Pandemic Still Affecting Small Town Businesses Across North Central Florida

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If the government shuts businesses down again because of the pandemic, Mary Moyer might just give up. She’s tired of struggling, she said.

Moyer, 62, has owned the only flower shop in High Springs for 15 years and worked there for 20. Thompson’s Flowers barely survived the Great Recession in 2008, and now the pandemic could cost it nearly 60 percent of its yearly revenue, the florist said.

“It was dead quiet – except for a few funerals I had,” she said of when COVID-19 began wreaking havoc on the economy. “We sat around here, just my husband and I, doing nothing.”

With most people still avoiding the chaos from their couches and beds, the owners of shops, restaurants and attractions they frequented across north central Florida miss their customers.

By some estimates, there are more than 30 million small businesses in the country and about 2.5 million in Florida. Now into Phase 3 of the state’s reopening, many small town businesses in the area are thriving. But many others have struggled.

Adela Rizzotto was days away from serving her first Italian ice and frozen custard at My Happy Place, a new boutique and treats shop in Alachua City, when the world seemed to shut down.

“Oh, there was definitely a moment when I looked up to heaven and went, ‘Really, God?’” Rizzotto said. “You know, it was – it was almost disbelief.”

Stay-at-home orders left initial business slow at times, but in May it began to grow. Referring to families with antsy children, she said: “They would come here and feel safe and happy. Just to take a little break from crazy.”

Santa Fe Canoe Outpost owner Jim Wood said his business in High Springs benefited because the closures and safety concerns led many to the outdoors for fun. At first, he was excited. Then the 50 percent increase in customers overwhelmed his staff – and the river and wildlife.

“I mean, they had never seen so many people up there,” Wood said of the Santa Fe wilderness.

The Philadelphia native put a cap on the number of boats he rented each day to help preserve it.

Diane Adkins said her business location hurt her profits during the pandemic. She and her wife Heather Adkins own Twice is Nice, the only shop in Melrose that is in Alachua County, she said. Signs for Alachua and Putnam Counties are visible from the storefront.

When the couple bought the property in 2017, they never expected the distinction to be a problem, Adkins said. But then Alachua’s pandemic rules, particularly the mask mandate, became stricter than those in Putnam, home to most other nearby businesses.

Twice is Nice is on the edge of Alachua County, which requires masks inside of and signage on most establishments. Putnam County does not. (Credit: Google Maps)

Alachua County denied the shop owners’ petition to stay open after the pandemic began, deeming Twice is Nice nonessential, Adkins said. They were shut down for almost three months.

Trying to balance safety with financial concerns, officials and health experts followed state guidance while reviewing all appeals to the county to remain open, said Mark Sexton, Alachua County’s communications and legislative affairs director.

But in a small town like Melrose, a thrift shop is essential, Adkins said.

The store provides tools, clothes, adult diapers, coffee pots, toasters – all items that people would otherwise pay much higher prices for in Gainesville, she said. Another worry: Some of her customers couldn’t find transportation to those stores 30 minutes away.

“They could have looked into our situation and seen that we, you know, people had nowhere to go,” Adkins said.

More than $2.56 million of CARES Act money has been distributed to 231 businesses in Alachua County, Sexton said. He encouraged struggling business owners to apply for funding.

Wayne Siebert owns Fryer’s Chicken on State Road 26. He called it the only drive thru in Melrose, and said he’s never been busier in his 40 years in the chicken business. By July, Fryer’s had equaled total sales from 2019; they could increase by 200% by year’s end, he said.

The rush came because Siebert could provide for people when there were supply shortages.

“They want to go out,” he said. “They want to buy their food.”

Fryer’s Chicken had to hire a few more people and increase the number of employees per shift. And to shorten lines, Siebert said, he stopped allowing call-ins and multiple orders per car.

At Chiappini’s, a gas station, bar and social hub in Melrose, Mark Chiappini crouched above a box of chocolate bars on the ground in front of him. He was pricing the candy section for the first time in months. The business was closed from March until October because of COVID-19. That was the longest pause in the 85 years his family has owned the store, Chiappini said.

Over the summer, Chiappini said he and Robin Chiappini, his brother and store co-owner, relied on savings and the federal stimulus check to support themselves and their employees.

“But then the money ran out,” Mark Chiappini said.

After that, he relied on food banks and support from friends until the Phase 3 reopening allowed bars and other institutions serving alcohol to function at full capacity.

Kelly Harris, the owner of Coffee N’ Cream in Micanopy, couldn’t have made it without her community. When the pandemic started, she feared she might lose her store.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Harris said. “I was just like, ‘Am I going to have to close the store?’ I just didn’t know.”

But customers rallied to support her cafe, she said. For months, hers was the only business in the heart of historic Micanopy on Cholokka Boulevard to serve food, Harris said.

Monica Fowler, owner of the Delectable Collectables antique shop across from Coffee N’ Cream, said stopping by Harris’ store was the only thing in town to do some days.

“She made us really all feel really good,” Fowler said.

Harris even started making extra food, like casserole dinners, to help make ends meet.

But she’s not sure she’s in the clear. Micanopy did not have its annual fall festival this year, and Harris worries that snowbirds will not come to town because of travel restrictions or concerns. Without that income, Coffee N’ Cream’s winter will be rough, she said.

“The worst could be yet to come,” Harris said. “I hope not, but it could be.”

About Chasity Maynard

Chasity is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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