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‘People are still afraid’: Customers largely stay away as Baltimore County businesses reopen

A sign outside B's Boutique in Catonsville directs customers to wear a mask and limits three patrons inside the Frederick Road store at a time.
A sign outside B's Boutique in Catonsville directs customers to wear a mask and limits three patrons inside the Frederick Road store at a time. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

Virginia Peery began selling home decor and trinkets at a Glen Burnie flea market 11 years ago as a way to make ends meet after the 2008 recession.

With three other merchants, Peery opened This N That Treasures on East Drive in Arbutus in early March. She chose the location because the people are friendly, and she was drawn in by the thought of seeing the business corridor thrive with new, burgeoning businesses like Ellicott City, she said.

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The shop was open for less than two weeks before she had to close in mid-March under state orders to limit the spread of coronavirus.

“It was horrible,” Peery said. “I was very depressed."

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Her landlord allowed her to extend her lease without revenue coming in to pay rent. On the first Saturday of Baltimore County’s partial reopening, Peery said she hadn’t seen as many people as one might expect after being sequestered to their homes since mid-March.

“People are still afraid,” she said. “And you can’t blame them.”

Although the weather was bright after a week of wind and rain, and many shops had their doors propped open with glowing signs declaring them to be “Open,” the streets of Arbutus, Catonsville and Towson saw only scattered foot traffic on May 23.

Although Baltimore County businesses were permitted to partially reopen Friday, Frederick Road in Catonsville saw minimal foot traffic Saturday afternoon, May 23.
Although Baltimore County businesses were permitted to partially reopen Friday, Frederick Road in Catonsville saw minimal foot traffic Saturday afternoon, May 23. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

Still, business owners were happy to socialize with their customers, bring furloughed employees back to work, and expressed gratitude to community members who supported them during the nearly three months after they were ordered to close.

“I just love seeing people,” said Sarah Garry, owner of B’s Boutique in Catonsville. “And people are so happy just to have interaction, touch and feel clothes — just be out and feel normal.”

Baltimore County began allowing nonessential retailers, hair salons and barber shops to open doors to customers May 22, as long as there are 10 or fewer people in the store — including employees.

Dine-in options at county restaurants and indoor and outdoor gatherings with more than 10 people at businesses, churches and other places are still prohibited.

The order from County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. came a week after Gov. Larry Hogan replaced a statewide stay-at-home order with a “safer at home” advisory, allowing some nonessential businesses to reopen at 50% capacity, but still prohibiting dine-in options at restaurants.

Those measures were established to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes. Hogan gave county and city leaders discretion over how and when to reopen their own jurisdictions.

Olszewski, who still encourages residents to opt for curbside pickup and delivery from businesses, said the partial reopening was predicated on the “significant progress” made to expand the county’s access to more testing and secure personal protective equipment for nursing homes, where residents account for the most deaths in Baltimore County.

Despite the progress, some are still apprehensive. Wearing masks, Cockeysville residents Maxine Anderson and Paula Morgan stood outside Durank Barber Shop in Towson, where owner Manuel Duran has been fielding a surge in customers.

When asked if they’d visited local retailers, Anderson said, “That’s pushing it.”

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Neither of them feel safe, given the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, Morgan said.

Even as testing capacity expands and, subsequently, confirmed cases increase, hospitalizations for coronavirus patients have decreased, the most significant metric to track in the state’s recovery, according to Hogan’s administration.

Anderson said she’ll feel comfortable enough to shop in stores “when businesses open normally — like, when I can go to Fells Point and have a beer. That’s when I’ll decide everything is cool.”

Shop owners are taking precautions to mitigate disease spread.

Emory Knode, owner of Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, puts a bottle of hand sanitizer front and center at his Catonsville shop on May 23, the first weekend day some nonessential Baltimore County businesses were allowed to reopen.
Emory Knode, owner of Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, puts a bottle of hand sanitizer front and center at his Catonsville shop on May 23, the first weekend day some nonessential Baltimore County businesses were allowed to reopen. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

At B’s Boutique, Garry said the clothes are steamed after a customer tries them on. Poppy and Stella, a boutique with locations in the greater Baltimore area, hasn’t reopened its stores to the public in part because of a concern over the smaller size of their shops, which could put customers and employees at risk. At Nelson Coleman Jewelers in Towson, housed in an old bank building, sixth-generation owner Amanda Coleman reinstalled the teller window to facilitate purchases at a distance.

At Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in Catonsville, owner Emory Knode is keeping the doors locked, with a sign taped to the door that indicates a customer ring the bell for assistance.

He’s encouraging people to call ahead and give him a heads-up if they plan to stop by to limit the amount of in-person interaction and in-store browsing, “which I don’t [normally] mind doing, but I think it’s not prudent,” Knode said.

Knode and other business owners credited their neighbors with sustaining them, even as many struggled to secure Paycheck Protection Program loans and build an online presence to make sales.

Chris Hayes of Harford County browses for records at Trax on Wax in Catonsville on May 23, the first Saturday some Baltimore County businesses were permitted to partially reopen.
Chris Hayes of Harford County browses for records at Trax on Wax in Catonsville on May 23, the first Saturday some Baltimore County businesses were permitted to partially reopen. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

“It’d be really easy to be defeated mentally,” Knode said. “And if you’re defeated mentally, you’re not gonna be able to prosper.”

Nicole Todaro, who helps her boyfriend Nathanael Waddell run Universal Comics in Arbutus, said because of a $1,200 grant from a nonprofit and the patronage of six or seven loyal customers, the comic shop was able to stay in its building on East Drive and pay rent on time.

“If we had to wait another month, [Waddell] might’ve had to dip into his own money to keep this place going, which he was absolutely prepared to do,” Todaro said.

At Trax on Wax in Catonsville, owner Gary Gebler said although the vinyl shop had to establish an online presence to sell records and other products, “the outpouring from the community” was enough to help with the losses.

Since being cleared for reopening, Gebler said he’s had 10 people in his shop just once. On May 23, three masked customers perused records, keeping distant from one another between the narrow rows of merchandise.

Although Chris Hayes lives in Harford County, he drove 45 minutes to pick up records at Trax on Wax because it’s his favorite record store.

“It’s relaxing, looking for records and coming here, seeing Gary and talking to everyone,” said Hayes, who collects records.

Hayes said since he’s been laid off and stuck at home for three months, he’s trying to keep his mind occupied. When Harford County reopened some nonessential businesses, he visited his local vinyl shops there.

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“It helps with anxiety, too, it takes your mind off everything,” he said. “I would drive 45 minutes just to have peace of mind.”

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