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Blair County’s virus closures relaxed

Residents emerge in yellow status

On Friday, Blair County emerged partway from its two months of lockdown, with many businesses moving from red to yellow in the state’s phased reopening.

The shutdown was “devastating,” said Park Home Furniture Manager Kathy Gates. “(But) the salespeople are excited to be back to work, the customers are excited to be shopping and out of their homes (and) it’s a great feeling.”

During the shutdown, Park laid off more than 20 employees, except for sporadic assignments handling sales by appointment, according to Gates.

The workers signed up for unemployment compensation, but were pleased to be back on the job, as “everybody loves Kathy,” store owner John Muccitelli said.

The shutdown was doubly frustrating for Muccitelli because Lowe’s and Home Depot, which, like his store, sell appliances, were permitted to remain open — and to sell those same appliances that he could not. Their appliances are no more essential than his, he said.

Everyone in the Allegheny Township store was wearing masks on Friday.

“We’re doing everything by the book,” Muccitelli said.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to make everything safe,” Gates said.

“I hope it gets to the next (green) phase as soon as it can,” Muccitelli added.

Downtown on 11th Avenue, LaVonne Falbo of LaVintage Decor was open for the first time since mid-March, but she wasn’t busy for the first time since then.

In contrast to many, Falbo elected not to become frustrated with the governor’s order, but instead applied herself to enhancing the online aspects of her operation.

That included selling custom-painted furniture on Facebook Marketplace, selling paint via her website, video-consulting for a kitchen repainting job, conducting classes with participants using craft kits she’d prepared and dropped off at their homes, consulting for a wedding and working with another business to create “quarantine” videos on her YouTube channel that combined healthful recipes with exercise.

Falbo also set herself up with an online shipping service that matches people who have goods to transport with others who have the means to transport them, so that she can begin to ship furniture — a task she’d previously put off because it seemed so complicated and expensive.

At first, the shutdown hit her “like a car accident,” Falbo said.

But she flipped quickly into an “OK, what do I do to fix this” mode — as is her habit when problems occur and things need to change, she said.

While she was minding her store Friday, some things that she undertook to deal with the crisis will continue, including the online consultations.

“It’s easier (to do) on the computer,” and there are no worries about lost papers, she said.

Stephanie Hite of Trade Secrets, which is also on 11th Avenue, likewise resorted to online sales, which kept her business “above water” during the shutdown, with the help of customers who took pains to support her business, she said.

She’d never used online selling before, she said.

She’d also never sold hand sanitizer, but that was a natural addition to the company’s product line of soaps and lotions during the pandemic, because it was suddenly in frantic demand and in great shortage.

The shortage wasn’t a problem for her and her husband, Andrew, who makes the products that she sells, because he could also make the sanitizer, she said.

The online customers lived as far west as California and as far south as the Carolinas, and Trade Secrets was able to reach them largely because of “people sharing on social media,” Hite said.

Trade Secrets laid off its two employees to keep overhead down, but hopes to bring them back by September, Hite said.

Until early June, business hours will be limited — she’s posting them on social media as needed — while she helps Andrew catch up on inventory.

J.T. Garber, who leases space at Trade Secrets for the products sold by his company, Olive the Little Things, “took a step backward” during the shutdown.

He was able to sell a little online, but wasn’t able to hold the tasting events every one to three weeks his company relies on to entice customers, he said, as he stocked bottles of flavor-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar on shelves at Trade Secrets.

People think his products, obtained from producers all over the world and hand-bottled here, are no different from other olive oil, but when they taste it, they have their “eyes opened,” he said.

Copy-Rite on Union Avenue and its two sister stores closed initially after the governor’s order, then reopened, when management learned that print shops were classified as essential, then closed again, except for appointments, based on the realization that the business wasn’t really “life-essential,” according to Senior Manager Angela Lynch.

On Friday, a sign on the door informed customers that mask-wearing and social distancing was mandatory and that no more than three customers were allowed in the store at the same time.

Inside, there were clear plastic shields on top of the long counter and a sign laying out the rules for the red phase, in case an outbreak here forces the governor to send Blair back.

Lynch was pleased to be working again, as she “functions better with a schedule,” she said.

Yet it was nice to be at home with her two college-age kids, she said.

In contrast to Muccitelli, Lynch admires how the governor, along with Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, have handled the crisis.

“They’re doing a fantastic job,” particularly in refusing “to take the bait” from critics, and in their repeated insistence that when a county moves from one phase to another is “up to the virus,” Lynch said.

Watching Gov. Tom Wolf and Levine on the state’s daily COVID-19 webcast “makes me feel better,” she said.

It contrasts to the White House briefings, which make her upset and nervous, she said.

“I’m so happy to be in Pennsylvania,” she stated.

At South Beach Tanning Co., Manager Darby Smith and sales clerk Tracie Warner were back at work for the first time since mid-March — and were ambivalent about it.

“Yes and no,” both said, when asked how they felt.

On the good side, “it’s something to do,” both said. On the other side, they need to clean the tanning beds with disinfectant after every customer.

“People sweat,” Warner said.

Both were able to collect unemployment compensation during their time off, after applying online, without much trouble, although getting a Personal Identification Number took a long time, Smith said.

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