Hard time for local businesses

A phone call to Alan Gauthier, owner of the Athletica gym; it is May 15th and businesses have been on “pandemic pause” for two months already. “Do you think you will make it?” he is asked. “I don’t really know. I opened the gym exactly 20 years ago today. In fact, we were planning to celebrate the anniversary but instead I’m here alone preparing the place for an eventual reopening.” He sounds sad and worried. For him and for virtually all local business owners suffering the fallout from COVID-19, this is no time to celebrate.

When the gym reopens, Alan Gauthier will be able to accommodate only six people at a time and half of the equipment will be in storage. “Financially it will be very tight,” he says, “because those who have already paid for their membership will have to use up their lost months, so that we won’t recover our normal income flow for a while.” All the same, he and his wife didn’t hesitate to lend a hand to various local organizations helping citizens who were most affected by the pandemic as well as workers in essential services, including those in the health- care system. Still, he says, “I would have liked the Town to offer us certain tax deductions or provide financial assistance in one form or another. TBL has a budget surplus, after all!”

A lot to worry about

Much the same worried tone could be heard from the owners of the Windrush clothing shop on Lakeside in Knowlton. They were given the green light to reopen in early June, but would local customers return? Would there be tourists? Those questions were still unanswered and there was no guarantee that the shop would make up the losses of recent months or even survive despite the money the owners had put aside for a rainy day.

“The most depressing thing for us was not being able to receive any sit-down customers,” Normand Rousseau, co-owner of Buzz Café, says right off the bat. “But we have absolutely wonderful customers who continued to support us. Our takeout service allowed us to pay the rent, electricity bill, etc.” In addition to the restaurant, which had to be put on hold, Buzz’s catering service for special events, “went out the window,” wiping out a major source of income for the two co-owners. Despite those setbacks, they too showed their public spirit by delivering free comfort food to essential workers. “At least,” says Normand Rousseau with a wink, “the pandemic has brought back good manners, like washing one’s hands!”

At Auberge Jolivent, which had just invested heavily in renovations, the timing of the lockdown this past spring could not have been worse. Blindsided, the owners had to lay off part of their care- fully recruited staff and close the inn. However, they soon adapted by offering gourmet takeaway meals, reopening the pizza bar for takeout, then fully reopening the Mistral terrace – with proper social distancing. But what to do with the Alizée dining room, too small for the number of tables to be reduced? Necessity is the mother of invention: “We decided to open a food counter featuring products from many local producers and offering some or our most popular dishes. We are counting on people’s desire to buy locally to make this initiative a success,” says an enthusiastic Thanh Nguyen, co-owner with his husband of Domaine Jolivent, also pointing out that fine dining will still be available in the lounge area of the inn.

Translation: Brian McCordick