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Iowa City Businesses Adapt to the Pandemic
Small business owners across Iowa City have closed, reopened, and dealt with many obstacles due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many shops have had to make changes in the way they run in order to stay safe and stay afloat
October 23, 2020
Living in Iowa City, one might hear the term “support small businesses” used often. With the ongoing pandemic and the recent opening of large corporations downtown, small businesses have expressed having difficulty keeping up with past sales.
“Our entire world has turned upside down in six months. I’m trying to do what needs to be done in the face of challenges,” Veronica Tessler, owner and founder of Yotopia Frozen Yogurt, said.
Yotopia is one of the many small businesses downtown that have been hit by the pandemic. In the months of March and April, Yotopia stayed closed until it opened up in April for take out and delivery, suspending its self service business model.
“I think that the things that we’re facing as a community are things that other communities,
especially in college towns, are facing,” Tessler said.
In the summer, Yotopia opened back up for self service with added precautions and COVID-19 protocol. Around the corner, Velvet Coat, a clothing boutique, have also changed their operations due to COVID-19, but to a different extent.
“During March I spent a lot of time reworking a lot of my fall orders, knowing that people would kind of be living different lives. So I have some more casual coming in than I have in the past. You know, I don’t really have any suits coming in or any occasion dresses,” Michelle Galvin, owner of Velvet Coat, said.
Most small businesses in Iowa City have taken a hit one way or another, but some have especially been hit by the lack of students in town from March to August.
“I spent much of March and April, applying for PPE grants and federal loans, so that we could pay employees because business came to a near halt when the students left,” Tessler said. “Especially for businesses that are seasonal in nature, taking the kind of hit that we’ve taken as the weather was picking up is especially hard.”
Other businesses have been less affected by the student population.
“It’s a popular perception on the part of people who don’t know business from the inside of Iowa City, that students form our entire sales base. That’s actually not the case,” Nialle Sylvan, owner of the Haunted Bookshop explained. “Students are significant, but we sell a lot more to families in the neighborhood and tourism, which I know sounds really weird, but we actually get tourists a lot in July of every year.”
Sylvan has owned the Haunted Bookshop for almost sixteen years. The store has 50,000 books, 100 different board games and other items such as stationary and puzzles. Like the Haunted Bookshop, Velvet Coat has missed the sales from the Iowa City community.
Sylvan’s was one of the first businesses to close in Iowa City. They announced their closure on the night of March 15th and have yet to reopen for instore shopping.
“I knew that the CDC had been grossly underfunded over the last few years here and there have been other problems with initiatives not being funded, scientists not getting hired or not being listened to. My trust in the government’s ability to assess a threat was pretty low,” Sylvan said.
Not only did Sylvan have the community in mind when making the decision to close the store, she was also concerned for the safety of her employees.
“I took into consideration that there were two [staff members] who had quite serious immunodeficiencies. I didn’t want to mess with that,” Sylvan said.
Like the Haunted Bookshop, Velvet Coat wasn’t too affected by the student population leaving Iowa City early. Instead, they missed sales from other targets.
“We’re missing the traffic from orientations and so many different events and conferences and things that were being held in Iowa City. We really missed the person that’s traveling through Iowa City [to visit],” Galvin said.
However, businesses have started opening back up in recent weeks and going further back to normal, especially with the students being back in town.
“Business has been better since there have been more people downtown. But it has brought a whole slew of new challenges with regard to facemask compliance and just general [safety],” Tessler said.
Due to both the danger of COVID-19 and the lower sales, many shops have had to increase their online and social media presence.
“One thing we’ve done is we’ve launched a for commerce website which was in the works for this year. We kind of sped that process up, and we’re gotten really good about updating it when we get new arrivals and it’s been great because some people feel really comfortable shopping online,” Galvin said. “Our social media has always been strong and so people shop that way too.”
Yotopia has also increased their social media and online presence, building up their online ordering platforms such as CHOMP, GrubHub, and Uber Eats.
“We had to get creative with ways to get our product to customers through delivery and carry out,” Tessler said.
White Rabbit, a small boutique owned by Cortnie Widen, has also been using social media amidst the pandemic, doing story sales of their vintage clothes and other items via Instagram.
“During the tough parts where there was a lot of contagion going around the community, we really tried to focus on just doing curbside pickup and Instagram sales instead of encouraging people to come down in person,” Widen said.
Widen opened up White Rabbit in 2006. The boutique sells handmade, locally sourced and vintage items. Since opening, they have moved their location four times to accommodate for the growing demand.
“I’ve always been interested in fashion and clothes and designs. And I think that that’s what makes me continue to enjoy my work is that I just have that core love for our handmade and vintage stuff,” Widen said.
Widen spends a lot of her time looking for new ideas to improve her business, including artists and designers to buy from. She is also a firm believer in supporting local and other small businesses in the area and features their products in her store.
“You’re always thinking about what you need to be doing for the business,” Widen explains. “And you don’t just go home and turn your brain off like you would with a regular nine to five job.”
White Rabbit has enforced a strict operating capacity since the outbreak in the community. It started with four customers in the store and has now moved to six customers shopping at one time.
“We posted that we’d like for people to social distance and of course wear masks are required. We also have sanitizer stations throughout the shop.” Widen explained.
The future for all these small businesses is uncertain. Businesses around Iowa City, big and small, have already closed, such as Moss and Blaze Pizza.
“The good news is for us that we’ve been open for 20 years and we have a pretty strong customer base, so we can reach out to them. We always have been a high customer service store pandemic or no pandemic. We’re always reaching out to customers,” Galvin said.
According to CNBC, 60% of business closures due to the pandemic are now permanent as shown by Yelp data.
“What should have been done was six months ago, the [Trump] administration should not have played down the pandemic and we could have gotten on top of this and so what we’re facing now are the consequences of mismanagement by an administration that is in denial of the dire situation our country and our economy is facing,” Tessler said.
Galvin urges customers to vote with their dollar.
“You have a choice with your money. If you enjoy downtown, if you enjoy coming down there, then you need to vote with your dollars now, not just for me, but really think about where you choose to spend your money,” Galvin said. “You can buy anything you want from Amazon, but then the places that you do like to go to, eventually will be gone.”