CHILLICOTHE — Back in March, days before one of the biggest drinking holidays, Ohio bars and restaurants were given just hours notice that they would have to close except for carry-out or drive-thru services. One week later, nonessential businesses across the state received similar orders, and residents were told to stay at home.
Although the move was part of a broader response to limiting the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Ross County business owners, elected officials and the community grew concerned about the local economy and the large number of people out of work.
“We knew immediately that we’d take a hit on income taxes and so we chose a very cautious approach as a city,” said Mayor Luke Feeney. “This year has been a challenge but I believe our outcome [of success] will remain the same.”
How a global pandemic affected the city of Chillicothe
When the pandemic first began in March, Feeney and Chillicothe City Auditor Kristal Spetnagel expected to see a significant loss in city revenue because of reductions in the income, gas and bed taxes.
With people unemployed or furloughed and fewer people traveling or purchasing gas, the city prepared for a significant economic loss. To cope, the city began reducing its spending.
To start, internal changes were made. The city began participating in the Shared Work Ohio program — where working hours are reduced to create cost savings for the city and employees receive unemployment benefits for the reduced hours. Other projects, most notably the construction of a new fire station on the west side of town, were paused due to fiscal concerns.
But as the city worked to recoup its finances, Chillicothe and Ross County businesses waited until May to learn their fate.
A survey arranged by the Chillicothe Ross Chamber of Commerce found that around 32% of local businesses had been closed completely since March 1. To stay afloat, shops relied heavily on online sales, gift cards or carry out orders. It wasn’t until May that area businesses learned they could reopen under strict regulations that required masks for employees, social distancing and regular sanitation.
After almost two months of closure, manufacturing, distribution, construction and general office environments were able to open on May 4. Those working in consumer and retail services were given a May 12 reopening date. Hair salons and barbers, as well as restaurants and bars with outdoor seating, reopened May 15 and dine-in services resumed shortly after, on May 21.
Yet not every business survived the pandemic. In mid-May, two local businesses — The Green Tree Restaurant and Tecumseh Trading Post — announced the COVID-19 pandemic would not allow them to reopen. The shops were among the first to close their doors. Eventually, Paint Street Provisions, Golden Corral, Danbarry Cinemas, Mr. Gatti’s Pizza and several other businesses downtown or on Bridge Street announced permanent closures due to the pandemic.
While the community hoped the stay-at-home orders would help stop the spread of the coronavirus, the pandemic raged on.
By June, the city opted for more caution. Events like the Fourth of July fireworks, pool season and large item pick up were canceled for 2020. While these decisions were hard to make because of the community’s excitement for them, Feeney said it was imperative to make these cuts to save money and keep employees.
Businesses forced to adapt, or close
Meanwhile, businesses spent the summer trying to abide by coronavirus health and safety guidelines. From March to August, nearly 1,200 complaints were filed against Ross County stores for violating COVID-19 mandates.
About 43% of complaints, or 93 community reports, were against restaurants and grocery stores. The “other” category made up for about 30% of complaints. Retail stores contribute 11% while manufacturers, medical offices and hardware stores made up about 5% each. At the time, no complaints were made against pharmacies, nursing homes or daycare facilities.
Despite the ever-changing rules, the majority of businesses worked hard to comply with the rules and invested in the safety of their staff and patrons, according to Mike Throne, chamber of commerce president. And in the face of the pandemic, Chillicothe businesses are still thriving.
From a collection of CARES Act funds from the city and Ross County Commissioners, the chamber has been able to administer $675,500 to small businesses in the community. As a result, fewer stores have closed.
With the renewed emphasis on shopping local, entrepreneurs have felt confident in opening new businesses. This year, the chamber added 80 new members.
“We have local people opening businesses because they see the long arc of our community. But we also have outsiders who continue to look at Chillicothe for investments,” Feeney said. “It’s particularly reassuring that they still wanted to invest this year.”
A promising future
As 2020 nears its end, Feeney and Throne remain optimistic about city finances, the local economy and small businesses for the duration of the pandemic.
Although there will be a lag in the impact of income taxes, the city is not too far behind where it normally is, according to Spetnagel. While Feeney admits he is worried about the loss of revenue, he affirms that at the end of the year, the city’s finances will be in a relatively stable position.
And in some cases, the coronavirus allowed the city to save money because of the shared work program, the cancellation of fireworks, large-item pickup and pool season, and reduction of seasonal staff.
“The overall outlook remains the same as a year ago: we’re a community that’s surging,” Feeney said. “The city always chooses caution. For many, there were sentimental losses but nobody would lose their life. Under that perspective, decisions become easier.”
From the pandemic, Feeney learned to appreciate the collaboration that’s developed between the city, local businesses, community organizations and citizens. He said, “The takeaway for years to come is how people came together during this time.”
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