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Open or close? A difficult decision for local bike shops

Posted by on March 15th, 2020 at 4:23 pm

We need them. They need us.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

“If we could afford it, we’d close for two weeks.”
— North Portland bike shop owner

Most Portland bike shops are still open for business. Should they be?

At what point is the threat of a spreading virus more important than providing this vital community service? If only it were that simple. This is a complicated time — especially for bike shop owners who face the combined threats of the health of themselves, their employees, and their business.

As we head into a new week with the Covid-19 situation continuing to change rapidly, I’m worried that many bike shop owners will choose to remain open. Every day since Wednesday (when I feel like most of America finally woke up to the reality of what’s coming), we’ve seen more and more closures: Schools, libraries, community centers — even Portland institution Powell’s Books has decided to close.

Yesterday I planned to bike around to a few shops to get the pulse of what was going on. After being inside two shops I got creeped out about the virus and realized I should be home with my family. Before I high-tailed it home, here’s what I found out…

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The first shop I stopped at, The E-Bike Store on North Albina and Rosa Parks, was closed. Owner Wake Gregg texted to say his shop is closed until at least March 21st. He has furloughed his employees. “Safety is our top priority,” he shared.

Sign on door at The E-Bike Store.

At the next shop, the sole employee working said business was slow, but he had plenty to do (bikes to service, wheels to build). As we chatted (six feet apart of course), a woman rolled a bike in. She needed a tune-up. The employee grabbed the bike and put it in the stand (without gloves and without disinfecting the bike’s surfaces). At the end of the transactions, the customer attempted to shake the employee’s hand, but he smartly demurred. As we continued to chat, we both realized how many dangers that customer had brought into the shop: A bike with unknown provenance and a person of unknown health or previous exposure. The shop doesn’t use tap-to-pay so they handle credit cards and cash — both of which can carry the virus. Suffice it to say, the employee seemed a bit squeamish about even being there.

The next shop I stopped in on had two employees and the owner inside. The whole place reeked of bleach from a deep cleaning. The employees worked on bikes a few feet from each other. The owner was somber as we talked about the situation. “We’re taking it day-by-day,” he said. It was clear he felt an obligation to his employees to stay open. “If we could afford it,” he said. “We’d close for two weeks.”

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There are no easy decisions right now.

I made a bad one earlier today when I posted on Twitter and Instagram that bike shops should close. I regret posting that. It was insensitive and unhelpful.

BikePortland is going to be a helpful source of connection and information in the coming weeks and months. That includes helping local bike shops owners and staff any way we can.

On that note, Ruckus Composites owner Shawn Small posted something very helpful on Facebook just now that should be essential reading for bike shop folks. Here’s an excerpt:

Gladys Bike customers can buy gift certificates online.
(Photo: Gladys Bikes)

“Tell your customers to be patient. Health is more important and they should understand.

Get creative. Every business situation is different. Here are some ideas that we are exploring to limit employee and customer exposure while maintaining productivity:

– Request that employees work from home if they are able to. Agree upon tasks and timelines for their completion in advance.
– Talk to your employees about separating their shifts to limit overlap. See who might want to work the weekends or during normal closed hours. Like you, they are probably concerned and willing to make some sacrifices.
– If you have more than one entrance, designate one for employees only and a different one for customers.
– Post a note on your exterior door that lays out your ground rules and policies for customers before they enter.
– Schedule appointments in advance. Call, text or email first.
– If things slow down, work on those projects that you’ve never had time for. Deep dive into planning. Work on marketing content. Learn a new skill or computer software.
– How can your business come back and be stronger than ever when things eventually return to normal?”

And as I shared on Thursday, buying gift certificates and gift cards is another great way to support your local shop. I’m sure all of you follow your shop on social media, so click through to their websites to buy them, or contact them for details.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Should shops close or stay open? How can we help our friends who provide this vital community service? (See more community discussion on our Instagram post.)

UPDATE: The Community Cycling Center is closed for two weeks starting Monday (3/16): “This closure will be at a substantial loss to the organization, as we end our current budget year on March 31,” they shared via Twitter.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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9watts
Subscriber

Local businesses is where its at.
Money we spend locally keeps circulating many times over.
Money spent on gas or Amazon or interest payments all leave and never come back.

