When Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the state’s first stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 23, local industries, whether deemed essential or not, knew it was the end of business as usual. Even as restrictions were eased and establishments could resume operations as the state entered Stage 2 on May 4, Stage 3 on May 22, and Stage 4 on June 12 of the Back on Track Indiana Plan, businesses learned that getting back to business wasn’t as simple as just reopening their doors.
From travel and restaurant industries to corporate offices and manufacturing, eight local businesses and companies shared their experience navigating through the coronavirus pandemic and what it has been like returning to the new normal.
Haynie Travel Service
Since its establishment in 1938, the third-generation-owned Haynie Travel Service has been through a lot — World War II, 9/11, the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, the recession of 2008, and now COVID-19. Domestic and international travel bans meant the cancellation and postponements of trips and vacations, and while many domestic travel restrictions have been lifted, Robert Haynie, owner of Haynie Travel Services, says it has been a slow process for the travel and tourism industries.
“I don’t anticipate all of a sudden a magic door is going to open and there will be a rush in bookings,” says Haynie. “I believe it will be a slow, steady progress in people regaining confidence.”
Haynie says a majority of his agency’s clients who were impacted by coronavirus and its restrictions chose not to cancel but instead reschedule their plans for the future. He also has been surprised and encouraged by the pent-up demand he sees in friends and colleagues to travel. Even during the stay-at-home restrictions as Haynie and his team were working remotely from their homes, the agency was receiving requests for assistance in planning honeymoons, Christmas and New Year’s vacations in Hawaii, and European trips this fall, many lured in by low flight prices and special deals from partner suppliers.
Through everything, Haynie is remaining positive. After all, his business has a long and strong history in the community. His mission now is to remind people to plan locally and travel globally.
“This disruption has been a very difficult challenge for all of us, it has,” says Haynie. “But I believe there will always be a demand for the personal service, expertise, and added value we provide to area travelers. We depend on our local community to work with us and support our business, and our membership in Signature Travel Network, combined with our many years of experience, places Haynie Travel among the most powerful and professional agencies in the industry, bar none.”
Showplace Cinemas’ eight locations throughout Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky have been closed for almost three months and are now reopening as Indiana entered Stage 4 of the Back on Track Indiana plan on June 12. However, for theaters across the country, reopening has proved to be more of a fizzle than a bang. It’s hard to get people interested in going to the movies when no new films are being released.
Mick Stieler, president of Showplace Cinemas, says the movie industry is gearing up for July 17, the premiere date for the Christopher Nolan spy film “Tenet,” but even that release is tentative and could be postponed by Warner Brothers depending on the percentage of open theaters across the country.
“This thing has virtually killed the movie industry,” says Stieler. “Everyone is staying at home streaming right now, because they can’t go out. That’s another concern. What will it take to get people out and back to the theaters?”
The pandemic has been especially hard on theaters since many couldn’t benefit from loans through the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program, which requires 60 percent of the funds be used for payroll and will only be forgiven if employees are rehired within a certain timeframe and the full-time employee headcount does not decline, a challenge for businesses that had to remain fully shut down throughout the crisis.
As Showplace Cinemas reopens, starting with its East location on June 12, the experience will look different for moviegoers. All tickets are $5, with no cash accepted. Guests can purchase tickets online (with the usual Internet fee waived) or through a kiosk at the theater. Concessions have been simplified — a large popcorn and a large drink each for $5 with no refills. The movies themselves are different with rereleased nostalgic, older films taking up about half of the line-up.
“It’s a challenge, but I like challenges,” says Stieler. “Hopefully we will come through, and hopefully our customers will feel safe coming back to the movies. That’s the whole idea, to make people feel safe, and I think we can do that.”
ERA First Advantage Realty
Jill Lucy, a real estate broker with ERA First Advantage Realty, says the real estate industry has been a mixed bag throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While coronavirus has devasted several industries, real estate’s essential business status and low interest rates in the market meant Lucy was still pretty busy.
“Comparing our numbers from last year to this year, we have had still really surprising good numbers,” she says.
Open houses were suspended, and Lucy’s company was working remotely from home. However, with a purchase as big as a new home, being able to see a property in person was essential for buyers. Lucy says none of her clients throughout the shutdown purchased a home without seeing it in person first, but they took many precautions to ensure the process was safe.
