Jasper businesses weathering coronavirus


JASPER — They are your friends. Your neighbors. The people you visit when you want to buy a gift for a good friend, or lose yourself for an afternoon, or get a haircut before a big presentation.

Swimming in the sea of unknowns that COVID-19 has washed over the United States, Jasper business owners are bracing themselves and doing what they can to stay afloat.

Some haven’t been rocked. Others are confident they will survive the storm. And then there are those, like Jasper Skate Palace co-owner Stephanie Rawlins, who are uncertain they’ll make it to the other side.

“We all need to figure out a way to rally around our small businesses in Dubois County,” Rawlins said. “And find a way to support them in what best fits our budget and time. Especially those that aren’t able to serve food.”

Much of public life has been put on pause in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has now spread to north of 6,000 people across the country. Social distancing measures encourage people to limit close contact with others. Government safety orders seemingly intensify by the day. Caught up in all the precautions are businesses, like the county’s lone skating rink, which depend on a stream of customers to pay bills and continue operating.

Patrons thanked Rawlins and her husband, Brian, for remaining open last weekend, when the future seemed to get bleaker and bleaker. Jasper Skate Palace employees continue to take extra precautions to clean and disinfect the facility, but upcoming parties have been canceled, and whether or not the hangout spot will close for this coming weekend and spring break next week is a question without an answer.

“We are going to be there for our community as long as possible,” she said of her business. “Please, when they lift this embargo, come back in [droves] to build us back up, because our reserves are gonna be depleted by that time. And help us get back on our feet.”

She continued: “Be conscious of the fact that we are gonna need you at that point, not just you needing us for a birthday party. We’re gonna need you. We’re gonna need the whole community.”

Eastown Recreation Center, Jasper’s sole bowling alley, announced Monday it would temporarily close its doors. Co-owner Paul Lemond explained that he thought about remaining open, but in the wake of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s guidance to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he opted to move forward with the shuttering.

He and his wife, Susan, who also co-owns the business, didn’t want to close the doors. The shutdown comes during the end of the league season, and Eastown gives bowlers a place to congregate and spend time with friends. But in the end, the Lemonds believed closing shop was the answer.

“It’s safety for all the customers,” Paul said. “For all of our customers and anybody [who] comes in, it’s just trying to do the right thing for no spread of the virus. And hopefully this kind of runs its course.”

How long the lanes will remain dormant is up in the air. In the meantime, private lessons will still be offered, and the alley’s kitchen will offer carryout of both cooked and uncooked pizzas.

“We’re gonna get through it, we’re gonna come out on the other end,” Paul said. “We just don’t know how we’re gonna come out. How it’s gonna be on the other end.”

Added Susan: “I think it’s scary at this time, but everybody just needs to keep their wits about them. This is gonna pass. And we just need to keep that in mind. That everybody needs help right now.”

Downtown retail shops have not been immune to the virus, either. Maureen Braun, owner of Finishing Touches, said foot traffic has “decreased greatly” recently, with numbers falling by the day. During its 42 years in operation, the Jasper gift shop has survived a fire and recessions, but this is the first health issue that has affected business.

“I don’t think it’s a reason to panic, but I do think we all need to be very cautious,” Braun said Tuesday morning.

She explained at the time of the interview that the store planned to keep its regular hours, but noted that could change in the future. Braun is encouraging her customers to phone-in their orders and staff will meet them at their car to keep the number of in-shop visitors at a small amount.

Staff has been reduced, and a sale is ongoing for those who do need gifts at this time. Braun said each day is different as business owners listen for guidance from the CDC. Knowing how contagious it can be, she understands and agrees with the measures being taken.

Reducing hours and closing the store altogether are possibilities, she said, adding that the situation locally could get worse before it gets better.

“I just hope that people also support their local businesses,” she said. “Especially restaurants, where they can pick up food and order. My heart goes out to all businesses, really.”

She explained that across the United States, 89% of small businesses have 20 employees or fewer.

“This is going to be devastating for many businesses,” Braun said. “We will survive. We’ve been through many challenges before. But we are a healthy business having been here many years. But for some who are new in business, this is devastating, and I feel like we really need to support our local businesses as much as possible.”

Nearby, off Newton Street, La Frontera Haircuts is also maintaining normal hours, with extra precautions being taken to sanitize areas throughout the building. Owner Angel Serrano urged anyone who is sick or feeling unwell to hold off on coming in for their appointments, and he also requested anyone who comes to the shop to avoid bringing guests with them inside. If the order comes to shut down the shop, he will.

“We’re not panicking at all, but we’re trying to ... just prevent it,” Serrano said. “Don’t spread it.”

Good news could be coming. Nancy Eckerle, executive director of the Jasper Chamber of Commerce, said state and federal agencies are “trying to put together some programs which would help businesses bounce back somehow.” Nothing has been set yet, but this could include assists like short-term interest loans or some type of reimbursement for employee wages.

“Those things will trickle down to our level at some point, and we’ll be able to inform our members and our businesses what are those programs, and how do they apply for those programs,” Eckerle said.

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