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Business Owners Share Obstacles & Optimism After Challenging Year

Katie Thoresen/WXPR

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.

In the North Central Region of Wisconsin, unemployment skyrocketed from 3.8% in March to 13.5% in April 2020 right after the Safer at Home order first went into place.

While the unemployment rate in our region has mostly recovered, people are still feeling the impact. Among businesses hardest hit are those in the leisure and hospitality industry.

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR

Pam Murphy owns Tilly’s Coffee Shop in Downtown Rhinelander.  

The Safer at Home order forcing her to shut down for two months came less than a year after Tilly’s had opened its door.

“We’re still in the building phase of our business. It came quickly. We really didn’t have time to prepare for it,” said Murphy.

The closure meant a loss of product on top of bills that still had to be paid.

“There’s definitely significant costs in those shutdown procedures,” she said.

When the Tilly’s reopen last summer there was new plexiglass installed, masks required, and new cleaning protocols, but still customers were slow to return.

“At that time, we felt that habits had changed,” said Murphy.  “We felt like people were being cautious which is a good thing.”

Summer saw a steady stream of tourists and decent business for the coffee shop, but when COVID-19 cases started increasing in the fall, Governor Evers issued a new capacity limiting order, it became difficult to keep operating.

“It’s hard to seat at 50% capacity and feel that you’re going to be successful as a restaurant,” said Murphy.

After a few weeks of take out only, Tilly’s closed its doors temporarily while still doing some retail and coffee bag sales.

“I want the health professionals to tell us when it’s safe to reopen. I’m pretty much waiting to see what they say,” said Murphy.

Across town on the west side of Rhinelander, Rouman Cinema has been open for months now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean business is coming in.

“To this day still we get people that ask us if we’re even open. That’s challenging,” said theater owner George Rouman.

Like Murphy and many other business owners, Rouman has faced challenge after challenge during the pandemic.

The movie theater closed with the Safer at Home order in March but didn’t reopen when it lifted in May because there were no new movies to show.

“[The studio’s] basically wiped the calendar clean of all the movies,” said Rouman.

Rouman got creative with takeout concession sales for at-home movie nights and eventually offering private screenings so people could see some older movie in theaters without worrying about strangers in the same room who might be carrying the virus.

But still bills and other expenses piled up.

“At the end of the day, I look at the numbers and it was still pretty brutal, but it kept us relevant,” said Rouman.

Rouman was able to open on a somewhat regular schedule when Tenet came out in August, but after its poor box office sales studios once again pushed back release dates for movies.

“You get into this mindset that you cut costs everywhere that you can,” said Rouman. “You’re in survival mode basically.”

After a month of daily operations, Rouman scaled back to weekend operations and for the last several months has been offering both private screenings and regular movie showings. He says it encouraging to have people back in the building and excited to see movies again.

The day after Christmas was one of his best days during the pandemic with Wonder Woman in theaters, but for every step forward it sometimes feels like two steps back.

“Literally on the same day I got my service bill for my heat and electrical and it was bigger than what we took that day. That just wiped everything out there,” said Rouman.

Rouman told me that for a year-to-year comparison revenue are over 90% lost.

Economic Recovery

Still, despite the challenges, Rouman is optimistic.

“I think we’re going to get there, but it sure is scary in the interim,” said Rouman.

Back at Tilly’s, Murphy shares the optimism.

“I feel pretty optimistic right now because the numbers in Wisconsin are getting better and people are getting vaccinated and that does make me feel hopeful about it. We’re hopeful we can reopen soon,” said Murphy.

Looking at the numbers, Regional Economist with the Department of Workforce Development Mitchell Ropp can see that recovery.

“Overall, we’ve seen COVID having a varied effect among industries, areas, unemployment and jobs, but overall we’ve been improving,” said Ropp.

The unemployment numbers in our region have improved significantly.

Credit Department of Workforce Development

After hitting a high of 13.5 % last April, unemployment ended the year at 5.5%.

Ropp says the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes movie theaters and restaurants, has been the hardest hit during the pandemic and our region has a higher proportion of its workforce in that industry.

But that doesn’t mean the Northwoods was necessarily harder hit.

“Sales tax provides some evidence to think that leisure and hospitality in north central is doing relatively better than leisure and hospitality statewide,” said Ropp.

Future Obstacles 

Both Rouman and Murphy hope that recovery will continue into this year and know their will be new challenges.

They both told WXPR they see building customer confidence as their one of their greatest challenges.

“I’ll be the first to say not everybody comfortable coming out still. Right? Not just to the movies, but really to anywhere and it’s still on us to make people comfortable,” said Rouman.

To that end, Rouman has overhauled the theater.

There’s now assigned seating so they can space groups out in the theater. There’s more time between shows so they can go in and clean.

Plexiglass separates people and workers at the concession counter and there’s no more self-serve. Face masks are required.

At Tilly’s, Murphy says it’s not so much changing their safety measures that they put in place months ago but adjusting to people’s new habits. This includes online ordering and more take out.

“It’s really hard when your customer’s habits change,” said Murphy.

Despite the challenges they’ve overcome and the ones that still lie ahead, both business owners are looking forward to the future as more people get vaccinated and people comfortable with the new regular, whatever that might be.

“Rhinelander and the Northwoods is going to be booming this summer because people will want to take advantage of getting out and doing things. That to me is really something to look forward to,” said Murphy.

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