No business closures in downtown Milford amid coronavirus

Susan Newyork, left, and Nancy Forster (owner of Nany’s Cafe) make scones with different flavors and ingredients. Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

MILFORD — The COVID-19 era has undoubtedly been challenging for small businesses nationwide, but in Milford’s historic downtown, no businesses have closed permanantly due to the virus.

“Obviously, it was negative that we had to shut down for a few months and the businesses would have loved to be open,” said Peggy Reilly, the president of Downtown Milford Inc., an economic development organization. Fortunately, she added, “we have not lost any businesses through this period.”

Adaptability of local businesses and the loyalty of their customers have been key to the district’s continued success.

“We’re fortunate that a lot of the businesses we have downtown have long-standing and committed followers,” said DMI’s executive director Trish Gerken. “They were able to kind of open to a new normal, and people were able to respect that.”

Ms. Gerken said that within DMI’s area of focus, there are seven businesses that have been named “Best of Delaware” award winners by Delaware Taday magazine. One of those is Lifecycle, a bike shop on Southeast Front Street, owned by Benjamin Jones and his wife, Jenn Rowan.

“We find that if people come to us, they’re going to come to us no matter what’s going on,” Mr. Jones said. “Bikes are usually more of an intentional purchase.”

Mr. Jones did shift his retail model and did so earlier than the state required him to.

“Ever since March 16, … we’ve been practicing contactless sales, service, pickup, delivery,” he said. “We’ve had the shop interior closed to the public, and we’ve been doing all of our business through the front door and remotely.”

Although he said new bicycles are rare these days given the unprecedented demand for outdoor recreation items, he has been doing a lot of repairs. Customers can either arrange for Lifecycle to pick up a bike from outside their home or bring their bike to Lifecycle and lock it up in front of the store, where a technician can retrieve it safely.

Local restaurants have also had to make changes.

“My business model is changing because of the new environment,” said Nancy Forster, who has run a luncheonette called Nancy’s Café on Walnut Street on and off since 2001. “I’m focusing more on takeout.”

Ben Jones (Lifecycle, co-owner) helps customer Matthew Engelbert in front of his bicycle shop.

“We’re trying to make the best of it, but … I’ve been able to do it financially.”

This is despite Ms. Forster’s inability to reopen her dining room.

“I’m too small to even open now under the 60%” occupancy rule, she said, “because my café seats 15.” Now, she’s looking at different scenarios, including keeping her doors open later to have a “tearoom here, so in the afternoon folks can come relax.”

But Ms. Forster, who said her business has always been more catering-centric than many other restaurants, is not losing sleep over her finances.

“I’ve been busier than ever,” she said. “Folks around here had asked me to prepare food, and I delivered it, because some of them are older and their families were concerned about them. … We just drop it outside, and you come to pick it up.”

Ms. Forster said that early on in the pandemic, when things were less certain for her, her landlord’s flexibility was a big help.

“The landlord has been wonderful,” she said. “He was very understanding. I was able to pay him a bit, for a little while … but now we’re back to normal.”

Both Ms. Gerken and Ms. Reilly stressed that downtown Milford’s businesses are open.

“Most of them now are open like usual,” Ms. Gerken said of local businesses. “There are a few that kind of are modified in their hours, but for the most part, they’re kind of back to normal. I do think sales are down a little bit just because people are hesitant to go out.”

That hesitancy to return to in-person shopping has been compounded by the cancellation of the numerous events DMI has traditionally put on every year.

“We have had to cancel all of our events, basically for the year,” Ms. Gerken said. “These are big fundraising events that help us be able to have grants. … Without our fundraisers, it’s been really challenging.”

Mr. Jones said Lifecycle is not very dependent on these festivals, but for other “businesses that might sell other things like handmade soaps or antiques or coffee or food or something like that, the festivals are probably a bigger thing.”

The one exception to the slate of cancellations is DMI’s weekly farmers market, which opened up a few weeks behind schedule and with many precautions in place.

“There’s a certain point of entrance and exit, we have hand-washing stations, you have to wear a mask,” Ms. Gerken said. “Two people per family are allowed to go. It looks a little different than it used to, at least for this year, but we are able to open.” The market takes place along the Mispillion Riverwalk each Saturday.

Sheana Lord, left, and Nicole Snyder, store associates at Milford Bowling Lanes with face masks behind safety barriers open for business.

DMI has also been supporting local businesses with their COVID-19 precautions.

Ms. Gerken said the organization, “with the city of Milford, created these kits” that include face masks, hand sanitizers and signs. “We deliver them to all the businesses.”

Ms. Reilly said DMI wants “the consumer to know that they should feel free to come downtown to Milford and that they should feel safe and the stores are prepared to welcome them.”

The relative vitality of Milford’s small businesses is not limited to the historic downtown.

“Business is booming,” said Adam Darling, sales manager at the Delmarva RV Center on Del. 14. “Nobody’s flying, nobody’s staying in hotels, so everyone’s going camping.

“If they don’t close the campgrounds, we should have a pretty good, strong summer and a good rest of the year,” he said.

That was a sentiment echoed by Vinay Patel, the manager of Milford Discount Liquors on U.S. 113.

“The same people come. They buy every day almost,” he said. “They used to come every third week,” but given the stress and boredom that has permeated Milford during the lockdown, “now they come every third day.”

He said the store has been able to cut two hours off its daily operations, which minimizes their costs, but has not seen a drop in business.

“I think all of our businesses are faring fairly well, although without seeing their numbers, I can’t really speak for them,” Ms. Gerken said. For example, she knows that the bakery My Sister’s Fault sells out every weekend.

Mr. Darling said Milford business owners have been supportive of each other during these trying times, particularly “on the restaurant side. … Everybody kind of came together as a community. That’s the best way you can explain it.”

Ms. Reilly and Ms. Gerken encouraged those coming to downtown Milford to check out the COVID-19 resources page on DMI’s website, which has up-to-date information on what businesses are open and what services they are 1offering.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.