CROWN POINT — Downtown Crown Point has been a ghost town for much of the coronavirus pandemic, an eerily empty place devoid of all the usual activity.
Retailers who had been working over the past few days or weeks to reopen their stores Monday reported hardly seeing anyone out even when the weather was nice, save for the occasional person walking their dog.
But pedestrians — most with face masks — returned to the Old Courthouse Square on Monday as Indiana allowed stores across Lake County to reopen. Some even drove in from Chicago.
Non-essential retail businesses were permitted to reopen for the first time since March last Monday across most of the rest of the state, but the beginning of a gradual reopening of the economy was delayed for a week in Lake, Marion and Cass counties, where there was a higher incidence of cases.
Many shops in downtown Crown Point remained closed, including the Lake Court House Shopping Mall, where tenants like Toys in the Attic and Nordikreations have been doing business online. Others were still in the process of reopening. The stores that did reopen offered products for a pandemic age like hand-sewn Chicago Bears or Blackhawks face masks or artisanal hand sanitizer, while imposing new safety precautions.
Blue Ribbon Vintage welcomed back customers with a sign in the storefront saying it was following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules. The sign told customers to keep their masks on, hand sanitizer was available and no more than 20 people would be allowed in the store at a time. The antique store on the square installed antique windows at the counter to serve as sneeze guards to protect customer and cashier alike during transactions.
"It's been a very long time," Blue Ribbon Vintage employee Brenda Yeargan said. "There was no money coming in to pay the bills. A little depression would set in. We would call our vendors and tell them, 'We're going to get through this, we're going to get through this. We just got to hang in there.'"
Blue Ribbon Vintage persevered through the stay-at-home order by taking pictures of antiques, posting them on Facebook Marketplace and selling them online for customers to come in and pick up.
About a dozen masked customers wandered into the store to browse the shelves Monday, which is about half as many as normal. Yeargan doesn't think it will pick back up more until the restaurants are allowed to reopen at half capacity next Monday and doesn't think it will return to normal for some time.
"It felt so good to open up," she said, tearing up. "I'm so glad my boss said, 'We need you to come back to work.' I was so happy, and the customers have all been so nice, wearing their masks, staying distant. We've been washing and sanitizing our store for a week. I actually feel safer in here than I do at the grocery stores."
'Cautious but upbeat'
Customers had started home renovation projects while stuck at home and were in search of decorations, Yeargan said. One woman bought a wine rack and some other decor for her newly remodeled kitchen.
Brenda Turner, a vendor at Antiques on Main in Crown Point, described the mood Monday as "cautious but upbeat."
"Everybody just seems to be happy to be out and about finally," she said. "But I don't think it will ever get back to normal again. I think it will be a new normal. That's the phrase I keep hearing."
Antiques on Main owner Loretta Nosal, Turner's sister, said she and her vendors were "anxiously excited" and "cautiously optimistic."
She said it was a long time to go without revenue coming in and a "browsing business" like an antique store can't just readily switch to e-commerce.
"Of course our bills didn't go away," she said. "Although our NIPSCO bill was quite nice. The lights were out, and the heating wasn't on. Our NIPSCO bill was about 20% of what it normally was, and I thought, 'Whoo, we can do this.' But of course everything else stayed the same."
Nosal spent Mother's Day with her three kids helping her place arrows on the floor of the store to direct traffic and encourage social distancing. Antiques on Main also put out hand sanitizer, installed Plexiglas shields at the counter, and put the credit card swiper out for contactless transactions.
It's also only allowing people younger than 18 to come in if accompanied by adults because large groups of bored teens flocked there after the schools were closed. They tend to wear masks and practice social distancing less than adults, Nosal said.
"It's just not safe," she said. "It's a really big change for us because we've always welcomed kids in here, but this is just better for everybody right now. They're not as conscious of the safety protocols of the adults."
Many workers continue to stay home because they're in elderly or retired so some of the 70 vendors have stepped up to help out.
"They're being extra safe as they should," she said. "We don't want anyone coming in until they feel it's safe to do so."
Nosal was glad to see regulars again and put out a chalkboard sign on the sidewalk that read, "Welcome back, we missed you."
"We're doing the best we can to make people feel comfortable and safe," she said. "We're seeing our regulars who couldn't wait to see us and hearing the stories. The first customer who came in was a regular who made a small purchase and then we caught up on life for a little bit."
She's not sure when or if things will ever get completely back to normal.
"The next couple weeks are going to be very telling on how this will all play out, if the cases will start multiplying or if we're going back to a more normal sense," she said. "I'm hoping everything's going to be good by the middle of summer, if people feel more comfortable coming out, doing what they need to do and living life again."
The Artful Garden owner Liz Messing said it's been a struggle and encouraged people to support small businesses.
"Now more than ever it's important to shop at small businesses," she said. "Otherwise, we're going to be gone."
Many customers have been doing all their shopping online, including older customers who hadn't done e-commerce before, Messing said. She hopes it doesn't permanently change any shopping habits.
"They love to come touch and feel. It's an experience to come in here," she said. "We're just kind of hoping they return to the brick-and-mortar because we really, really need people to come in. Small businesses are your town. We're your hometown. We make your town your town. Please come and support not just me but all the small businesses here. It is so imperative."
Small businesses already were operating under a lot of pressure, Messing said.
"Imagine if the courthouse square were empty," she said. "That's already happening in a lot of towns. They open up malls next to town and then the discount stores come in. Then you have the internet and then you have the pandemic added to that and then they're not even going to a brick-and-mortar store anymore. If we're shut down again, I don't know if we're going to survive."