chuckle.