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Havre de Grace businesses welcome back customers

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HAVRE DE GRACE— At the stroke of 5 p.m. on Friday, May 15, a steady crowd of people began to peruse and shop at Havre de Grace businesses after Governor Hogan announced Maryland could enter into phase 1 of the COVID-19 reopening plan.

Under the phase 1 plan, the ‘stay-at home’ order has been changed to a ‘safer-at-home’ advisory and {span}retail stores are able to reopen at up to 50 percent capacity, while still practicing social distancing, masking and other safety precautions.

John Klisavage, owner of Washington Street Books in Havre de Grace, said he had a decent stream of customers last weekend and that everyone was wearing masks and physically distancing themselves from others.

“{span}It was fantastic. Saturday we had over 140 people through this door, that’s probably 20 people per hour. It was so nice to see our neighbors and friends and make contact again with our customers, Klisavage said.

Klisavage, who established the book store 29 years ago, said that he has been selling merchandise to people via curbside pick up but decided not to start an online store during the two months he was closed.

“We have a draw because we are unusual but that’s the hard part because that doesn’t always translate to online. It is not easy for us to transition from a brick and mortar store to an online store. We have a lot of one-of-a-kind type stuff and things like our original film costumes.”

Klisavage said the film costumes alone have helped the store attracted around 10 to 25% more people each year—a service he could not do through an online store.

Another challenge Klisavage is having to face, and many small, family owned businesses are having to face, is that he wasn’t qualified to receive financial aid from the government.

“We are a sole proprietorship so we don’t have any employees and the type of funding that was available to all the businesses, if you could get it, was all based on employees -like the PPP and the SBA loans,” Klisavage said.

“We have used all our savings to keep going and we are just thankful to be here and to serve our customers.”

Klisavage said he remembers the 07-08 recession and how nearly 50 shops in Havre de Grace closed down because of it. The increase of online shopping following the recession also hurt a lot of businesses in town, according to Klisavage.

“It was devastating- and this has been equivalent if not worse because suddenly everyone except for the restaurants were shut down and drove everyone to the online businesses and to the big guys like Walmart, Target and Amazon,” Klisavage said.

Alex Gordon and Shannon Anioa, Managers at the 83-year-old Joseph’s Department Store, said businesses definitely took a hit financially but that they are confident that the town will rebound.

“Its not all rainbows and butterflies over here but people are getting back open and I think people are happy to get out and support the local businesses and I think it will get better as we go along,” Gordon said.

“We are hoping to have some of our local events again because they help bring in a lot of traffic,” Anioa added.

Havre de Grace already canceled the first two First Friday events, which run every first Friday of the month from April to October, and the 4th of July celebration, which was also canceled last year due to bad weather and held at a later date in the month.

Jolene Forrester, owner of Jo Retro in Havre de Grace and head of the Downtown Merchant Group, said, like Klisavage, Gordon and Anioa, she had a steady stream of customers last weekend and that she is optimistic about the town’s future.

“I think people should feel very comfortable shopping at downtown stores. [Local merchants] are very conscientious about keeping the stores clean and providing special services like providing curbside deliveries that you may not be able to find at larger department stores. It’s important to support your local stores because you don’t want your downtowns to just be empty,” Forrester said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Forrester said she didn’t have an online store to sell her corky, vintage nicknacks, clothing and pyrex pieces. Now, after creating her online store, Forrester said she will keep it even with her storefront being back open.

“This has been the motivation to create the online shop and it has been really successful so we are going to continue to offer that along with curbside delivery,” Forrseter said.

Shawn Forton, owner of Unlimited Art Studios, said he has also been able to sell a lot of his custom woodworks and paintings online but that he is unsure how he will resume his paint classes at his studio.

“I make most of my sales when I have paint night events and I’m not so sure how I will be able to do those because I would have 50 to 70 people in here for them. Having less than 10 people isn’t really worth it between the materials needed for it.

For now, Forton said he will be working in his studio with his door open to encourage people to come in, ask him about his pieces and ask about his prices.

Forton, along with many other small businesses owners who are still unsure about the financial futures, can apply for Harford County COVID-19 small business relief grants at

As of this Monday, small businesses with 2 to 50 employees can apply for $7,500 grants toward social distancing expenses, PPE purchases, payroll and other operating costs. Farmers with 10 or more acres can apply for grants of $2,500.

The county will begin accepting them online after Memorial Day on Tuesday, May 26. Once applications are approved, County Executive Barry Glassman said he expects most checks will go out within the month of June.

Glassman said outdoor sales spaces are likely to be safer and less likely to spread COVID-19 than indoor sales, which is why he signed an Executive Order temporarily waiving some parking lot requirements.

“This will allow businesses to use some of the space in their lots for outdoor sales. They will still have to provide enough parking for visitors and they must comply with all fire, life safety, American Disability Act and social distancing requirements, but we hope this will expand economic opportunities for our local businesses and their customers.” Glassman said.

“As we move into this next phase of our ‘new normal,’ I expect we may be dealing with the COVID19 pandemic into the fall and the following year. We will see ups and downs in the number of cases, especially with increased testing. I will continue to work closely with our health department to monitor outbreaks and make adjustments as necessary. Please continue to take care of yourself and those around you. Be smart, be safe and stay #HarfordStrong.”

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