The COVID-19 shelter-in-place order has had mixed impacts on the Friendly City. Fortuna’s small-business-dense Main Street has weathered trouble before: The 2008 financial crisis and recession shuttered some retail spaces, but the town rebounded. In 2015 a fire burned down the historic Star Hotel, which housed a music store and pharmacy. The town rebuilt. But as with everything else touched by the COVID-19 pandemic, this challenge is something else entirely.
“All the little businesses down here are important,” says Kathy Comerer of Fortuna Fabrics and Crafts. Comerer, who took the helm of the quarter-century old business in 2016, experienced some anxiety when the shelter-in-place order went into effect. She had just moved the store to Main Street and worried that temporarily shutting her doors on top of the new location might send things sideways. But she set up her quilting machine and started making masks. As an essential business, she was allowed to stay open. She said local customers have gone out of their way to shop at her store.
“I’ve been very, very, very fortunate and blessed through the whole thing,” Comerer says. “I know a lot of businesses were not.”
Dianna Rios, coordinator of the Fortuna Business Improvement District, says the shutdown has been having a ripple effect on the community. Most major spring and summer events — the Fortuna Rodeo, the Auto Expo — have been canceled or modified. (The Rodeo Association recently updated its website to say it had applied with the county to hold limited events in July and is awaiting the results of its application.) Those events bring thousands of visitors to businesses on Main Street. Hotels in Fortuna won’t see the reservations they normally do for those events, nor did they see the families who book stays for Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods graduations. Fundraisers that generate scholarship money for local students have been canceled.
“The impact on not being able to have our community events doesn’t just impact our community, it effects our schools, it effects everyone,” says Rios.
But businesses are pulling through. Rios has been helping owners navigate the compliance standards for reopening, printing out hardcopies of information for those who might not be computer savvy.
“A handful of businesses have said they’re not quite ready to reopen,” says Rios.
And those that have reopened are seeing unforeseen challenges. Comerer’s fabric store, for example, struggled to get supplies in stock because her vendors didn’t have enough employees to process orders.
At the corner of 12th and Main, Strehl’s Family Shoes and Repairs has reduced its hours so the husband-and-wife team, Doug and Marilyn Strehl, can keep up with their orders. Doug, the cobbler, repairs shoes while Marilyn, a credentialed pedorthist, measures customers’ feet for the right fit. They’re running short-staffed, just the two of them, for the time being.
“The sad part is we had to lay off three employees,” says Marilyn. “We’ve been here 40 years and we’ve never had to do that.”
The store operated in a limited fashion for the first part of the shutdown, functioning as an essential business that outfits essential workers such as nurses and grocery store clerks. When the county allowed retail businesses to reopen the Strehls immediately took steps to meet compliance standards, requiring masks and “constantly cleaning,” negotiating the tricky business of measuring folks’ feet while staying hygienic and safe. It will still be a while before things are back to normal and they expand their hours.
“We have not made the decision yet,” says Marilyn Strehl. “We don’t want our employees to get ill. We have to protect them.”