People roamed around the streets of downtown Valparaiso on a sunny, slightly chilly day Monday, some with masks and gloves but many without.
Storefront windows were filled with hearts thanking individual health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants continued to drop off curbside orders to waiting cars on Lincolnway, and the line often stretched out the door for Star Wars-themed cupcakes on May the Fourth at Designer Desserts, which allowed no more than four customers inside at a time.
For the first time in weeks, chalkboard signs littered the sidewalks advertising spring sales and inviting customers to "come on in." Many retail stores across Porter County, LaPorte County and the rest of Indiana reopened Monday for the first time since the state imposed a stay-at-home order aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
Restaurant owners in downtown Valparaiso were getting ready to reopen dining rooms at half capacity as soon it's allowed on May 11. Lake County is a week after that because of a higher concentration of coronavirus cases, with retail shops allowed to reopen on May 11 and restaurant dining rooms a week later on May 18.
But despite the lifting of restrictions that had allowed only essential businesses to remain open, many shops and storefronts remained closed Monday in downtown Valparaiso. Signs in windows encouraged online orders or stressed they now offer delivery.
The First Presbyterian Resale Shop of Valparaiso on the courthouse square plans to open gradually, taking appointments or a few walk-ups at a time if they knock while staff is on hand Mondays and Thursdays. It will reopen from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. from Tuesday through Saturday on May 19 through the rest of May, before resuming regular hours in June.
"We have a lot of older customers and volunteers," volunteer Linda Hartlerode said. "Some people don't feel safe coming out yet. We're kind of doing minimal staffing to make people feel more comfortable. When everything is opened up and people feel more comfortable, we'll return to business as usual."
For the time being, the resale shop is selling items online that customers can make appointments to come in and buy, volunteer Pam Skatlses said.
"It's amazing the response we've gotten today and how many people have dropped off donations because they were just waiting for us to open," she said. "People have been doing housecleaning and are anxious to get out."
Chef Chris Pavlou has been "in overdrive" looking to get Radius Valpo reopened to cater to pent-up demand.
"People are hungry, and I want to feed them," he said.
He used the downtime to renovate the restaurant, has been cleaning up to reopen and is spacing out the seating to allow for social distancing.
He wishes the state offered more specific guidance.
"Everything is so unclear," he said. "Fifty percent capacity, meaning what? If I can fit 100 people, does it mean now 50 people? I'm going to space it out. If anybody feels uncomfortable at any given time, I'm going to accommodate them. I don't want anybody to feel uncomfortable whatsoever. It's going to be dictated by the customers."
Pavlou said he didn't want to do anything that would scare anyone away.
"This is our business, this is our livelihood," he said. "We stayed open doing carryout and delivery, which really helped our employees. This has been a big hit for a lot of people. This has been a big hit for us as well. But you've got to prepare yourself. It doesn't rain every day."
Designer Desserts bustled Monday and did well during the coronavirus shutdown as people flocked there for sweet treats and the DIY cupcake and cookie kits it started selling to feed into the surge of renewed interest in baking while people sheltered in place at home.
Items like do-it-yourself cupcake kits and take-and-bake cookies have proven so popular Designer Desserts plans to continue to offer them for special orders.
"People just appreciate a chance to get out of the house on the nicer days," General Manager Vanessa Ryan said. "We've been so busy, it's hard to keep up."
Lemster's Floral & Gifts in downtown Valparaiso started offering contactless delivery, where the driver rings the doorbell and drops off the floral arrangement by the door, which has worked out well.
"People haven't been able to go to a department store to shop for a gift, but they can order flowers," owner Jeff Walter said. "It's been really rewarding to see the look on people's faces when you tell them you have flowers for them."
Walter was excited to reopen to walk-in foot traffic because his shop normally has one of its busiest weeks of the month before Mother's Day.
"I understand if people are skittish at first," he said. "We're hoping things will open up by the summer wedding season so they can have actual weddings and not a drive-by."
With the state order lifted, Judee's Boutique reopened its stores in Valparaiso, LaPorte and Granger on Monday after doing just online orders over the past several weeks.
The Valparaiso store opened in the early afternoon because Manager Diane Cafiero had to find hand sanitizer that she prominently displayed in the window. She put a post on Facebook for Judee's loyal customers saying the clothing shop was open and that it was following all Porter County Health Department guidelines.
"I think people are going to dip their toes in a little bit at a time," she said. "We have a 50-plus demographic. At that age, people have more health issues overall. There are some people who haven't allowed this to affect them at all and take all the precautions like wearing gloves and constantly cleansing everything. It's going to be based on how people feel comfortable with it."
Lilly Byrnes, owner of La Maison in downtown Valparaiso, said the coronavirus lockdown was one of the toughest things her business of 18 years had to endure. But it did force her interior design, home accessories and gift store, which carries many imported French items, to create a website and do online sales for the first time.
"We're sort of a mom-and-pop business," she said. "It's one of the positive things we did and gave my employees a lot of hours."
Customers continued to support the business online, but La Maison was burning through cash while closed.
"I think that's the only reason we're still surviving," she said. "After two months, we really needed to open. You still have to pay $1,500 for rent and for heating and electricity every month. You just watch your money disappear. In the Great Recession, they might have shopped less, but they still shopped. This went down to zero business. This went from you just ordered $15,000 worth of spring product, stock up the shop in February for spring, and then completely close. I don't know if we could have survived six months."