'It feels good to be coming back': York County emerges from lockdown

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
Foster's Flower Shop owner Marcy Almoney moves a sidewalk sign outdoors at her shop on Beaver Street on the first day of York County's move into the yellow phase of the state's reopening plan Friday, May 22, 2020. "It's exciting to be open," she said, "it feels normal." Bill Kalina photo

Alexandra Hammond finally had a lull in foot traffic about 1:30 p.m. Friday after a busy morning and a steady stream of customers at her consignment clothing shop in downtown York City.

It was the first day Hammond had reopened the storefront for her shop, My Girlfriend's Wardrobe, since March, when Gov. Tom Wolf's COVID-19 mitigation orders forced her to move exclusively online.

"We have had so many people just happy to be out of the house and happy to be interacting with people, just doing some shopping," she said.

And Hammond said she, too, was excited to see her customers in person again.

My Girlfriend's Wardrobe was one of several local businesses to reopen their brick-and-mortar stores Friday in conjunction with York County moving to the yellow phase of the governor's reopening plan.

Every county in the state will be in the yellow phase by June 5, Wolf announced Friday, meaning the stay-at-home order will be lifted and most retail establishments will be allowed to resume in-person sales.

Friday's switch to yellow in York County couldn't come soon enough for some businesses, but it was already too late for others.

Bobcat Creamery in Manchester borough, an ice cream parlor and restaurant run by Northeastern High School students, closed its doors permanently last week because of the economic toll of the COVID-19 response, the owners said.

Earlier this month, a study sponsored by the York County Economic Alliance concluded up to 30% of the county's businesses could ultimately fail because of the shutdown. Statewide, the unemployment rate hit an all-time high Friday, topping off at 15.1%.

Jen Swanner said she's praying her business doesn't meet the same fate.

Swanner, owner and founder of the Curious Little Playhouse in York City, started the hands-on children's play space in April 2019.

The shop has 12 screen-free play stations for kids, with themes, props and costumes designed to encourage imagination.

My Girlfriend's Wardrobe employee Natalie O'Dell, left, hangs clothing as Lauren Ciccotello of Stewartstown shops at the Beaver Street boutique on the first day of York County's move into the yellow phase of the state's reopening plan Friday, May 22, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

There's a medieval castle with a loft and a ladder for the kids to climb, a stage and puppet theater and a miniature grocery store station where kids can "shop" for food and cash out at the children's sized register.

By the time she had to close down in March, Swanner said the business had nearly quadrupled in size, from walk-in customers to special reservations for birthday parties and field trips.

She said closing her doors was "devastating," and she had to lay off her three employees.

She didn't qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program because her business was only a year old, she said, and she couldn't provide two years' worth of business tax filings for the application.

Swanner got the OK to open the retail portion of the shop, where she sells Melissa and Doug toys, when York County moved to the yellow phase, but she can't reopen the play space until the county is in the green phase.

"The only customers I've had come in are asking about the playhouse," she said Friday.

Customers have begun reserving time slots for birthday parties and other events later this year, Swanner said, and she does offer gift certificates for those who want to support the business until she can fully reopen.

People across the state have been hit hard by the economic crash.

Nearly 2 million people in Pennsylvania have filed unemployment claims since the COVID-19 crisis began, according to the state Department of Unemployment Compensation.

Some businesses have fared better than others.

Waiver denied: At Weldon Solutions in West Manchester Township, all 40 employees have retained their jobs and received a steady paycheck through the shutdown, said company President Travis Gentzler.

Weldon Solutions designs and assembles robotic machinery and automation systems for clients in the food and auto industries, among other clientele.

All employees who are ready and able will return to work at the plant Tuesday, Gentzler said, and those who need to will be able to continue working from home.

"It feels good to be coming back, but the uncertainty of where we’re heading and what the economy is going to look like is hard as well," Gentzler said.

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Walking through the empty plant Friday, Gentzler explained the ins and outs of a large-scale automation project his team recently finished.

The engineers designed a system that allows a towering, yellow robot to move efficiently along a track between different machines to safely perform the tasks that would normally require 10 to 12 people to complete.

The system was supposed to be shipped out already, Gentzler said, but the client put a hold on the delivery because their own business was shut down.

Weldon applied for a business closure waiver from the governor, citing the fact that several of the company's clients fell into the essential or life-sustaining category and needed Weldon's services in order to operate.

The state denied Weldon's application, so Tuesday will be the first time the plant returns to normal operations.

Travis Gentzler, president of Weldon Solutions, is shown at the machine manufacturing company in West Manchester Township, Friday, May 22, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The plant measures 40,000 square feet, Gentzler said, providing ample social distancing space for the company's 40 employees.

All employees will be required to wear masks, and those with their own offices will not be allowed to have anyone else inside, Gentzler said, but the toughest new rule for the employees to follow will probably be the restrictions on the break room.

Workers will be allowed to get their food and prepare it for lunch, but no one will be allowed to sit and eat together because of the close proximity and difficulty to practice social distancing, Gentzler said.

Instead, they'll have to eat at their desks in their cubicles or in their work space on the assembly floor.

Gentzler said it might be tough for everyone to get used to the rules when they get back, especially because they haven't seen each other since March and will likely want to catch up and socialize over meals.

"The first couple of weeks will be the hardest," he said.

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