CUMBERLAND — When COVID-19 first reared its head early last year, along with illness and death, it brought trepidation for business owners. Despite not knowing what the next year would hold, local business leaders say that a combination of factors, including strong support from the community and flexibility in adapting to shifting guidelines, helped keep area restaurants and retailers largely afloat.

The public health-related shutdowns began in earnest in Maryland on March 16, 2020. That morning, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordered that bars, restaurants and theaters would have to close to patrons as of that night.

Accordingly, there was a lot of confusion and concern from the business community almost immediately, said Stu Czapski, who served at the time as the executive director of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce.

But, despite all the uncertainty, Czapski said, he was already starting to observe the community’s “better angels” coming out.

“A lot of the agencies are coming together and trying to find their lane,” Czapski said at the time. “Everyone wants to do something. As quickly as this is moving there are a lot of organizations that want to come together. … There’s a lot of good things.”

Juli McCoy, the current executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said that right from the beginning of the pandemic she noticed the sort of adaptability that exists not just in local business owners but in the community writ large. She also observed different stores, organizations and private individuals banding together to support their neighbors.

“In the very early days of it a year ago, we were hearing of closures and everybody shutting down, and so many restaurants responded within hours saying, ‘We’re going to make sure that kids are fed for lunch,’” McCoy said. “It was really just people helping people.”

“I think our community responded and came together, and I see it over and over, whether it’s a tragedy, or a circumstance that we’re all facing,” McCoy said. “I always see that, and I think that’s one perk to living in a small community in a small region is that that’s just what we do.”

Cautious optimism

Things seemed to start to turn around, McCoy said, when some folks began returning to work and capacity limits and the like started being loosened. Now that Hogan has rolled back the most stringent limits placed on maximum capacity for restaurants and stores, McCoy said she and the folks at the chamber are optimistic about what’s to come, but are still proceeding cautiously as the disease remains in the community.

“It’s hard to believe that it was a year ago, and when you think about it that feels like so long but it also feels like it was yesterday, like everything was about the same as it is right now, this week,” McCoy said. “Everything was going along and totally normal as we knew it, and still not. But, like I said, we’re going to be optimistic that things are going to move forward and keep expanding, as far as opening up and creating new opportunities.”

In an interview following up on the one he gave last year, Czapski — who now serves as the economic development specialist for the Cumberland Economic Development Corp. — shared some of the highlights that he has observed in downtown Cumberland.

Czapski said that while some were slightly pessimistic about what was to come early on, he’s instead observed a marked shift toward optimism, even as the pandemic dragged on into the winter months.

“People have been extremely creative with regard to how they’ve sold their products,” Czapski said, noting that innovation isn’t just in downtown Cumberland but throughout Allegany County. “Everybody was coming up with lots of really creative ways of selling online, using a lot of free social media.”

New businesses

To that end, Czapski pointed to Lost Mountain BBQ Company, who recently opened up shop on Centre Street.

“They had a good business in Romney,” Czapski said of owner Josh Arnold and his restaurant. “But when coming to Cumberland, I mean, their reputation preceded them. And, you know, they’re doing some paid advertising but the vast majority of their advertising was word of mouth, through Facebook and just flat out word of mouth. They had crowds they couldn’t handle, they were wrapped up around the building.”

It seems, too, in many ways that the local business community may have come out slightly stronger than before, Czapski said. There were also fewer permanent closures than feared.

“I haven’t done the math, but we probably have more businesses now than we had then, businesses that have opened during the pandemic,” Czapski said.

‘It feels like home’

One such business to open during the pandemic in Cumberland is Bloom Box Queen City. In an email to the Times-News, owner Lori Dudiak said the floral design studio and event lounge located on Mechanic Street “allows us to expand into the dreams that have been burning in our hearts for quite some time.” The intimate space can accommodate 45 people for small events, Dudiak said, and they offer event planning services as well.

