‘Take this seriously’: Tahoe’s essential businesses share what they’ve learned with those yet to reopen
Special to the Sierra Sun
While most of Tahoe has been closed under “stay-at-home” orders issued by California and Nevada governors, now some “nonessential” businesses are slowly allowed to open back up as long as they follow the new health standards.
However, now everyone must abide by 6-feet social distancing rules, wear a mask, and change operations to detract people gathering in clusters. Here are how some essential businesses who’ve been open for a while have been handling it and what other businesses waiting to reopen can expect:
Swigard’s ACE Hardware, Tahoe City
Swigard’s hardware store has been busy with people ever since it reopened to allow the public in, but owner Jeff Swigard implemented strict health protocols early on so that his employees would feel comfortable coming back to work.
A couple months ago the hardware store started offering curbside pickup service and then on May 8 opened its doors. However, they are only letting three to four people in at a time and masks are mandatory.
“We have one door set up for curbside service and another with a side door that people come into and they circulate through the store,” Swigard says.
Overall customers are happy to be able to come back in, shop, and browse, especially since curbside service is hard to manage.
“Curbside is difficult when we have 25,000 items in the store,” he says, noting when a store carries various sizes of screws, nuts, and bolts, people want to come in and personally find what they’re looking for. Swigard’s revenue is down 60% since the start of the pandemic, but he says that maintaining strict health standards is necessary for keeping everyone safe and being able to stay in business.
“We have to do it to protect our customers and members of our community. Employees were scared to come back and we’re a small space,” Swigard says. When the pandemic hit, keeping his staff was a major challenge since about 40% of his employees started calling in sick.
“But once they saw the extreme measures that we put in place to protect them, eventually they all came back,” he said. “I believe that you carry your employees through the winter and then they carry you through the summer.”
For other businesses waiting to get open Swigard adds, “Every business owner needs to look beyond themselves and do what’s right for the community to protect your employees and customers. Some people are mad that we’re requiring masks but I’m like, ‘Do you have 400 people come into your living room when you don’t know where they’ve been?’ I treat my employees like they’re my family; I look at this as protecting my kids. We stopped renting out our carpet cleaner because we don’t know what people are doing with it.”
Swigard says that one of the biggest issues that will likely go into summer is being out of personal protective equipment and necessities that people are scooping up as soon as their bleak orders come in. He’s had a glove order out for at least 10 weeks and notes that the supply chain is far behind.
“Our distribution center is overrun, they don’t have the manpower to keep up with the pace,” he says.
Despite all the harsh changes, though, Swigard says that more customers have given him input thanking him for doing above and beyond what was called for than not taking those extra precautions.
“My advice to other business owners is to take this seriously and do everything you can to protect yourself, your business, your employees, and your customers. We don’t want this thing resurging and coming back and having to close again,” he says.
Village Market, Incline Village
The family-owned grocery store that’s been around for more than 30 years in Incline Village made a few changes to its operations quickly as the COVID-19 pandemic developed which have been paying off in the long run.
“We put up sneeze shields and it makes customers feel more comfortable,” Village Market Manager Bill Presswood said. “We went down to the hardware store and bought plexiglass and built it in,” he adds.
Village Market staff is sure to take and sanitize each shopping cart after every use, wiping down all handles all the time on the carts and hand baskets as well. “I think when customers are aware of it and see you doing that then it makes them feel safe,” he says.
Village Market provides gloves, face masks, shields, and hand sanitizer that they sell and use themselves, being extra cautious to practice social distancing from customers and each other. Along with that, they’ve changed how they restock the shelves.
“We don’t do it while people are in the aisles and find it’s better to come in a little earlier to restock the shelves so that there’s one less point of contact,” says Presswood. “I came in at 4 a.m. to stock the shelves this morning before we opened at 8:30 a.m. and it’s a lot better,” he says.
He suggests putting an extra employee on the schedule to clean shelves, bathrooms, and re-sanitize touch points and is thankful that they have respectful customers too. “We have great customers, 80% of them that come in here wear face masks,” he says.
“It’s about making sure that customers know it’s safe to shop in your store and that you’re providing a clean environment,” Presswood said.
South Lake Tahoe
Cellular service providers are essential businesses, too, and have struggled to stay open through COVID-19 to keep everyone connected. The T-Mobile store in South Lake Tahoe has seen a huge drop in sales as some people are confused on what they can and can’t do in there.
“We don’t really get anybody in the store now, I think people are staying home and ordering online. It’s pretty dead,” says T-Mobile Sales Lead Luis Vaobez. The T-Mobile store in South Lake cut back their hours of operation early on, but now that more businesses are reopening across the country the cell service provider is going back to its normal hours.
T-Mobile requires that customers wear a mask while in its store, so when asked what the biggest challenge is, Vaobez replies, “Fifty percent of our customers are happy (about the policy to wear a mask) but the other 50 percent are mad and that drives business out.”
Vaobez adds that as an employee, it is uncomfortable wearing a mask all day, especially since they keep the store at a constant 71-degree temperature. “It gets hot,” he said with a laugh.
As far as advice for other businesses in the process of reopening, Vaobez says, “The best thing for businesses reopening is to know that you are going to lose some business if you enforce a mask rule, but we’re all in this together.
“I’ll be honest, it’s weird seeing babies wear masks, but it is what it is. People are going to struggle for sure”.
Kayla Anderson is a staff writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun based in South Lake Tahoe.
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Through the final week of August and into September, Nevada County saw a surge of 488 confirmed COVID-19 cases, marking the highest number since early in the pandemic.