How downtown Farmington is 'slowly, safely' re-opening in times of COVID-19

The process of slowly, safely re-opening up businesses in downtown Farmington has mirrored the gradual arrival of spring.

We’ve had to be patient, but we’ve also reveled in each small sign of change.

Like when Silver Dairy, Farmington’s iconic, seasonal ice cream stand, announced that it would open for drive-through service only, beginning on the first of May, two lanes of cars circled the building for much of opening day.

And when the Farmington Farmers Market (FFM) re-opened on May 16th – as originally scheduled, but with fewer-than-usual vendors and a number of restrictions in place (i.e., only one person per party allowed; social distancing and face masks required; no touching the produce; no personal shopping bags; etc.) – more than 500 attendees cautiously ventured to Sundquist Pavilion.

"Opening the market after its been in cold storage for six months is daunting on its own, even without having to overhaul your model on the basis of a pandemic," says FFM manager Walt Gajewski, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 near the start of the quarantine. "We studied state guidelines, CDC guidelines, Michigan Department of Agriculture guidelines, Farmers Market Association guidelines – all of that. We scoured the internet for best practices for online pre-ordering and curbside pick-up methods and social distancing, both customer to vendor and customer to customer, and how to mark the space."

Each week has seen the lifting of some of the market’s initially tight restrictions – the market expanded the second week to allow the sale of plants and flowers, and families were welcome to attend together, for instance – and both attendance and vendor numbers have gradually risen each week. So although FFM prides itself on being a community gathering space, it’s had to shift gears this year to minimize visitors’ time spent at the market, thus making the experience, according to Gajewski, "all about the food."

"We’re blessed, though," says Gajewski. "The community has been so cooperative and patient and appreciative to be out in downtown Farmington again. Between the vendors and sponsors and volunteers, there really is a sense that we are all in this together."

Other beloved Farmington traditions – like the weekly, outdoor Swing Farmington dances at the pavilion on Thursday nights – remain in wait-and-see mode.

"We have more than a hundred people that attend our weekly dance in the summer, which automatically disqualifies (it) from the Governor’s current order," says Swing Farmington organizer Alexander Steward. "There are still so many unknowns. While we are still holding out hope that we might be able to have dancing this summer, we are trying to be wise in our approach to determine when we will potentially start our dances."

Farmington retailers, meanwhile, are happily throwing open their doors for business these days, anxious to recover losses incurred by the coronavirus shutdown.

Though most retailers offered online orders and curbside pick-up for items, that model worked better for some businesses better than others.

"People like to come in and feel the fabric, and try it on to see how it fits, so that makes it difficult," says Clothes Encounters owner Larry Sallen, who’s been in business since 1987. " … There’s only so much I can show online. … The things I carry are so different from other places. People want to see what I have, and they want good customer service."

Even so, many customers purchased gift cards during quarantine, and Sallen sold a large number of items during the Farmington DDA’s virtual Ladies Night In events.

"That turned out great," says Sallen. "I got a lot of support from the community and my customers. … It was overwhelming, really. … People were itching to shop and wanting to get out, but the next best thing was doing it with friends online."

Sallen also had a stroke of what might be called "good bad luck." After having returned from a business shopping trip to New York on March 14, just as the quarantine began, Sallen learned that several items he’d ordered from Italy "were put on hold because of Italy’s problems with the virus."

"So my inventory’s been pretty stable," Sallen says. " … The only thing I’ve had a surplus of is late fall and winter merchandise. Usually all of that stuff is gone by the end of March."

Sallen initially re-opened Clothes Encounters by way of scheduled customer appointments, which he announced on Facebook on Tuesday, May 26. Unscheduled in-store shopping (with masks and social distancing) then began during the first week of June.

"With those appointments, it was clear customers didn’t want to shop with other people in the store," says Sallen. "But that sentiment had diminished a bit by Saturday (June 6). It was really busy in here. The weather was nice, and it was the first weekend of stores being open again."

Missy LaRussa, owner of Kitchen CreationsLike Clothes Encounters, Kitchen Creations (KC) has been part of downtown Farmington’s retail landscape for over three decades, but new owner Missy LaRussa happened to take over the business in a tough moment.

For after spending the first few months of the year renovating the store, LaRussa re-opened KC, only to have to close it again – because of COVID-19 – two and a half weeks later.

"We don’t sell eggs and milk and things like that, but we do sell food products, so technically, I could have stayed open," LaRussa says. "Personally, I felt we were non-essential, especially in the beginning. We didn’t know how bad it was going to get, but I certainly didn’t want to put the families of my employees and my customers at risk."

Instead, LaRussa prioritized building the speciality baking supply store’s website, and she began offering delivery and curbside service, providing help to those who were baking their way through the quarantine.

"It’s something unique on this side of town," LaRussa says of KC. "There’s one on the east side (of Detroit), and one in Lansing, and one in Jackson, but there’s really nothing else around here, so it’s really a gem. A hidden gem that we hope to make more visible. … It’s such a cute local store – a niche kind of thing that builds on the … community feel that Farmington is so well known for."

And LaRussa did indeed fulfill some orders (online and otherwise) during much of the quarantine.

"Just not as much as we expected or hoped," she says. "But we were happy to be able to still help people while we were closed. If it wasn’t for that, this might have shut us down completely."

More recently, of course, KC re-opened its doors to customers again – no more than six at a time, currently – but any plans for a grand opening celebration are indefinitely on hold.

"The whole point of a grand opening would be to invite the public into the store to see all the changes we’ve made," says LaRussa. "But until we can have more than ten people inside the store at one time, there’s not much point."

Lots of plans are up in the air, of course, as local business owners and event organizers navigate their way through COVID’s uncharted territory.

But slowly, as the state’s restrictions are cautiously loosened, a quiet sense of optimism has been restored, too.

Walt Gajewski, manager of the Farmington Farmers Market"One thing we did that was a little off the guided path was, we made the last-minute choice to honor our tradition of singing our national anthem, and ringing the market bell, and having the mayor open the market with a welcome address," Gajewski says of FFM’s opening day.

"We did it with a color guard and a single percussionist. It wasn’t something we advertised, but it wasn’t a tradition we wanted to put in the closet, either. So we wrote our own script. We knew gatherings were frowned upon, but we weren’t going to let this virus wrest our hands from our hearts for our national anthem. So yes, we went off in the weeds for a minute or two, but it was impactful, it was positive, and it helped unite us all. It had a bracing effect that made us all smile behind our masks, and people clapped and cheered as the bell rang. It was like saying 'our flag is still there,' and it felt good. Like, 'We can do this'."

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