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  • Writer's pictureKara Wagenknecht

JRNL 2000: Final Project

Updated: May 24, 2023

The streets that once stirred with college students and locals are now empty. The doors that stayed open are now locked. The once booming town of Iowa City, Iowa is now a barren city due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

With over 10,400 confirmed cases and over 200 deaths due to COVID-19, the Iowa City area has been hit hard with the loss of income due to college students and locals no longer roaming the streets.

Local businesses across the nation are suffering from the impacts of COVID-19. Unemployment rates have increased and businesses have found themselves applying for loans and grants to keep their doors open. Even in Iowa City, businesses have had to close their brick and mortar stores and transition into delivery and pick-up options to follow social distancing orders.

“It’s weird, it’s kind of lonely because we do have really good relationships with all of our guests—it’s like an extended family,” said Katie Ford, general manager of Press Coffee Company in Coralville, Iowa. “They’re a little more than just a customer to us.”

But first, coffee.

Ford has had to shift her approach to keeping the community caffeinated. She has reduced business hours in half and only accepts orders from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Wednesday and from 7 a.m. to noon Thursday through Sunday.

“Most of our business pre-coronavirus is done in the morning. So, it was kind of a no brainer to still stick with the morning as far as being open for hours,” Ford said. “Since the cafe is closed now and with social distancing … they’re looking to get their coffee and either go back home, go to work, or surprise a friend with coffee for their day.”

By closing the brick and mortar storefront, Ford has been taking orders via Jump, an online coffee ordering app, and is accepting phone orders both for pick-up only.

“If it hadn’t been for [Jump] I think we would have been scrambling pretty hard because call-in orders are difficult with taking people’s credit card information over the phone and then going to make the drinks,” Ford said. “The app ordering has been really great”

Ford is operating Press with one other employee, but had to lay off the rest of her staff like many employers across the nation. According to the National Small Business Association, 25% of employers had to lay-off employees and 38% had to reduce employee hours.

Luckily for her, many of her employees were only working partial hours and had other jobs to fall back on.

By reducing inventory and not serving other local foods like sandwiches from Nodo and doughnuts from Donutland, Ford has been able to financially keep the business running.

Looking forward, Ford is going to keep using Jump for mobile orders and is ready for the comotion to return to the shop.

“I know business will flourish again,” Ford said. “I hope that the app orders continue for the people that are in a rush or have a larger order and that it makes it simpler for them to use us. I want our outdoor patio filled with people for the summer … I want to see everybody.”

Bustling plants.

For Anne Armitage, business looks a little different. Armitage is the co-owner of Moss, a plant and gift shop with locations in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Moss was only a brick and mortar store prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, but setting an online shop was “in the works already.”

“We had to pivot immediately when we closed and we knew it was crucial to get [an online store] together and get something up,” Armitage said. “We’ve just been building it incrementally, each week in three different bursts we add new products and offerings.”

Since moving completely online, Armitage has noticed that with the online store certain plants are selling better then they did in person.

“There have been some items that we love and we’ve had for a while in our store that haven’t been real great sellers. Having the opportunity to write a nice description and explain a little bit more about the item … where in the store there’s really no space or opportunity for description unless someone asks about it.” Armitage said.

With the online store, Armitage offers curbside pick-up for those near the Cedar Rapids location. Since many customers from Iowa City still order she makes a trip over every week and hand delivers items to the customer's doorsteps.

Armitage organizes the addresses of where orders need to go after plugging them into Google Maps to ensure she has the most efficient route planned. She spends about four to five hours making deliveries across Iowa City.

“I call the recipient that I’m outside and we’re just trying to be as safe as possible,” Armitage said. “I tell them that we are doing a no contact delivery and that I am going to set it on their porch or anywhere they specify and stay six-feet apart.”

From a past-time to a business.

With many schools moving to remote teaching, students have found themselves with an abundance of time. Liberty High School senior, Natalie Cargin, has found herself building a business.

Cargin has been making homemade jewelry and selling pieces with supplies she bought off Amazon.