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

I have been self isolating for the last 2 weeks. Since I started coughing on Feb 27th. last time out was to pick up 5 cases of rubbing alcohol and 5 gallons of bleach. Scrubbed the house down and have kept family away since. Retired so I do not have to go to work. After 10 days the wheezing sounded like a box full of kittens were in my throat crying. Finally starting to feel human after 2-1/2 weeks. I am one of those that the CV19 hits hard at 75 and T1Diabetic.
I do not plan on even going outside before the first of April. Not tested for COVi19.

David Hampsten
Guest

Jonathan, I’m glad you are open a debate on this. This particular virus and the reaction of media, governments, and people to it is troubling – why this time when the swine flu killed far more people more quickly just a few years ago, yet no closures, no stock market crash, no closed borders? The regular flu will infect 45 million people in the US alone, causing 30,000-80,000 deaths, with a vaccine that many of us cannot afford, but where is the reaction? There is a fear that the Covid-19 will kill like the Spanish Influenza of 1920, but so far no proof that it will – just a lot of internet hype and disinformation.

People only respond and change habits when an emergency directly affects them, be it a disease, climate change, or high gas prices, and usually only temporarily. Draconian changes to social habits are rarely sustainable if they are too inconvenient, be it driving less from high gas prices, producing less waste to protect the environment, closing all pubs in Ireland because of a disease, or eliminating common centuries-old greetings like hugs, hand-shakes, and kissing. Why should we change any habits when we are constantly exposed to various deadly contagious diseases all the time? Why this time, exactly?

Any business (and government) has to weigh up the costs of lost business, and the related angst that will cause to employees and customers, including lost wages and the ability to pay for medical services needed for cancer treatments, heart disease, common colds, flu, kidney dialysis, food, shelter, child care, etc. versus dealing with the current Covid-19 emergency and trying to save people from it’s spread by shutting everything down. Do we allow our local economy to thrive by keeping stores open and shopping at them, or do we close everything and encourage (by default) everyone to buy everything online, accelerating the demise of local retail shopping?

I am however more concerned by the various sacrifices we are being forced to make by well-meaning governments and mass decision-making, in our freedoms to vote, to peacefully assemble (in groups of more than 100 if we so desire), to educate our children at public schools, to redress our concerns, to move about as we see fit, and to live as free human beings. Again, we’ve had worse disasters, why are we doing what we are doing, now, at this time?

Finally, why are people hoarding toilet paper?

Shawn Small
Guest

Thanks for sharing Jonathan.

Here is a public link to my full post on Oregon/Portland resources, that other link is for a closed group.

https://www.facebook.com/ruckuscomp/photos/a.10150104092280934/10158527431955934/?type=3&theater

We’ll get through this!
Shawn – Ruckus Composites

Wylie
Guest
Wylie

Because it’s important to ensure that OHSU medical staff have a good way to get to the hospital, I see a lot of wisdom in Kiel’s decision to tentatively stay open. That being said we are taking pretty drastic measures to limit exposure. These measures will probably have a b ig impact on how easily we can do our jobs but it’s better than nothing.

Bikemom
Guest
Bikemom

I went bike shopping today… we had intended to get the teen a new bike in spring anyway and now wanted for him to have an exercise alternative since he’s home for a full month. Store much busier than expected!

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

Yeah, I don’t get all the hubub about Covid-19, I mean 57,000,000 people died worldwide last year. So far only like 6,500 of Covid, so it doesn’t really matter, see!

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

Nothing personal, but is the author of a bicycle blog the right person to be opining about infectious disease response? Then, opening it up to a public discussion by a bunch of people who have no expertise on the subject. Is this helpful?

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

Excellent piece, JM. Keep up the good work.

Barbara
Guest
Barbara

“So far only like 6,500 of Covid, so it doesn’t really matter, see!” Yea sure. Can have it and be not know with it’s long period while spreading it to other people who may develop life threatening lung infections. So guess its better until there is a huge number of deaths before we do anything.

From another forum group read by someone living there in Spain where in lockdown outside bicycling & running are NOT permitted. He watched from his window as authorities chased down someone to arrest them.

