How to help local businesses:

The seats were empty, the screens were dark, but the concessions stand stayed open at The Falls Theatre in River Falls.

The movie theater ended showtimes following Gov. Tony Evers' order banning gatherings of 10 or more people on March 17. To keep the business running, the Falls Theatre offered takeout and delivery of concession items.

Evers has now closed all nonessential businesses, effective March 25, but takeout and delivery from restaurants is still allowed.

READ MORE: Three COVID-19 cases confirmed as of March 23 in St. Croix County | Wisconsin Gov. Evers to issue order closing non-essential businesses starting Tuesday

“We needed to make some more immediate shifts to keep moving forward,” owner Michelle Maher said.

The theater always had the means for takeout concessions, with popcorn lids and fountain sodas, but hadn’t packaged it in a way that was obvious.

The movie theater industry was hurt before the ban, Maher said. Movie releases were being pulled and postponed due to the growing COVID-19 outbreak.

“So on some level it was becoming a relief because when we started to feel the impact prior we were a little bit alone in that as an industry,” Maher said.

Small businesses across various industries have been hurt by the pandemic. Some have closed completely, while others have had certain services suspended. Even those who are able to continue to operate saw their customer base decline.

Along with the ban on gatherings came a mandate to end dine-in service at all bars and restaurants.

The short notice of the ban was tough on establishments. Jamie Gibson, owner of Gibby’s Lanes, Restaurant and Bar in New Richmond, said he would have liked a full 24-hour notice. The leagues had already shut down, so Gibby’s shifted to takeout and delivery orders.

Chapter 2 Books in Hudson stayed open before the March 24 order, though Brian Roegge said the business suffered. The store promoted online ordering and delivery, and also curbside pickup so customers didn't have to come into the store.

“We’re kind of just hanging in there,” Roegge said before the governor's order this week.

Gibson had to downsize his staff hours, limiting hours for those who know how to cook and make deliveries. He said he tried to spread it around.

“My biggest focus is I’m not giving up on my employees and I’m not giving up on my community,” he said.

March and April are normally the busiest months of the season for Gibson.

“They get me through half the summer alone, and now I’m not going to have that luxury,” he said.

He predicts many small businesses won’t be able to survive.

Maher has had to push back a remodel of the main auditorium that was scheduled for next month.

"I wish I was in a position to implement that now while we are in a mandated state. but I’m not going to be risky with that not knowing what the future holds in the near interim,” she said.

She’s also facing a major shift with the announcement that studios will release new major films at home.

“Frankly when we were hurting as an industry, to get that blow was really painful,” Maher said.

Roegge wants the community to remember small local businesses are still out there. “If we’re open or not,” he said.

The community is already showing its support for many of them.

“It has been an incredible blessing because it was a recognition from our community of how much value we have for them,” Maher said. “I hope that that remains sustainable over this period of time,” she said.

When things return to normal, Roegge said people should continue to shop local.

“‘We’re here because we want to be and we hope the community appreciates it and uses us,” he said.

Chamber support

Area chambers are stepping in to help businesses.

“Our mission here is to be not a mini CDC,” said New Richmond Chamber Director Rob Kreibich. “We don’t need our chamber to tell people to wash their hands.”

Hudson, River Falls and New Richmond chambers have compiled lists of local restaurants and bars and how to support them. Retail and other businesses will be added in the coming days.

“We’re really trying to encourage folks to support local during this time,” Hudson Chamber President Mary Claire Olson Potter said.

The chambers also offer chamber bucks, which are gift certificates that can be redeemed at member businesses.

Chambers are providing information to business owners about loans, grants and other options that are coming from the state and federal level.

“Because this is so fluid and it’s ever changing every day, we really want to be a resource for the community” Potter said.

River Falls Chamber Director Russ Korpela said they’re advising business owners to call their bankers and lenders for help managing loans, and to contact vendors, landlords and taxing authorities if they believe they’ll be late on payments.

“We have found they all understand the situation we’re in,” he said.

Korpela said now is also the time to support employees.

“They are going to have growing anxiety about their future,” he said.

In an environment with workforce shortage, Korpela said those who are supported by employers now will remember that kindness later.

“The goal is that they can reopen,” Pottery said.

“I’m hopeful that people are going to want to go out to restaurants in a month or two and will do so in large numbers that will help make up for the losses now,” he said.

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