“I wanted to find these earrings that were stars on little hoops, so I kept looking and I couldn’t find any that were a good price or anything. So, I just decided to make some on my own,” Cargin said. “I was like, ‘Maybe some other people will want some too,’ so I made an Etsy shop and that’s how this all started.”

Cargin has had over 100 orders since launching her Etsy shop. A lot of orders come in from local supporters, but she has seen her business expand.

“A lot of people who order from me follow me on Instagram and most of them are people I know, but I’ve actually had people from other states like today I had one from California,” Cargin said.

Making jewelry has helped Cargin fill the long-last hours during quarantine.

“It’s been pretty boring, this is the only thing that’s been keeping me busy,” said Cargin.

In the future, Cargin wants to expand her products to include a bigger varitiety than jewelry. She is currently working on embroidering sweatshirts.

Not alone.

Ivy Towler, a professional portrait photographer in Iowa City, has had to take a step back from shooting portrait sessions.

“That in person part, which is a really huge part of photography, is not there. It feels like a disservice to my clients because I feel like I’m missing some of that connection. I didn’t want to shoot a lot now because I didn’t want to give people less than stellar service,” Towler said.

Towler has been scheduling Zoom meetings with future clients and has taken this time to work on other projects for her business like updating her website, and has started taking portraits of herself with her phone.

“I have body issues, just like everyone else, I have pieces of me that I don’t like and that I don’t think are socially acceptable, pretty or sexy,” Towler said. “We all have those things that we don’t like. My most recent photography in the house has been a more self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-love kind of project.”

Towler, who worked from home with her two dogs during the day before the outbreak of COVID-19 now shares her workspace with her four children and husband.

“I am enjoying not being busy. I am enjoying hanging out with my family, taking care of my family and making more recipes,” Towler said.

With all the craziness, Towler has found her family doing more things together like going on nightly walks with their dogs and having more meals together.

As Towler takes a slower approach to her business during this time, she is looking at the positives of being in self-quarantine.

“I do not need to be busy to be happy. I think that’s the greatest lesson in this. I think I knew it, and I was going that direction because my business had this huge spike and I was super busy and shooting all the time and there was nothing left for me or my family when I was done,” Towler said. “I need to have my cup full, so I can give back to my family, so I can do better for my clients.”

A common threat.

As businesses look towards the future, 53% of business owners are very concerned about a possible second wave of COVID-19 and its impact on their business long-term.

For now, businesses have to look at loans and grants to help them through this rough patch.

“The thing we’ve been saying repeatedly over and over again is to connect with your banker, connect with any of your business advisors: your attorney, your accountant, and just fully understand your financial situation,” said Jennifer Banta, vice president, advocacy and community development of Iowa City Area Business Partnership.

Mick Fletcher, senior vice president of F&M Bank in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has dealt with businesses applying for grants and loans during this hardship.

Banks across the nation have shifted their focus to helping companies get federal and state loans.

“We’ve been spending most of our time with a government supported fund called, Paycheck Protection Program, so most banks have been working with that,” Fletcher said.

PPP allows companies to pay their employees even if they aren’t working during this time. Financially, businesses might be struggling with the impacts of COVID-19 for a while.

“I think a lot of companies won’t survive. There'll be a lot of industries that will be tough like restaurants and bars, things like that,” Fletcher said. “I think it’ll be tough because even when this is over I don’t think they’ll let you be within six feet of other people.”

During this uncertain time, the Iowa City Area Business Partnership has been hosting online seminars called, “Webinars” for business owners and locals to learn about the impacts of COVID-19 and how to handle them.

“Much like Boulder, we’re a chamber of commerce and we’re a part of a network of university towns, economic development people,” Banta said. “We are all worried about the same thing as a college town. If the students don’t come back in the fall, if the Hawkeyes don’t play football our economy is going to suffer and it’s really going to impact our whole community.”

Even with all of the impacts on the economy, business owners are still looking forward to getting back into a normal routine.

“It’s nice to… see how many people really miss you because that cliché, ‘you don’t miss something until it’s gone’ you really don’t,” Ford said.

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