Many Pitt students have returned home early for the rest of the semester — forcing local businesses to change the way they operate.
After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s order on March 19 to temporarily close all nonessential businesses and limit restaurants to takeout or delivery, Oakland businesses are adjusting in multiple ways.
For Groceria Merante, these guidelines include asking all customers to wear gloves within the store, premaking all sandwiches in the morning and limiting the number of people allowed inside the store to three.
“Being a local grocery store we know people from Oakland need us no matter what, especially those without transportation to leave the neighborhood,” the Merante family said in an email statement. “Now, students that stayed and local Oaklanders alike are counting on us to keep their fridges full when they need us most, and we’re making sure to follow sanitizing and social distancing guidelines.”
The Merantes said they have increased their regular sanitizing routine and added a shield over the cashier counter. They are also asking their older customers to call ahead for curbside pickup.
According to the Merantes, students still make up most of their business, even after Pitt moved to remote learning.
“In times like this we feel very fortunate that we are still able to operate pretty much at full capacity, and business has remained steady, if not busier than usual,” the Merantes said.
Just down the street from Groceria Merante, Head of the Glass, a smoke and vape shop, is operating very differently. Regis Molynaux, owner of Head of the Glass, said he’s limited store hours and reduced its operations to completely over the phone.
“If they want to see something, we basically do a video chat to show them products in the store. We’re doing cards only over the phone. They let us know when they’re out front and grab it from the bin out front,” Molynaux said.
The store’s employees are also using masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, as well as having only one person work at a time.
“It’s still a struggle, but for my safety, my employees’ safety and the customers’ safety, the curbside thing is very safe,” Molynaux said. “At least we’re still able to offer somewhat of a service.”
According to Molynaux, the number of customers has greatly decreased since Pitt moved to online classes.
“Normally this is a big time of year for us, with college kids still being around, so it’s a hit for sure,” Molynaux said.
Jaime Hively, co-owner of Mellinger Beer Distributors on Semple Street, said the store has also adjusted interactions with customers and limited store hours. Instead of working Monday through Wednesday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., it’s now open from noon to 6 p.m. daily.
Mellinger’s has also been stopping customers from entering the store. Now customers stand in front of the store and tell the employee standing in the doorway about six feet away what they’d like to buy.
Hively has also tried to keep the same people working the same shifts together weekly in order to limit contact between different employees.
“We’re trying to cut down on the amount of people that we’re working with,” Hively said. “I feel like we’ve made some strides to make our customers safer. We’re still meeting their needs.”
Mellinger’s belongs to an association called the Malt Beverage Distributors Association. The MBDA communicated directly with Gov. Wolf’s office to find out if its businesses counted as essential or not. Hively said after some initial confusion, Mellinger Beer soon received an email from the MBDA saying that the governor’s office was allowing it to stay open.
“When this all happened three weeks ago, when Gov. Wolf was saying about essential versus nonessential businesses, we weren’t sure at that point where we stood,” Hively said. “There’s 1,100 beer distributors that are family-owned across the state of Pennsylvania.”
Hively said she’s very happy Mellinger’s is allowed to stay open and the customers seem fine with the changes overall.
“Surprisingly, there still are a lot of students on campus. People are happy that we’re still open. People are in good moods, everybody’s standing their distance waiting for us,” Hively said.
The store still has a few challenges with the operational changes, such as having to attach a pop-up tent to the front of the store for customers when it rains.
“Probably the biggest challenge right now is that we have over 900 products,” Hively said. “[The customers] like to come in and see what’s in our coolers, see what’s new.”
To help with this problem, the store started using an app where customers can see the selection of products online as well as place orders ahead of time to reduce in-person contact even more. Mellinger’s is also encouraging customers to use its website.
Hively said the first few days after making these changes were difficult, but now the staff is used to it. Like other local businesses, Mellinger’s is waiting to hear from Gov. Wolf and President Donald Trump about how much longer the order will be in place.
“The community has really stuck together, and it’s great to see everyone working together and helping others as we get through this,” the Merante family said.