One move Jeanie Blecker has made at The Button Box to thwart COVID-19 is a sign (bottom right) that lets customers know that the store isn’t accepting cash payments. (Eric J. Welsh/ The Progress)

Chilliwack small business owner copes with COVID-19

Jeanie Blecker of The Button Box says times are terrifying due to the coronavirus crisis.

Jeanie Blecker watched Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak Monday morning, hoping he would say something good.

The owner of The Button Box in downtown Chilliwack, Jeanie wanted to hear something about helping small businesses.

“I wanted him to say, ‘Oh here, we’ll write you a cheque and give you some money today!’” she laughed. “He did say there would be some aid for businesses, but what exactly that means and how it unfolds, I have no clue.”

It is an uncertain time for Jeanie and dozens of other small business owners in Chilliwack.

Traffic is slowing down as people are asked to practice social-distancing. A worst case scenario in Jeanie’s mind is the idea that she might have to close her doors for a week. Maybe two, or three, or more.

“It’s terrifying,” she admits.

Things are fluid, changing by the day and even the hour.

Last week was very slow for her boutique store, which sells fashion, decor and design items.

But when B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last week that people should continue shopping and otherwise live their lives, Jeanie’s store experienced a very busy Saturday.

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“We had a phenomenal day,” she said. “It was almost like there was no virus. It wasn’t even a topic of conversation.”

But it was back to slow Monday morning, with few people strolling around the Wellington Avenue/Mill Street area.

Sitting in a back room looking at boxes of inventory, Jeanie said now’s the time of month when she would normally be placing orders from suppliers.

“But I’m not going to,” she said. “I’m going to hold off until we get a little clearer picture of what road we’re going down.”

If it’s the wrong road, Jeanie said things could get a lot scarier for her bottom line, to the point where she’s not certain she could ride it out.

“It is what it is, and I guess we’d see,” she said. “My bills are still going to keep coming out. Our rent. Our hydro. Our gas. Our phone and internet. Small business owners are walking on a wire that is very thin. Retail is incredibly challenging at the best of times, and to have this come at us, I think a lot of us were in denial, but now it’s reality that it’s here.”

Jeanie has talked to other small business people who are feeling the same way.

There is a lot of anxiety and a lot of unknown. No one seems to have the answers she is looking for.

Jeanie is stuck between two thoughts. On one hand, she wants to yell into a megaphone, ‘We’re still open! Come and visit us!’ But if she’s being perfectly honest, staying home makes more sense.

“Health is everything,” she said. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have much. I myself have a compromised immune system because of Non-Hodgins Lymphoma, so there’s a little bit of anxiety there. I’ve had so much chemo, I’m sure I’d be fine, but I know several people in the community who are not well and have incredibly compromised immune systems, and those would be the people I worry about.”

Jeanie has taken steps within her store to thwart COVID-19.

A sign placed by the cash register Monday morning tells customers that cash payments will not be accepted, and she has removed all ‘tester’ products from the shelves.

“Cash carries a lot of germs and it’s not something we can just wipe down,” Jeanie said. “We had all those sales Saturday and everyone seemed to use tap so they wouldn’t even have to touch the machine. I saw another store post this idea on social media and I thought, ‘I hate to lose a sale, but let’s try every little thing we can.’”

If Jeanie has to close the doors to her physical store, she might be able to boost her online sales to partially compensate.

She has a website, and a Facebook page that has 4,829 followers.

“But, we get online orders, we pack it up and then I have to go to a post office to ship that parcel,” she said. “There I am putting myself at risk when I should be home self-isolating. Those online orders would really sustain my business, but again it’s that catch 22.”

Jeanie has four employees she also has to look out for, including her own daughter, April.

Making decisions that might impact them adversely is agonizing.

“It’s horrible, but again, if you look worldwide we’ve got a lot of company,” Jeanie said. “It’s a global dilemma.”


@ProgressSports
eric.welsh@theprogress.com

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