By Galen Koon
For our first blog post of the new year, I thought it apt to address the Covid-19 pandemic, and provide a sort of snapshot as to where we are currently. Though we have flipped the calendar to 2021, the pandemic continues to impact our beloved village in so many ways. Since Bellingham, and Fairhaven in particular, rely so much on tourism, as well as shopping local, this pandemic has been extremely challenging. Some businesses in Fairhaven have closed. The truth is that Covid has relentlessly hammered small businesses. It has taken community efforts, ingenious social-distancing schemes, and brilliant adaptations to the ever-changing regulations to even stay afloat in these times. I think it’s important for everyone in Fairhaven to take a deep breath, and give themselves a pat on the back for all of the work they’ve put in. “I was impressed with the creativity and ability to adapt and change during this challenging time,” said Scott Ward, Executive Director of the Historic Fairhaven Association.
Ward said that the ongoing message of the Association has been to “support our local businesses.” More than ever, 2020 was a year to support your community members and local businesses, and it became clear that all hands on deck were needed if this was to be achieved. Safety became the number one priority, and adapting to changing regulations that included mask mandates, social distancing, and varying capacity levels became challenges that businesses had to overcome. “Restaurants are infamous for working in fast-paced close quarters,” said Emile Diffley, owner of Fairhaven Pizza. “So we have needed to adjust how we work together and how we can achieve a standard of safety given the space we are bound by.”
The Black Cat, located on the third floor of the Sycamore Square Building, has struggled with not having a sidewalk storefront. At the time of this writing, The Black Cat has just reopened after being closed for over a month. “I have learned so much about carbon dioxide and air quality [recently]. Adapting is the key in this Covid game,” said manager Chevy Roberts. It’s safe to say that parts per million air quality and proper carbon dioxide monitoring were not in the forefront of business owners’ minds before this year.
Matt Brawner, owner of Ovn Pizza, said that the city of Bellingham and the Washington State Department of Commerce have done an excellent job in getting funds and help to businesses who need it. Additionally, federal funding has helped some businesses. But the stark reality is that it may not be enough. “Along with greater expenditures on safety measures to provide for safe dining environments for our customers and safe working environments for our staff, there have been pretty dramatic decreases in revenue for many, if not most, restaurants,” said Brawner.
It has not just been the owners of these businesses that have struggled; employees have had a hard time as well. Reduced hours and reduced business have seen many restaurant workers with much lower take-home pay.
“The ebb and flow of this whole pandemic has certainly taken a toll on our employees,” said Chevy Robert’s, of The Black Cat. “We have such a close-knit crew here; it was difficult to see them struggle.”
Many retail employees have seen reduced hours as well, due to a lack of business when people are forced to stay home. An overall decrease in travel has really hurt many small businesses, who rely on customers walking into their brick and mortar shops. At Bay to Baker Trading Company, owner Tina Anderson said sales are down about 33 percent on the year. Bay to Baker has been impacted more by the pandemic than the Fairhaven Toy Garden, which Anderson also owns, due to its reliance on tourism. She said that most retail stores have been hurting due to people ordering more things online, in an era where it is encouraged to stay home. But Anderson also said she was encouraged by the community coming out and wanting to shop local and support local businesses, especially over the holidays.
There have been positives in this experience as well. There have been many instances of creativity and hard work to improve the situation. Green cones were handed out for businesses to display outside to show they were open. The Historic Fairhaven Association created a “Fairhaven Misses You,” video, and we have worked hard to expand our social media presence and make sure that Fairhaven stays at the front of people’s minds. The 10th street closure was an opportunity for expanded outdoor seating at Galloway’s, Magdalena’s, Edaleen’s and Iron Rooster Bakery. And many businesses are participating in the ‘Think Local First’ shopping card program, something the Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, Downtown Bellingham Partnership, the Chambers of Commerce, and the Historic Fairhaven Association partnered on. Ovn has created a free pizza program, offering 25 free pizzas a day to anyone who needs it, in addition to providing pizzas to a local elder-care facility and to WWU students.
“This beautiful old town of Fairhaven has handled the pandemic with so much respect and safety while still keeping the businesses going and supported. We have felt a lot of support even while being closed, with tons of messages from our Swim Club and Gainsbarre regulars.
It really feels like a community,” said Dutchie Broersma, of Swim Club. “Moving forward, it’s hard to say when we will get to reopen, but we are hopeful and excited to be serving this community again, along with all the tourists from out of town that love Fairhaven so much.”
Continued support and understanding from our community is vital at a time like this. While the vaccine rollout has begun, it could be many months before enough people are vaccinated that herd immunity is achieved. In the months until then, we must continue respecting businesses as they attempt to roll with the punches. It’s not a perfect science, so tolerance and patience are key when navigating the Covid regulations. Community is what makes Bellingham and Fairhaven unique, and we must remember that these are our friends, neighbors, and family we’re dealing with.
“I’m genuinely amazed by our community’s response,” said Brawner. “What we are doing is really challenging. We must be disciplined, and patient. We must keep our eye on the prize, and remember to show each other some grace.”