Kara Wagenknecht is a journalism student in the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder. This story was written as part of a package of reporting on COVID-19 by students in Assistant Professor Christine Larson's class, Writing for the Media. All stories have been lightly edited for style and updated based on new information.
Iowa City, Iowa—In April, the streets that once stirred with college students and locals were empty. The doors that stayed open were locked. The once-booming town of Iowa City, Iowa, was now a barren city due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
With more than 24,000 confirmed cases and over 600 deaths, COVID-19 has hit the Iowa City area hard. The community has also suffered a loss of income due to college students and locals no longer roaming the streets.
Local businesses across the nation continue to suffer from the impacts of COVID-19. Unemployment rates have increased and businesses have found themselves applying for loans and grants to keep their doors open. Even in Iowa City, businesses had to close their brick and mortar stores and transition into delivery and pick-up options to follow social distancing orders.
“It’s weird, it’s kind of lonely because we do have really good relationships with all of our guests—it’s like an extended family,” said Katie Ford, general manager of Press Coffee Company in Coralville, Iowa. “They’re a little more than just a customer to us.”
But first, coffee
Ford had to shift her approach to keeping the community caffeinated. She reduced business hours in half and began only accepting orders from 7 to 11 a.m., Monday through Wednesday, and from 7 a.m. to noon, Thursday through Sunday.
“Most of our business, pre-coronavirus, is done in the morning. So, it was kind of a no brainer to still stick with the morning as far as being open for hours,” Ford said. “Since the cafe is closed now and with social distancing … they’re looking to get their coffee and either go back home, go to work, or surprise a friend with coffee for their day.”
After closing the brick and mortar storefront, Ford began taking orders via Jump, an online coffee ordering app, and is accepting phone orders both for pick-up only.
“If it hadn’t been for [Jump] I think we would have been scrambling pretty hard because call-in orders are difficult with taking people’s credit card information over the phone and then going to make the drinks,” Ford said. “The app ordering has been really great”
Ford had been operating Press with one other employee after having to lay off the rest of her staff, like many employers across the nation. According to an April survey by the National Small Business Association, 25% of employers had to lay off employees and 38% had to reduce employee hours. Luckily for Ford, many of her employees were only working partial hours and had other jobs to fall back on.
By reducing inventory and not serving other local foods like sandwiches from Nodo and doughnuts from Donutland, Ford was able to financially keep the business running.
Looking forward, she is going to keep using Jump for mobile orders and is ready for the commotion to return to the shop, she says.
“I know business will flourish again,” Ford said. “I hope that the app orders continue for the people that are in a rush or have a larger order and that it makes it simpler for them to use us. I want our outdoor patio filled with people for the summer … I want to see everybody.”
For Anne Armitage, business looked a little different. Armitage is the co-owner of Moss, a plant and gift shop with locations in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Moss was only a brick and mortar store prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, but setting up an online shop was “in the works already,” Armitage said.
“We had to pivot immediately when we closed and we knew it was crucial to get [an online store] together and get something up,” she said. “We’ve just been building it incrementally, each week in three different bursts we add new products and offerings.”
Since moving completely online, Armitage noticed that, with the online store, certain plants were selling better than they did in person.
“There have been some items that we love and we’ve had for a while in our store that haven’t been real great sellers. Having the opportunity to write a nice description and explain a little bit more about the item … where in the store there’s really no space or opportunity for description unless someone asks about it,” she said.
With the online store, Armitage offered curbside pick-up for those near the Cedar Rapids location. Since many customers from Iowa City continued to order, she began making a trip over every week to hand-deliver items to customers' doorsteps.
To ensure she was taking the most efficient route, she organiezed the addresses of where orders needed to go by plugging them into Google Maps. She typically spent about four to five hours making deliveries across Iowa City.
“I call the recipient that I’m outside and we’re just trying to be as safe as possible,” Armitage said. “I tell them that we are doing a no-contact delivery and that I am going to set it on their porch or anywhere they specify and stay 6-feet apart.”
From a pastime to a business
After many schools moved to remote teaching, students found themselves with an abundance of time. Liberty High School senior Natalie Cargin found herself building a business.
