Days after Montgomery County and the city of Conroe issued disaster declarations banning large gatherings, local businesses and restaurants in Conroe and Montgomery are reporting slumped sales and feelings of uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, the effects of the coronavirus have led to more than a 50% decline in sales, and business owners said they are struggling to adapt and attract customers.

As of 6 p.m. March 16, there were four confirmed cases of coronavirus in Montgomery County. Health officials are urging residents to stay indoors and practice "social distancing."

Business owners said they are determined to stay open even as entities and events around them shut down. Schools—including Montgomery, Conroe and Willis ISDs—have closed and could potentially move online, district officials said. The Houston Rodeo and the Montgomery County Fair were cancelled. Houston energy stocks have plummeted. The Montgomery County Jail has suspended visitations. And H-E-B limited purchases per trip in response to the outpouring of demand for groceries and supplies.

“With each passing day, it feels imminent. It’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when,'” said Shannan Reid, director of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. “It [feels] so sober in Montgomery.”

Small-business owners in Conroe and Montgomery said they are fearful the federal government may be toying with the idea of implementing a nationwide curfew, which could be crippling.

In fact, subdued sales for even a couple weeks could dig a hole so deep that small-business owners—particularly restaurants, which generally operate on a narrow profit margin—cannot crawl out, said Jeff Angelo, owner of The Eatery at Hodge Podge Lodge in Montgomery. Angelo said his sales have dropped 35%.

“[A curfew] would be devastating,” Angelo said.

Jim Hallers, owner of Citizens Gril, which has a location in Conroe, said sales have dropped 50%. Les Lemmons, owner of Vero Italian Kitchen, which also has a location in Conroe, said his sales dropped more than 50% from March 11 to March 13. On March 13, Lemmons said he sent half his staff home for the day.

“For a small business, it’s impossible for us to shut down two weeks,” he said. “We can’t afford to be closed that long.”

New strategies

Lemmons said he understands people’s fear of being outside and potentially being exposed to the disease. But he also knew he, along with his staff, had bills to pay.

“I need[ed] to do something to keep my doors open,” he said.

Lemmons said he saw the nearby Chick-fil-A closing its dining room and only operating through drive-thru. That gave him an idea, he said.

Vero Italian Kitchen is now offering curbside delivery, so customers can still order food without needing to step outside, he said.

“We’ll bring it out to your car,” he said.

Rachel Anderson, co-owner of Wine and Design in Montgomery, has taken a similar approach to her painting classes.

“Our business has nearly come to a complete halt,” she said in an email. “We have begun offering take-home paint kits to help offset some of the loss. We have even contemplated delivering them if [customers] buy four.”

She said she has been promoting private events so customers can control who is in attendance. But still, business has been dismal, she said.

“We are sitting on empty studios for the near future,” she said.

Local economic leaders said they are urging businesses to take a flexible approach to potentially tap into new customers.

Reid said the Mongtomery chamber is using social media to connect business owners with other business owners. For instance, one local company offered to make signage for other companies to help them advertise they are now offering curbside delivery, she said.

“Being creative is going to be the solution,” she said.

Ashleigh Alwood, director of marketing, and Courtney Galle, director of special events, for the Conroe Lake Conroe Chamber of Commerce took to Facebook Live on March 13 to offer strategies for business owners, which ranged from transitioning to online, hosting virtual events and offering delivery. They also encouraged residents to purchase gift cards at local businesses to keep revenue flowing.

“Why not have a shopping party online? ... You can show off your personality,” Alwood said.

Long-term effects

Reid, who said she loves sifting through economic reports and “data crunching,” is waiting to see how the effects of the coronavirus will play out in the long run. The “big picture” data is not yet available, she said, but the chamber has postponed the Lake Conroe Regional Outlook—originally slated for April 30—to sometime in the fall. She said she expects speakers will be able to provide an in-depth look at how coronavirus affected Montgomery County from an economic standpoint.

But even without hard numbers, local business owners and economic leaders said they believe it will have long-term effects.

Losing huge events like the Montgomery County Fair will impact much more than just those who participate in it,” said Brian Bondy, president of the Conroe Lake Conroe Chamber of Commerce.

Holler said he is concerned how small-business owners will survive.

“If you look in our area in Montgomery County, there’s a lot of mom-and-pop restaurants. ... They don’t have a rainy day fund. So it’s going to change the landscape of our restaurants for sure,” Haller said.

Angelo, who said he has been receiving calls from brides about cancelling or postponing their weddings, said he hopes residents will return once the scare dies down.

“It’s not just us, it’s everybody,” he said. “Every business is going to be affected.”

Andy Li contributed to this story.