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Downtown Burlington Faces Uncertainty Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Burlington City Hall and Honey Road
Abagael Giles
At Honey Road, which sits at the junction of Burlington's Church and Main streets, takeout is the new normal.

Burlington’s Church Street is known for its mix of shops and restaurants and as the weather warms, it would usually be pretty full of people too. But not now — at least not with the governor’s orders for individuals to stay home and non-essential businesses to close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new landscape has forced businesses on the most-well known commercial street in Vermont to rethink their operations and has also resulted in many people losing their jobs.

Church Street now is largely quiet, except for classical music that plays over outdoor speakers. Most shops and restaurants are closed, though many, like Crow Bookshop, Outdoor Gear Exchange and Homeport, have signs in their windows directing people to shop online.

Others are experimenting with interactive ways to reach customers. Jess Boutique and its sister store Expressions have started using live videos on social media to mimic in-person shopping. The clothing boutiques held their first live sale about two weeks ago.

Manequins on Church Street
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
At Jess Boutique, stylish mannequins still pose in the display windows, but sales have moved online, to Facebook Live tutorials offered by staff.

“Told you guys this was going to be fun,” Alexis Pomerleau said brightly as she started a Facebook Live video after a brief technical glitch.

For about an hour, Pomerleau and her co-worker held up a variety of sweaters, shirts, pants and skirts, offering suggestions for how to pair items and create outfits. Customers posted in the comments when they wanted to buy something and Pomerleau excitedly encouraged them.

“Charlotte, you’d be adorable in these,” Pomerleau said holding up a pair of checked pants.

Erin Brennan, the general manager at Jess Boutique and Expressions, said the video sales aren’t a complete substitute for in-person sales, but they do help.

“It’s enough to be able to open our doors in however many weeks it’s going to be and be able to say we’re still in business,” she said.

Restaurants have also had to adapt to new rules and can now only offer takeout.

"It's definitely not the numbers we were doing as a restaurant by any means, but we're doing OK." — Cara Tobin, chef at Honey Road

“It’s basically learning a whole new business model,” said Cara Tobin, the chef and co-owner of Honey Road. “It’s definitely not the numbers we were doing as a restaurant by any means, but we’re doing OK.”

Tobin said that, like many in the restaurant industry, she has laid off most of her staff.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in mass layoffs around the country. In Vermont,  the state Department of Labor estimates between 40,000 and 50,000 people have filed for unemployment over the last two weeks — with most of the claims coming from service industry workers.

Sarah Griffin is one of the many workers in downtown Burlington who found themselves suddenly out of a job. Griffin was a server at the restaurant Duino Duende for six years.

She said she was living paycheck to paycheck, but it was consistent and reliable work.

“Being left without a job immediately meant if I didn’t get creative fast I would not be able to buy food, pay rent and cover any basic needs at all,” she said. “So yeah, it’s stressful.”

N.Winooski Street, Burlington
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
Radio Bean, which normally hosts music seven days a week, now sits quiet. Next door, at Duino Duende, cocktails and global street food are still available for takeout.

With no set end in sight for the COVID-19 crisis, it’s unclear when workers like Griffin will be rehired — and how many businesses will be able to fully reopen.

Jed Davis, owner the Farmhouse Group, said the crisis has hit businesses hard.

“It’s such a tough time of year for downtown Burlington in general,” he said. “March is just the bottom of the well in terms of the annual cash flow to begin with.”

The Farmhouse Group, which operates several restaurants in the area including three in downtown Burlington, laid off all but five of its 230 employees.

Davis said he expects to rehire them once this crisis is over, but he said smaller businesses might not be so lucky.

“Absolutely no question that some of our most loved small businesses will not make it through,” he said.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said recently he was “very worried” about downtown businesses, and that his administration was looking for ways to help.

To that end, Burlington is offering small business assistance grants and letting businesses delay paying the city’s gross receipts tax. Federal andstate grants and loans could also help businesses hold on longer.

Kara Alnasrawi, Executive Director of the Church Street Marketplace, said the city expects to be able to offer more grants using money from the federal coronavirus relief package signed last week.  

So far, no businesses in downtown Burlington have closed permanently, but that could change, said Alnasrawi: “I am assuming that after this crisis is over there will be some vacancies on Church Street. I am also confident that the community can be resilient.”

The chef at Honey Road, Cara Tobin, said she was also worried that closed storefronts will diminish the appeal of downtown.

“That’s the draw of Church Street, that there are these vibrant, fun businesses to walk [past] up and down the street, and look in windows,” she said. “And if you have businesses that don't recover from this, it’s really going to change what Church Street is.”

El Cortijo
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
At El Cortijo's Bank Street location, part of The Farmhouse Group, takeout is the new business model, at least through April 15.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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