Dudiak, a Cumberland native, said she realized her particular passion for planning weddings when coordinating her own more than a decade ago, and said that opening her business has been the culmination of that effort. Before opening her physical space, Dudiak had run her business from home for two years.

Her business wasn’t immune to the challenges presented by the pandemic, Dudiak wrote. While 2020 started strong, school closures left her in the position many parents were placed in of having to balance work while having her four children home full-time.

“I was forced to lay off my only employee because, although we could have potentially continued with deliveries, I could not at that time risk having anyone else in my home with my children,” Dudiak wrote. “Countless wedding floral contracts canceled, and sales plummeted. Thankfully we refused to give up and chose to use our forced sabbatical as a time to regroup and pivot our business model.”

It was around then that “I was approached with a perfect downtown location and decided to take a leap of faith in the midst of so much uncertainty,” Dudiak wrote. “With the help of family, friends, community, personal savings, and COVID-relief funding, we were thankfully able to stay afloat.”

She’s been fortunate to meet with an incredibly supportive local community, Dudiak said, including both local business officials and owners, and also credited her own colleague and co-worker Amanda Winans as “one of the greatest blessings in my life, and I truly could not survive without her support and friendship. She is a constant reminder that two heads are better than one, and yes, at the risk of sounding too cheesy, teamwork truly does make the dream work,” Dudiak said.

“We see a major shift in Downtown Cumberland, and are so excited to be a part of that growth,” Dudiak said. “It was really important for me to find a spot downtown because I absolutely love the vibe! My husband and I even had our own wedding photos taken downtown almost 11 years ago — it just feels like home.”

‘Gushing’ about Frostburg business community

Just up the mountain in Frostburg, Michelle Yost also opened her own business amidst all the chaos and has enjoyed similar enthusiasm and support from the community.

Yost’s store, Cauldron Vintage, opened in June 2020 and sits off Broadway downtown. The shop features everything from vintage clothing and homewares to eclectic artwork curated by the “Thrift Witch” herself.

In a recent virtual interview, Yost wrote that she felt the lockdown presented a unique challenge, along with the chance to design the store to her exact tastes.

“In some ways, a year ago when the lockdown happened, I wasn’t prepared to open a business,” Yost said. “But I was going to do it. I had to do it — it was my opportunity and I was incredibly excited to create a new, exciting space in the town I loved so much. The lockdown honestly gave me time to really think about my space before I opened and what kind of space I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be safe, inclusive and enriching to the downtown Frostburg experience. I painted. And repainted. And built a fabulous dressing room, the one of my dreams. The lockdown, both fortunately and unfortunately, really gave me time to construct that space and a deadline in which to open.”

Since opening, Yost said, she’s seen her business affected by the capacity restrictions that have curtailed others, and she’s also observed the effects of the absence of the normal amount of students on campus at Frostburg State University.

Still, Yost said, she “descends into gushing” when she thinks of the support she’s received from her neighbors in town.

“I would say I have the best community and everyone has been absolutely welcoming and giving,” Yost said. “The Book Store has kept a mannequin advertisement up for me for a year. The Palace used its marquee. I even get hand-written letters from the bank. The art store comes to visit. The yarn store. I couldn’t exist without Clatter. Just generally, I descend into gushing about the community.”

Because they have been so helpful to her, Yost said, she places a high amount of importance on giving back.

“It’s important to focus on growing and giving back to the community despite the struggle of feeling the lack of community,” she wrote. “It is very much present, despite the masks and our private pods. The pandemic made us struggle to bring joy and creativity to whatever opportunity is available to you and share it with others. Starting out a business in the middle of a pandemic might seem like poor judgement, but it’s the happiest I have ever been in a job, despite feeling sad about absolutely everything else.”

Lindsay Renner-Wood is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News, covering West Virginia and more. Follow her on Twitter @LindsayRenWood, email or call 304-639-4403.

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Lindsay Renner-Wood is a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News, covering West Virginia and more. Follow her on Twitter @LindsayRenWood, email or call 304-639-4403.