Sellers would disinfect surfaces in the home and often turn lights on and open all closet doors in advance to decrease the need to touch light switches or door knobs, and potential buyers and realtors would wear face masks and gloves while touring homes. Lucy says another challenge is that lenders are cracking down on credit score rates and not accepting riskier buyers, which means it is important to ensure buyers are truly serious about purchasing and are prequalified for a home loan.
“We’re learning more and more about this every day,” says Lucy. “I think numbers are looking better, so don’t be afraid at this point. There are definitely protocols put into place that can make it safe for the serious buyers to purchase a house and for sellers to let potential buyers in.”
The restaurant business is already a tough industry with slim margins. Throw in a global pandemic and statewide shutdown and the challenges can seem insurmountable.
“I think we all were doing a lot of soul searching through this thing, and needless to say, it was one of the most challenging times without question,” says Randy Hobson, owner of Pangea Kitchen.
Pangea closed its doors on March 17 and opted not to offer its Italian and Thai dishes for carry-out during the closure. Now that the restaurant has reopened, however, Hobson says he’s seen an
increase from about 15 to 20 percent carry-out orders to about 80 to 85 percent carry-out. That is just one of many changes the restaurant has experienced since reopening. Two new warmers were purchased to stage food properly for carry-out, tables were spaced to maintain 6 feet of distance between all customers, and plexiglass partitions were added in certain sections of the restaurant, among other changes.
“We try to do things right,” says Hobson. “Some of our products, we had to reevaluate them, making sure the experience for the customer was good even though that was a carry-out product versus served right out of the oven or wok.”
Not only has Hobson had to worry about his established restaurant, but he also has been working on opening another location Downtown in the historic Nabisco building at 401 N.W. Second St. He says a majority of the investment for the building was already locked in before the pandemic started, so while work on the new site slowed down during the shutdown, plans now are moving ahead again with a hopeful opening for the bakery portion later this summer.
As restaurants in the community begin to reopen and slowly increase their capacities in line with the Back on Track Indiana plan, Hobson says he’s feeling better than he was during the shutdown. That doesn’t mean, though, that Evansville’s dining scene is out of the woods yet.
“I’m not sure we’ve seen the total impact of this thing,” says Hobson. “I hope I’m wrong. I hope this thing gets back to normal very quickly, but unfortunately, I think it’s going to change. The saddest thing that could happen is to see strong, talented people in this industry leave Evansville as a result of this thing.”
On March 20, Shoe Carnival began closing its stores nationwide, and by March 23, the corporate employees in Evansville were working remotely from home. As of June 2, 95 percent of Shoe Carnival’s stores were reopened, and in the little more than 10 weeks of being shut down, none of the approximately 450 people employed in the company’s corporate office, distribution center, or two local stores were laid off or furloughed.
“We are very proud we were able to keep our talented team together, which allowed us to open our stores safely once restrictions were lifted,” says Shoe Carnival CEO and Vice Chairman Cliff Sifford.
Managing Shoe Carnival’s payables while keeping employees intact was one of the biggest challenges for the company, says Sifford. It also was a huge undertaking to set up technology and systems for corporate employees to work from home. While certain departments who were considered essential continued to report to the corporate office, employees who have been working remotely are slowly transitioning back into the office. A specific date hasn’t been set by Shoe Carnival for employees to return, but corporate staff is returning in waves to help comply with all the social distancing and CDC guidelines.
“The Shoe Carnival team worked together as one to keep our customers and employees safe,” says Sifford. “Our employees are resilient, smart, and dedicated to making our stores the best place to buy shoes not only here in Evansville but throughout the 35 states we serve. We will come out of the other side of this pandemic as a stronger company.”
Shannon Aleksandr’s Salon and Spa
Shannon Woolsey, owner of Shannon Aleksandr’s Salon and Spa, says getting back to work in the salon is organized chaos. Shannon Aleksandr’s closed on March 17, voluntarily shutting their doors a week before the governor enacted the statewide shutdown. Since reopening, Woolsey says guests have been very patient with new procedures and excited to get back in the styling chair.
“We’re very fortunate the community has been very supportive,” says Woolsey. “They also know everything we’re doing. Our salon has always been very clean and well maintained. We’ve put up office dividers in between all our chairs, we put plexiglass between all our shampoo bowls, we put office dividers between all our pedicure thrones, we’ve put plexiglass on all our manicure tables, we sanitize the stations after every guest leaves, we sanitize the shampoo bottles after every guest, and we’ve always sanitized our combs and brushes but we’re going extra and doing more of it. I know they’re getting sanitized twice now between every guest. Then we are wearing masks and require all our guests to wear masks.”
