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New York and Seattle-area bike shops stable but wary

Published March 12, 2020
The worsening of COVID-19 has some shop owners in the hardest hit areas wondering what's next.

SYOSSET, N.Y. (BRAIN) — Italy shutting down all non-essential businesses this week in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 got the attention of Howard Chung.


Chung, owner of The Bicycle Planet in Long Island, told BRAIN on Thursday about a customer he helped in the morning who is from Milan.

"She has relatives out there, and she's like, 'Yeah, you literally can't leave your house without being called out," Chung said. "I never thought in a million years that Italy would shut down every business with the exception of grocery stores, pharmacies, transportation and hospitals. Think about that for a second."

BRAIN has been contacting shops in the New York and Seattle areas — two of the areas with the most COVID-19 infections in the U.S. to date —  as concern about the outbreak has grown. Most said they're operating normally right now other than extra store sanitary precautions. The future is the big unknown, all of them agreed.

While The Bicycle Planet's sales are "rocking and rolling, which is disturbing," Chung said, Velo Bike Shop in Seattle is no longer open seven days a week. On its website is a notice it will close Tuesdays and Thursdays through at least March 21.

"King Country Public Health has recommended large workplaces allow employees to work from home. This has greatly reduced foot traffic downtown during the work week impacting our business levels," according to the website.

"I'm 48 years old and lived through a lot of stuff, but I can't remember a panic like this with the exception of 9/11"

Although some New York area schools are closed, no Bicycle Planet employees have been affected by child-care issues yet. And that's what scares Chung the most.

"That's the true X-factor, I believe, if I was going to be an armchair economist," Chung said. "Having a finance degree, these are the things that I lose sleep over. What's going to happen to the United States when schools close, kids stay home, parents can't go to work? Now what? We haven't had any issues like that yet, but I have to start thinking about what I'm going to do when it happens."

Steve Kahn is owner and president of Danny's Cycles, which has six locations in the New York area. One of his shops is in Pelham, N.Y., about two miles from New Rochelle, New York, which was basically shut down on Thursday. Schools, houses of worship and places for large gatherings have closed because at least 120 residents tested positive. 

Kahn said his biggest fear is having an employee get it.

"What happens in that case, and how do we afford to keep the store going without any income, and, of course, there's the employee and you have to take care of them and keep them living?" Kahn said.

The Pelham location store manager, Aaron Lieberman, was asked Thursday if it's a scary time to operate a small-business.

"Yesterday, if you would've asked me that question, I probably would've gone, 'Eh, not really. I think we'll get over it.' The precautions being taken are astonishing. I'm 48 years old and lived through a lot of stuff, but I can't remember a panic like this with the exception of 9/11."

The current biggest issue for Danny's Cycles has been the delay in a line of kids' bikes made by Kent International and made specifically for the chain in China. That shipment was scheduled to reach New York by the end of the month but will be delayed.

"The supply chain and that stuff, we'll figure that out," Kahn said. "We'll find product. That's the least of my worries."

Seattle shops confident

While Velo Bike Shop took the bold step of closing two days a week, other Seattle area bike shops have only altered routines.

Last weekend's sales were below average at Recycled Cycles in Seattle, according to Steve Donahue, "but otherwise we had a strong sales week."

But with area schools closing and moving to virtual classrooms, Donahue said it might create hardships for some of the staff who depend on schools for childcare during those hours.

"We have made plans for any staff who has to stay home with kids to do so and not be penalized the work hours," he said.

Neil Wechsler, owner of Montlake Bicycle Shop in Seattle, said sales have been steady even though there's future concern, "but there is no sign of that yet. Who knows what the impact of the coronavirus will be in the months ahead?"

Wechsler said the only thing he and his staff are doing differently right now are more frequent hand-washing and surface-cleaning.

Pete Sexton, manager of Broken Spoke in nearby Port Townsend, Washington, said as long as the Center for Disease Control and county health departments continue to allow residents outside, he expects to weather the virus.

"That being said, we have created plans on how to deal with slowing, and the state of Washington is on top of making businesses aware of what programs are available (state and national) to keep businesses alive during emergencies like this,"

Sexton said. "I could see a slow down in e-bikes due to the age demographic that is largely being affected by the COVID-19."

Staci May of Earl's Bike Shop in Bellingham, Washington, was more concerned about the future after President Trump's address to the nation Wednesday night. "We are going to assume there will be some impact and already have postponed our 10th anniversary sale and party," May said.

In addition, May said the shop is emphasizing its pickup and delivery service to customers.

Cascade Bicycle Club of Seattle, a nonprofit organization serving bicyclists of all ages and abilities in the state, said in an email that it will hold all community meetings remotely and will hold Advocacy Leadership Institute training online. Cascade staff is being asked to work from home.

Cascade's Bike Swap event has been moved to June and scheduled group rides are continuing. However, Cascade will host 16 events this year involving 30,000 riders.

"These are core to our mission and to our financial viability," Cascade's executive director, Richard Smith, wrote. "We take our responsibilities seriously and will not let that dependence undermine the need for overall public health. We ask all of our riders and potential riders to be flexible and understanding, and to remember that their registration enables a team of 50 full- and part-time staff to deliver world-class education, policy and advocacy, and community event work that has made Cascade the largest and most successful bicycle nonprofit of its kind in North America."

Topics associated with this article: Coronavirus

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