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Rolla Reopens Economy To Mixed Responses From Businesses

Rolla Books and Toys repopened under new rules from the city to help protect workers and customers from coronavirus. 05-13-20
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Rolla Books and Toys repopened under new rules from the city to help protect workers and customers from coronavirus.

Rolla ended its stay-at-home order earlier this month, but two weeks into the reopening of the economy with restrictions, the situation is getting mixed reviews from businesses.

Rolla Books and Toys tried curbside pickup and orders in March but closed after an unsuccessful week. Now they are back open with clear shower curtains surrounding the cash register area to protect workers, six-foot boxes taped off on the floor to promote social distancing, and a large hand-sanitizer dispenser at the front of the store for customers to use. 

That’s what retail looks like now in Rolla during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Before all of this was kind of coming down, we were thinking about the various customers that come in, you know, Mrs. So-and-so comes in, Mr. So-and-so comes in, and we were thinking we need to protect them, too,” said Renee Woodley, manager of the book store. “They need to feel comfortable and safe to come in and pick out their monthly magazine, the book they look to read. We want them to feel safe, too.”

Woodley said business has slowly increased each day since they reopened, most customers wear masks and she is optimistic about the business coming back while still protecting staff and customers.

Restaurants adapt

Tater Patch, a restaurant and bar known for loaded baked potatoes, hamburgers and fried catfish, has reopened to dine-in customers after nearly two months of carryout only service. 

On Mother’s Day — usually a very busy Sunday — the tables that remained set up were six feet or more apart, bar seating was not allowed, all the staff wore face coverings and hand sanitizer was readily available. The pool tables were shut down and live music is on hold.

“Business has been OK,” said Cricket Webster, co-owner of Tater Patch. “All 35 of my employees are back at work, and things are getting better day by day. Hopefully the restrictions will ease up over time.”

Webster said Tater Patch had plans for renovations, but those are on hold. And the rainy-day fund she and her husband Rob set up has been tapped out. But they are optimistic.

“What I’ve tried to tell my staff and my customers is: The coronavirus has been around a hot two months. Well, Tater Patch has been around 54 years. So Tater Patch isn’t going anywhere,” Webster said.

The Monday night after the state’s stay-at-home order expired, the Rolla City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to reopen businesses that took effect the next morning. 

Even with that quick turnaround, the city was able to work with business owners and start inspections. Fire Chief Ron Smith leads the three-person inspection team.

“There have been limited problems, and most business owners were happy to comply,” Smith said. “[The ordinance] is not heavy handed at all. It just works toward protecting the people.”

But not all business owners agree. Ron Bell, owner of American Taco Company, a small restaurant in a strip mall adjacent to the Missouri S&T campus, said the restrictions mean his shop that seats 28 can operate at only 25% capacity.

“That’s seven people — not seven people dining, just seven people, period,” Bell said. “So if I have seven people sitting at a table, nobody can come in and order food. Nobody can come in and pick up their food. It really just kills every bit of business you can get.”

Bell said he would prefer to have all tables at least six feet apart and away from the counter so he could have some dine-in while still allowing for carryout and maintaining social distancing. 

“I’m a firm believer if there’s rules, follow them. They are there for a reason, whether I agree with them or not. So we’ve just stuck with it and tried to make the best of it. It’s ridiculous,” Bell said.

Bell said his business had five years of monthly increases in revenue. Since the pandemic started, sales are off 20%. For now, American Taco Company will stick with carryout and delivery orders. Bell said he will reassess the situation if the regulations are eased.

The cost of dine-in

Another Rolla restaurant that has decided not to reopen for dine-in service is A Slice Of Pie. Owner Ryan Warnol said it was a purely business decision to continue with curbside pickup for now.

“The cost of reopening at the reduced number for occupancy would actually cost us more to open than to remain where we are at right now,” Warnol said.

Warnol said the pandemic has put plans for a second store on hold, but they have increased their focus on their wholesale business and even hired a new salesperson for that effort, and he is optimistic about his business’ future.

The full extent of the coronavirus’ effect on the Rolla economy should become clearer soon when April sales tax receipts come in. City Administrator John Butz said because of people stocking up before the stay-at-home order took full effect, those numbers were actually up in March compared to last year.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.