It took a full week before opening to get the salon ready, and Woolsey says it wasn’t as simple as just reopening. She estimates the business spent about $12,000 for all of the plexiglass, dividers, disinfectants, personal protection equipment, thermometers, and other supplies needed to reopen.
A new step Shannon Aleksandr’s took during the shutdown was to start an online store (shopshannons.com) to sell retail products like root touch-up sprays, shampoo, conditioner, and other items, which Woolsey says they will continue using moving forward. Not only did it give Shannon Aleksandr’s a small revenue stream while closed, but it also gave customers access to products they usually could only buy at the salon.
“We’re still giving them the best experience we can,” says Woolsey. “They are appreciative of all the extra stuff we’re doing. Everyone is thrilled to death to be back.”
On his first day as CEO of Escalade Sports, Scott Sincerbeaux had to help make a tough decision. Should the company return money received through the first round of funding of the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program?
“When I joined the company on April 27, we were coming off the company reporting Q1 earnings and looking at what I believed were the prospects for a reopening of the U.S.,” says Sincerbeaux. “Also, the fact that we started seeing some really good sell throughs in many of our categories, I felt like there was enough of a signaling that allowed me to bring some of our leadership team together to talk about it. I sat in my office by myself and reflected on it, as well, and then had a call with our board of directors and made the recommendation to return the money.”
The PPP program has received criticism for awarding funding to public companies that could tap into credit lines and other resources not available to smaller, private businesses before updating some of its guidelines for application. While Sincerbeaux says his decision wasn’t based on relieving bad press, he understands the frustrations around it and hopes that returning the funds means another business who really needs the assistance will be awarded.
After returning the PPP funds, Escalade continued paying employees at its Gainesville, Florida, facility, though the manufacturing center was shut down at the time, and employees at the corporate office will not return to the office until August. Throughout everything, Sincerbeaux says his priority has been ensuring a healthy environment in the company and its facilities and being a good community partner.
“We pride ourselves on doing the right thing and being a fixture in the community,” says Sincerbeaux. “In the world of big business, there is still an element of being a good citizen of the community. In fact, it’s one of the things that attracted me to this company, the heritage we have and the fact we are a good community citizen.”
Tucker Publishing Group
While media was identified as an essential business in Gov. Holcomb’s executive stay-at-home order, Tucker Publishing Group chose to work remotely throughout the shutdown. For the first time in the company’s 20-year history, two magazines, the April/May 2020 issue of Evansville Business and the May/June 2020 issue of Evansville Living magazines were produced almost entirely from staff’s homes.
“It was interesting how it almost became a badge of honor to be considered an essential business, and although we are not in the daily news gathering business, media was considered essential,” says Todd Tucker, president of Tucker Publishing Group. “It did get a bit lonely at times being by myself in the office.”
Like many other businesses and individuals across the world, Tucker Publishing Group began utilizing programs like Zoom and Slack to hold remote sales calls, host staff meetings, and communicate internally from home. A member of the national City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA), the company also engaged in idea and resource sharing with peer magazines across the country. The annual 2020 CRMA Conference was quickly retooled for a virtual format, utilizing Zoom to hold virtual panels, lectures, group roundtables, and the annual awards ceremony.
“We learned there are a lot of members who had not had the opportunity to attend a CRMA event before,” says Cate Sanderson, executive director of CRMA. “Since our virtual conference was totally free to members in 2020 and since our frequent virtual calls by department (publishers, sales, marketing, etc.) also are free, we are really engaging more with members from all over the masthead and not just the top tier anymore. We are very excited to get to know and to serve them.”
While working from home, Tucker Publishing Group staff had to rethink many processes and adapt them to a purely digital format. Since returning to the office after the stay-at-home order was lifted, many of the new procedures continue to be used, like a detailed spreadsheet checklist to track digital pages of the magazine during production instead of passing physical copies throughout the office for editing.
“As we work in such a collaborative environment sharing thoughts, ideas, and creativity, there is something really lost when you can’t do that when the moment strikes, which sometimes is right out of a happenstance conversation in the hallway with someone you work with,” says Tucker. “I don’t think working remotely can ever replace that aspect of what we do, which is what we are always in search of — that creative spark.”