Cargin began making homemade jewelry and selling pieces with supplies she bought off Amazon.
“I wanted to find these earrings that were stars on little hoops, so I kept looking and I couldn’t find any that were a good price or anything. So I just decided to make some on my own,” Cargin said. “I was like, ‘Maybe some other people will want some too.’ So I made an Etsy shop and that’s how this all started.”
As of April, Cargin had logged over 100 orders since launching her Etsy shop. A lot of orders come in from local supporters, but she'd also seen her business expand.
“A lot of people who order from me follow me on Instagram and most of them are people I know, but I’ve actually had people from other states––like today, I had one from California,” Cargin said.
Making jewelry helped Cargin fill the long hours during quarantine.
“It’s been pretty boring. This is the only thing that’s been keeping me busy,” Cargin said.
In the future, Cargin wants to expand her products to include a bigger variety than jewelry. She is currently working on embroidering sweatshirts.
Ivy Towler, a professional portrait photographer in Iowa City, had to take a step back from shooting portrait sessions.
“That in-person part, which is a really huge part of photography, is not there. It feels like a disservice to my clients because I feel like I’m missing some of that connection. I didn’t want to shoot a lot now because I didn’t want to give people less than stellar service,” Towler said.
Towler began scheduling Zoom meetings with future clients and taking time to work on other projects for her business, like updating her website. She also started taking portraits of herself with her phone.
“I have body issues. Just like everyone else, I have pieces of me that I don’t like and that I don’t think are socially acceptable, pretty or sexy,” Towler said. “We all have those things that we don’t like. My most recent photography in the house has been a more self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-love kind of project.”
Towler, who worked from home with her two dogs during the day before the outbreak of COVID-19, began sharing her workspace with her four children and husband.
“I am enjoying not being busy. I am enjoying hanging out with my family, taking care of my family and making more recipes,” Towler said.
With all the craziness, Towler found her family doing more things together like going on nightly walks with their dogs and having more meals together.
While taking a slower approach to her business, she looked at the positives of being in self-quarantine.
“I do not need to be busy to be happy. I think that’s the greatest lesson in this. I think I knew it, and I was going that direction because my business had this huge spike and I was super busy and shooting all the time and there was nothing left for me or my family when I was done,” Towler said. “I need to have my cup full, so I can give back to my family, so I can do better for my clients.”
A common threat
As businesses look towards the future, 53% of business owners said they were very concerned about a possible second wave of COVID-19 and its longterm impact on their businesses.
In the meantime, businesses looked to loans and grants to help them through the rough patch.
“The thing we’ve been saying repeatedly over and over again is to connect with your banker, connect with any of your business advisors: your attorney, your accountant, and just fully understand your financial situation,” said Jennifer Banta, vice president of advocacy and community development of Iowa City Area Business Partnership.
Mick Fletcher, senior vice president of F&M Bank in Cedar Rapids, dealt with businesses applying for grants and loans during the hardship, as banks across the nation shifted their focus toward helping companies get federal and state loans.
“We’ve been spending most of our time with a government-supported fund called Paycheck Protection Program, so most banks have been working with that,” Fletcher said.
PPP allows companies to pay their employees even if they aren’t currently working. Financially, businesses might be struggling with the impacts of COVID-19 for a while.
“I think a lot of companies won’t survive. There'll be a lot of industries that will be tough like restaurants and bars, things like that,” Fletcher said. “I think it’ll be tough because even when
this is over, I don’t think they’ll let you be within 6 feet of other people.”
During this uncertain time, the Iowa City Area Business Partnership began hosting online “Webinars” for business owners and locals to learn about the impacts of COVID-19 and how to handle them.
“Much like Boulder, we’re a chamber of commerce and we’re a part of a network of university towns' economic development people,” Banta said. “We are all worried about the same thing as a college town. If the students don’t come back in the fall, if the Hawkeyes don’t play football, our economy is going to suffer and it’s really going to impact our whole community."
Even with all of the impacts on the economy, business owners continued looking forward toward getting back into a normal routine.
“It’s nice to… see how many people really miss you, because that cliché––‘you don’t miss something until it’s gone’––you really don’t,” Ford said.