Kathi Gromacki spent Thursday preparing her Bel Air boutique for a world recovering from COVID-19.
The owner of The Nest on Main opened up space for walking around, arranged merchandise to be seen without touching, found the spot where the hand sanitizer will go. Thanks to a state order reopening retail with limitations, she’ll open her doors Saturday for the first time in nearly two months.
“I’m just excited to be open again,” said the shopkeeper, who has been getting by with social media and deliveries. “It’s been mentally taxing. It’s a whole lot more work for a sale than it is having people come in and purchase things."
Some Baltimore-area retailers shuttered by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic are preparing to reopen under strictly controlled, less crowded conditions, as early as this weekend. Starting at 5 p.m. Friday, Maryland will enter its first phase of reopening the economy that allows retailers, barbers, hair salons and pet groomers, with capacity limitations, to open their doors, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday.
The Republican governor, however, left it up to county and city leaders to decide whether to go along with his decision and ease those restrictions, depending on the local impact of the virus.
Both Carroll and Harford county officials decided Thursday to open up as the state now allows. But other Baltimore-area jurisdictions decided to move more slowly, citing limited testing capacity among other issues.
Baltimore City will keep its local stay-at-home order, the mayor said Thursday. Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties will allow retail stores that have been closed to reopen for curbside pickup and delivery only. Anne Arundel and Howard will allow barbershops and beauty salons to open, by appointment only in Anne Arundel and with only one customer allowed in the shop in Howard.
With the green light to reopen, many businesses in Carroll and Harford counties spent Thursday in preparation.
Debbie Scheller was cleaning up her Sykesville bookstore and tacking strips of tape to the floor at 6-foot intervals to encourage customers to maintain the recommended social distance from one another.
Come Friday evening, she’ll limit the number of people in Main Street’s “A Likely Story” to 18, though, she said, “we don’t have hordes of people coming at one time for the most part.”
Still, Scheller was looking forward to having customers back in the space, and rehiring employees she let go when Hogan’s executive order forced nonessential businesses, including bookstores, to close. She’s been managing curbside pickup and delivery orders largely by herself.
“It’s been tough,” she said. “A lot of things have been pushed to the side.”
In-person events and author readings, usually a mainstay at the shop, will remain online until the second phase of reopening begins in Maryland.
By Thursday morning, Westminster barber Joe Mangiapane said he had 24 messages from clients looking to make appointments at Nana and Pop’s Barbershop.
“Things are filling up fast,” Mangiapane said.
Since April, he’s been able to offer haircuts to essential personnel — a policy that’s been hard to explain to some of his regular customers who walk in seeking trims.
In Bel Air, Angelo Monico of Towne Barbers, faced a similar rush.
“Everybody wants a haircut now and I can’t accommodate everybody,” Monico said.
In recent weeks, Monico has struggled to adapt his business to appointment-only, answering phones and text messages while he cuts hair; he’s currently open to first responders and other essential personnel. And he’s confused by Hogan’s directives to operate at half capacity. The shop has three barbers; does that mean only two can work at a time?
But while some struggled with questions about reopening, others grappled with disappointment.
Yasmine Young, owner of Diaspora Salon on North Charles Street in Baltimore, had hoped to reopen her shuttered salon by June 2. She tentatively planned to start preparing next week for clients’ return and to hire a third employee, besides herself and another stylist, to staff for the increased demands of social distancing.
When she heard the mayor’s announcement Thursday, “my heart dropped,” she said.
“I’m ready to get back to work," Young said. "At the same time, I do understand. If the cases are still increasing, I don’t want to put my health at risk. It’s a bittersweet situation.”
Young said she has been relying on business reserves to pay for rent and utilities and lost all her income during the salon’s peak time.
“I don’t know how long we can continue like this," she said.
Timing of a full reopening is still an unknown in Baltimore County, too.
At Greenspring Station, merchants and their landlord representatives have been talking about what a reopening would look like for the upscale, mainly outdoor center.
When shops at Greenspring do reopen, there will be new signage reminding customers to wear face masks in stores and telling them the owners will be sanitizing spaces throughout the day. Hand sanitizing stations will be installed throughout the center.
Hours will likely be shortened to noon to 4 p.m., other than by appointment. And fewer people will be allowed in stores and working, depending on square footage.
Francesca Ripple, owner of Francesca’s Bridal and Francesca’s Atelier, both at Greenspring, said Thursday that she’s excited to reopen.
“Every small business there is just so excited," she said, “about getting back and getting back in a safe way and still taking care of the community.”
As for the timing, “I was hoping it was going to be this weekend,” she said. “Now we don’t know. ... I’m thinking it’s going to be soon."
In a reopening scenario, shops that already see clients by appointment will continue to do so. Those that don’t will restrict the numbers of shoppers in at any one time.
Ripple said that when allowed to reopen, her bridal shop would start by taking clients for a typical hour-and-a-half appointment, then leave 30 minutes before the next appointment for cleaning.
And she expects merchants will staff their stores based on their square footage and the number of customers they can serve. Some small boutiques may have adequate space to have two people working and helping two customers at a time, while others may be able to accommodate more.
“I think that’s how it will start,” she said. “That’s a safe way of doing this. Clients will feel good about it, and we’ll feel good.”
She said demand has not slowed for bridal appointments, including some clients who still have weddings planned for the summer. She has worked virtually with some of them. Appointments that had been booked for last weekend have now been pushed to the end of May.
It’s still unclear what Maryland’s initial reopening will mean for national and regional chain stores that have locations in numerous jurisdictions.
Baltimore-based Under Armour, which closed all 188 of its North American stores starting March 15, said Wednesday that it had no update on when any Maryland stores might reopen.
Kohl’s, which has stores in Bel Air and Westminster, has been gradually reopening stores around the country. It opened in four states May 4 and an additional 10 on May 11. The retailer had no information Thursday regarding plans to reopen in Maryland, a spokeswoman said.
When the stores do reopen, it will not be business as usual, she said. Store hours will be limited. Limited-contact, drive-up service, first made available in early April, will continue to allow pickup of online orders. Inside stores, staff will increase cleaning and shoppers will be reminded to stay 6 feet apart.
One consideration for reopening retailers will be how quickly they can ramp up staffing after laying off workers.
April Richardson, owner of Baltimore-based Food Opportunity LLC, which operates retail and commercial bakeries on Reisterstown Road, said she has received a large order from Safeway and now has to hire back enough people to fill it. But she’s unsure whether she’ll be able to lure enough of her trained employees away from earning unemployment, which includes an additional $600 per week through July, or whether she will have to rehire and retrain.
But others, like Ben Pickett, the manager of Charm City Run’s Bel Air shop, said he’s looking forward to interacting with people again. The store will reopen Saturday.
During the pandemic, Charm City Run offered “virtual fittings” for shoes over Zoom, but sales still dropped. Initially, the number of customers allowed in the store will be limited to two at a time to maintain social distancing.
“I’m cautiously optimistic to see people come out and business slowly returning to normal,” Pickett said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.