Business and industry saw major changes during the pandemic. When in-person services were open, businesses across the region adopted signage and floor markers to encourage social distancing and mask-wearing. Not every business required or enforced mask wearing, but most encouraged it.
Locally owned businesses had to create systems for online ordering for any hope of surviving pandemic impacts. Some created brand-new websites or adapted their existing website to better suit ordering needs. With a lack of broadband access in some of the GRADD region, this shift was challenging for businesses and consumers.
Local businesses in the region that did not survive the pandemic tended to already be struggling or close to closing. For many, the pandemic was the final straw leading owners to their decision to close. Businesses that survived faced challenges, but often met those challenges with creativity.
COVID-19 Business Grants
Recognizing the needs of their communities, GRADD cities and counties created grants to distribute to local businesses. These funds, mostly from the CARES Act, were crucial to recovery from the initial impacts of COVID-related shutdowns, giving local businesses enough of a boost to continue.
The City of Hartford awarded eleven local businesses $1,000 grants from the economic development committee’s budget. Beaver Dam also issued Emergency Restart Grants up to $3,000 per entity. Union County Fiscal Court used CARES funds to give grants of at least $2,500 to small businesses that did not qualify for PPP loans or other SBA assistance. The Henderson Emergency Relief Fund distributed $750,000 to businesses, non-profits, and unemployed individuals in the county. Many of these funds across the region were put toward utilities, payroll, inventory, equipment, and professional consultant fees.
GRADD Revolving Loan Fund
GRADD offered COVID-19 Revolving Loan Funds through EDA CARES Act. Grants ranged from $5,000 to $250,000 and could be used for the purchase of machinery, equipment, and fixtures; working capital; and other activities that promoted industrial, commercial, and tourism enterprise development.
Global Market Impacts at Local Level
Due to a chain reaction of automotive customers temporarily pausing operations and uncertainty in the global market, Aleris, an aluminum rolling mill, paused production at its Lewisport mill for several weeks throughout the course of the pandemic. For each week the company was closed, Hancock County lost $29,000 in occupational tax. Aleris distributed unemployment insurance paperwork to its 800 employees and handled the e-filing of that information. Employees also received unemployment
benefits and sub pay from their local union.
The River View Coal Mine in Union County also furloughed its coal miners in the early days of the pandemic due to decreased energy demand. With businesses and some factories shut down due to COVID-19 safety protocols and impacts to the global market, coal-fired power plants did not need
to generate the usual levels of electricity.
Distilleries and liquor stores saw an increase in business during the pandemic. At the start of the shutdowns, people consumed more alcohol at home. Liquor stores struggled to meet the higher demand while also dealing with supply chain shutdowns.
Many stores in the area utilized drive-thrus, which became essential to minimizing interaction and possible virus exposure while staying open to the public. Alcohol sales increased due to the pandemic and spiked following stimulus payments.
Adapting to a New Market
Some businesses saw the pandemic as an opportunity to expand or contribute to their communities in new ways. This adaptability and creativity strengthened their businesses and the GRADD region.
In April 2020, WPT Nonwovens in Beaver Dam purchased two new machines to manufacture surgical and N-95 respirator masks with an initial company
investment of $500,000. In August, an additional $1 million was invested into a new production line, tripling its previous surgical mask capacity. Despite supply chain shortages and price gouging, WPT capitalized on its relationships with certain suppliers and was able to secure the raw materials affordably from reputable American suppliers.
Glenn Funeral Home and Crematory used its laser cutter to cut fabric from the Owensboro Area Quilters Guild into facemasks for healthcare workers and first responders. The laser cut four layers of fabric at once, making dozens of pieces in the time it took to cut a few by hand. About 450 masks could be cut per day with the laser.
Buy Online, Pickup in Store
Like large grocery stores have done for several years, local retailers had to create new ordering systems nearly overnight. The customer orders products online; employees gather the order; the customer notifies the business upon arrival; and employees bring the order to the customer’s vehicle with minimal contact. This process was available
for groceries, household goods, clothing, food, and numerous other industries. Challenges arose for households and businesses who did not have the reliable access to broadband needed to participate in this convenience.
With people spending more time at home, there was an increase in home improvement projects. Small general stores and large home improvement chains saw a dramatic rise in demand for lumber, tools, and other products associated with home projects. To deal with this increase at the same time as a rise in COVID-19 cases, stores promoted options to order online and pickup in store. For larger chain stores, hundreds of orders a day became normal. Due to the increased demand and global supply chain issues across industries, consumers saw shortages and delays for many products, leading stores to implement quantity limits and significant price increases for some materials.
High Demand for Sporting Goods
Outdoor and sporting goods stores thrived during the pandemic. As restrictions closed entertainment venues and retail destinations, people turned to home and outdoor activities. Ammunition sales soared due to the insecurity surrounding the pandemic, decreases in entertainment options, and unrelated civil unrest. Stores involved in the
sale of hunting, trapping, and fishing supplies saw a significant increase in business. Some businesses even expanded buildings and merchandise inventory to keep up with the demand. Every aspect of the hunting industry thrived: from the productions of
deer attractants to businesses that host hunters to meat processors. In addition to being an integral part of life in many rural counties, these outdoor activities had the added benefit of involving little to no contact with other people.