Jason
Guest
Jason

Strange times we live in. I went grocery shopping Sunday and it was not quite Walking Dead, but people wearing masks and some wearing rubber gloves. Not to mention the fresh produce was wiped out. Either the growers are scaling back or eating your veggies suddenly went viral.

As for the rubber glovers, I guess they plan on sanitizing their groceries before they put them in the car? Where do you draw the line on that one? I read how a resident in Hong Kong goes through a ritual when they come home where they sanitize their shoes, change their clothes.

I think America will be too much in denial to prevent the preventable cases until it’s too late. If we were testing as vigilantly as SK or China, the numbers would be much higher. As it is, I don’t want to get tested because I don’t want to end up on a short list that goes through the Oval Office. I envision an E.T. -esque invasion of my life. And I’m all out of Reece’s Pieces. Not to say I feel ill or a hypochondriac, but normally I go to the doctor well before most people. This is the first time I’ve been wary of receiving medical care since I was a child.

As for shops staying open at this time, in general it’s a bad idea. But I am right now at work, and we haven’t scaled back or enacted teleworking. So, business decisions and contagion prevention decisions are at loggerheads. Bike shops are particularly vulnerable in good times, let alone a market slump; or meltdown even. (I’m sure someone is going to call me out for not using the precisely correct, economic term, have fun with that)

Eric in Seattle
Guest
Eric in Seattle

Jonathan, thanks for pointing out how complex this question is. Part of the difficulty is the timing of this. If it had happened in January, it would have been a no brainer for our shop to close for a few weeks. Right now, however, we’re coming off about 3 months where we lose money due to the highly seasonal nature of our business. I plan for this as a normal part of the seasonal cycle, and we could have probably adapted to a closure much more easily at a time when there is not much business anyway and we had reserves to stay in business. March and April are usually months where we start to make up for the wintertime losses, and when bills start to come due for inventory purchased during the fall and winter. May is usually our number 1 or 2 month in terms of gross sales. If we cannot figure out a way to stay open while still protecting the health of our employees, customers, and community we may be facing a hit that will be fatal to our business.
I also take my responsibility to my employees very seriously. While I am preparing for the possibility that I may have to temporarily close my shop, I am loathe to interrupt not only their wages (which would be partially offset with state unemployment benefits) but possibly their health insurance (we’re too small for the normal COBRA rules to apply). This is certainly not a good time for someone to lose their health insurance.
Another consideration is that bicycles are needed right now as part of our community’s strategy to cope with the restrictions and recommendations in place to deal with this outbreak. Kids who are home from school need to have some physical activity. Our local elementary school is discouraging parents from bringing their kids to use the playground equipment (which is understandable). The PE teacher at our neighborhood school just emailed me asking if we will still honor our usual springtime special for his students (free safety checks, discounted helmets, labor, and accessories) that we do in the run up to the PE program’s annual bike unit. He is concerned that his students need to get some exercise during this school closure, and he sees bikes as a good outlet for young folks’ energy while at the same time keeping a bit of distance from others. We have already seen many customers in our shop who want to get their bikes and their kid’s bikes rideable again after some period of neglect. We are also seeing an uptick in the number of people choosing to ride bikes rather than take public transit. Often these are people who were not regular bike commuters previously. They need to have their bikes brought up to snuff, to get racks and fenders, or in some cases buy a new bike in order to do this.
The bottom line here is that we need to get creative, figure out how to keep the business running in a way that meets our customer’s needs. We also need to at least bring in enough money to keep the shop afloat long enough to come out on the other side in good enough shape to resume normal business when this disruption is over. All this while still looking out for the health of ourselves, our customers, and the community at large. Things like limiting the number of customers allowed in the store, asking people not to touch merchandise, keeping more distance between people, increased hand washing, increased surface cleaning—these must all be part of the solution. We are looking at the actions being taken by other businesses in a similar situation for ideas. We’re also open to constructive suggestions from your readers.
I’d also like to remind people who are concerned about the future of their local bike shop (or any other local business) that buying a gift certificate right now for use later when things are back to normal is a great way to help them weather this storm.

D'Andre Muhammed
Guest
D'Andre Muhammed

Stop living in fear and live your lives. You’re more likely to get creamed riding your bike than contracting Corona. Peace.