When people around the country started retreating into the solitude and safety of their homes, small businesses across Whatcom County started scrambling for their survival.
Tension was high early last year, and panic spread contagiously through the community as COVID-19 began spreading rapidly throughout the country. By March 16, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a two-week shutdown that would later turn into months of restaurants and bars across Washington state remaining closed.
“The night that we got the message from the governor we were like what the heck is going to happen,” said Anna Adams, owner of the Old World Deli in Bellingham. “A month in it’s like — okay — I’m resigned to [believe that] this may never end.”
A lot has changed in Bellingham since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020.
Businesses that were initially forced to close have since been able to turn their open signs back on with new safety protocols like masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing.
Streets that used to look more like ghost towns a year ago are now populated by shoppers and pedestrians and accommodate a variety of new patios and outdoor dining areas.
Now on any given day, hearing music blast through the front door of a bar or gossip spilling from an inconspicuous table in the corner of a cafe is more common than it used to be.
Erika Millage, manager of Third Planet in Bellingham, said that she attributes the increased amount of customer traffic at stores in Bellingham to more people getting vaccinated.
“We’ve already seen an increase in people downtown with the restaurants opening back up,” Millage said. “I know a lot more of my friends are comfortable going out.”
Still — even as over half of all Whatcom County residents have now received at least one dose of vaccine and the Centers for Disease Control relaxed masking and social distancing measures for vaccinated people in some areas — business is operating far from normal.
According to the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, a local nonprofit dedicated to growing and supporting downtown Bellingham, 68.7% of restaurants and retailers that were surveyed in April 2021 said that they experienced 50% or more revenue loss in 2020 compared to 2019. Of those surveyed, 51% said they will need to see an increase in income to stay in business.
Lindsey Payne Johnson, program director for the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, said that the organization used the survey data to assess the specific needs and provide resources to local businesses including rent relief and staff support.
“It’s just really important to gauge how businesses are doing and it helps inform where we should be channeling our efforts,” Johnson said.
Kevin Hoult, a business advisor and manager of strategic initiatives at Western’s Small Business Development Center, said that the pandemic has had an uneven impact on some local businesses.
“Some businesses just sat and stared at the walls while other businesses were desperately trying to fulfill demand,” Hoult said.
David Penrose, the owner of BBay Running in Bellingham, said his business was down by 75% in April of 2020. At that time, he said that he had to furlough his team and work alone seven days a week while providing personal shoe fitting appointments to clients.
“We’re still quite a stretch from anywhere near normal,” Penrose said.
Along with the pandemic, Penrose said that both road closures and the development of The Way Station, a new facility that will provide Bellingham’s unhoused population access to medical services, have also started negatively impacting business.
“We’re not sure if we’re going to survive with what this environment has from a retail perspective,” Penrose said. “I’m typically a very optimistic guy, but I don’t know where we’re going to go from here.”
Hoult said that where some businesses struggled to operate, others found unexpected success.
“There were some businesses that did better than they’ve ever done before,” Hoult said. “It related to how peoples’ habits were changing and also how people cope with their own challenges.”
Jenny Gunderson, owner of My Garden Nursery in Bellingham, said that she’s been able to welcome thousands of new customers during the pandemic which she attributes to people’s desire to grow their own food and reconnect with nature.
“It’s humbling to be in an industry that’s done so well in such an awful, awful time,” Gunderson said.
Gunderson said that My Garden Nursery is a sanctuary of solace for a lot of people who have experienced stress throughout the pandemic.
“We had a customer just a couple days ago saying how the safest they have felt in the last year was at our store — she had tears in her eyes when she said it,” Gunderson said. “I know we’re a store but for us, we want to be more than that.”
Erika Millage, manager of Third Planet in Bellingham, said that her business has also been successful in creating a safe space for people in the last year that they’ve been open.
“We’ve become one of the anchors for this part of Downtown,” Millage said. “We meet people where they are at the door, and we do our best to help them have a day that’s going to be great.”
The pandemic also has led to store owners changing aspects of their business in order to stay afloat.
Terra Seaton, co-owner of The Bagelry in Bellingham, said that the pandemic forced her to reimagine her business.
In the last year, she said that The Bagelry streamlined their menu, opened a walk-up storefront window and set up a delivery service.
“We came out a lot leaner than we were before,” Seaton said.
Anna Adams said the pandemic helped her understand the importance of Old World Deli’s presence online. She said that during lockdown especially, customers enjoyed seeing the business post regularly on its social media platforms.
“It was crazy, I would post something and people would come in and buy it or they would order it online,” Adams said. “It was direct, immediate response.”
Adams said that she will continue to adapt her business to the changing economic landscape.
“If your business is going to survive, then you have to be able to be flexible and react to the changes and figure out creative solutions,” Adams said.
Hoult said that the survival of locally owned stores is critical to Whatcom County’s economy. He said that if consumers want diversity and choice in the products and services that are available, then community members have to continue to support locally owned businesses.
Josh Holland, front-of-house manager at Bayou on Bay in Bellingham, said that the diversity of choice adds to the overall culture of the community.
“Restaurants and venues need to survive because it creates vibrancy and culture that indirectly has everything to do with why you like this region,” Holland said. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
Cameron Bairdis a second-year visual journalism student and a city news reporter for The Front. His work primarily focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic in Whatcom County. When he’s not reporting, he enjoys going on hikes, camping and listening to music. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.