Local general stores entered this market when they saw the high demand. Townsend Food Center in Webster County started selling fish bait and simple tackle to attract customers heading out for fishing trips. When COVID-19 shut down entertainment
options, these stores took advantage of the opportunity in much of the GRADD region.
Quick Shopping at the Market
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles encouraged Kentuckians to support local farmers’ markets throughout the pandemic. With grocery store supplies dwindling at times, Kentuckians deemed happy to get their meat locally. Many markets
adapted to public health and safety guidelines by spreading vendors out in the market space and asking patrons to wear masks and social distance. Foot traffic at the Owensboro Regional Farmers’ Market was down from previous years, and visitors
spent less time browsing; they preferred to get what they came for and spend as little extra time in public as possible.
Brown Farm Fresh Produce in Hartford operates a roadside farm stand selling produce, flowers, and other goods. An open-air permanent structure built several years ago set them up for success during the pandemic. During COVID-19 restrictions, they
created a system that allowed people to remain in their vehicles or stand outside the structure while placing orders.
In mid-March 2020, Kentucky had just over 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Despite the low number, both grocery stores in Hancock County – Bill’s IGA in Hawesville and Crossroads IGA in Lewisport – ran into supply and demand issues. Toilet paper,
milk, meat, potatoes, and cleaning products were popular items stores struggled keeping in stock. The panic-buying subsided by April, and stores saw a boost in sales. Bill’s IGA gave employees a 20% raise for several weeks around this time.
Cameron’s Food Liner in Livermore saw increased business from local restaurants who had trouble getting enough supplies in their shipments. During mealtimes when drive-thru and to-go orders peaked, some restaurants ran out of food to serve and turned
to the local grocery store to meet their own customer demand.
Big Oak General Store in Calhoun opened in July 2019. By the summer of 2020, they already expanded due to the demands of the community during COVID. During the pandemic, employees helped people shop over the phone in case customers did
not want to enter the store. So much space was needed to support the increased business that owner James Perkins began looking for a new location.
Using Shutdowns to Upgrade
On March 16, 2020, all gyms had to close without warning. Iron Jungle Family Fitness in Owensboro froze membership dues at this time. Owner Chris Massey used the extended shutdown as an opportunity to upgrade the facility. With a warehouse
of new equipment already waiting and a sudden high public demand for used equipment for home use, Iron Jungle was able to sell its old equipment and move the new in. Massey also invested in new sanitizing stations, which included reusable towels available for every member to use, a washer and dryer to clean those towels, and new sanitizer spray to kill the coronavirus.
Maxwell Brothers Lumber in Hancock County shut down during the pandemic due to the paper mill also being shut down. During the closure, Maxwell seized the opportunity to upgrade their entire process, giving business to construction and
electrical companies during a difficult time. The upgrades quickly proved worthwhile to production.
Persistent Uncertainty for Restaurants
Dining and drinking establishments faced some of the greatest uncertainty during the pandemic because of constantly changing public health guidelines. On March 16, 2020, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services issued an order to close restaurants and bars to in-person traffic. They were permitted to reopen on May 22, 2020 for outdoor dining but restricted indoor dining to 33% capacity. In response to rising cases in the state in October and November, restaurants and bars once again closed in-person services and returned to carryout and drive-thru services on November 20, 2020 (EO 2020-968). Subsequently, the $40 million Food and Beverage Relief Fund was established so that local establishments could receive some relief from the impacts of the most recent closures.
The Food and Beverage Relief Fund was available for bars and restaurants making less than half of their profits from drive-thru services. The hope was to help local establishments, who were not able to absorb the impacts as well as national chains, to recover from this second shutdown. If any restaurants or bars were found to be out of compliance with the new COVID-19 safety restrictions, they would forfeit all the Food and Beverage Relief Fund that they received.
In Beaver Dam, local restaurants remained successful throughout the pandemic thanks to immense community support. Many diners chose to order takeout and support those restaurants even though they could not dine in. Pizza Kings saw more
business than ever before as people made the choice to dine locally. A local Owensboro barbecue restaurant, among many others in the region, expressed frustration at the constantly changing guidelines. Changes happened overnight, quicker than supply orders could be changed or cancelled. As a result, revenue
was lost when they had to give away food for free or let it go to waste.
Capacity at Salons
The Color Bar in Owensboro, like other salons, closed its doors at the beginning of the pandemic, expecting to be gone for two weeks. Employees welcomed the brief vacation. However, when those two weeks turned into two months, stress levels
raised. Stylists were ready to return to work and get paid. They received some financial assistance, but that only helped so much. When they reopened, they expected and were prepared to be busy with appointments. However, clients returned slowly as many remained cautious of exposure to the virus and were not eager to return to a public setting like the salon. Nearly a year from the beginning of the pandemic, business returned to its usual levels.
At Salon Calidora in Henderson, the story was much the same. The waiting area was closed and families who arrived together took turns inside, waiting in the car until it was time to trade off and go inside. This salon stayed busy during the various levels of
restriction. Not many changes had to be made in salons to allow for safe operation. Existing workstations were already built far enough apart to accommodate distancing
requirements. Tools and equipment were swapped out and sanitized more often, and chairs were wiped down between clients. A mask requirement was the biggest change.