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Davis Street businesses resilient amid pandemic
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Davis Street businesses resilient amid pandemic

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Like many people in the U.S., Dwayne Whitt thought COVID-19 would come and go within a matter of weeks when it hit the U.S. earlier this year.

Eight months later, that hasn’t been the case. And the pandemic’s far-reaching effects have impacted him and countless other small-business owners across the country.

Whitt and his wife Beth own Knakal’s Bakery on East Davis Street in downtown Culpeper.

“We’ve stayed open since the beginning [of the pandemic],” Whitt said. “We were allowed to because we’re considered essential, and really, we needed to stay open.

“I thought this would all blow over in a couple of weeks,” he continued. “And then, as it turned into a month, then two and so on, I realized it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Despite an uptick in business since Virginia moved into Phase 3 of its reopening in July, Whitt said Knakal’s, which opened in 1935, is still dealing with the erosion of its largest sources of income.

“Due to the shutdowns and limits on gatherings, our three biggest types of accounts are pretty much gone,” Whitt said. “Schools, hospitals, churches ... all gone.”

“We thrive off of those big orders,” he added. “Graduations, holidays, church socials and weddings were all canceled in the weeks and months after this started. It became a ghost town around here.”

Just across the street, The Frenchman’s Corner has had its struggles as well.

“There was no one on Davis Street during those first few months [of the pandemic],” said Edward Hanlin, the shop’s co-owner. “Things started to pick back up and feel almost like normal in early September, but it still hasn’t quite gotten there.”

Hanlin said the reopening of nearby restaurants for indoor dining in Phase 3 provided a needed boon to his business.

“That’s one of the major things that draws people downtown, and to Davis Street in particular—the restaurants,” he pointed out. “So once they were able to come back down here and dine in, it was good for us because people began popping back in here and purchasing chocolates and whatever other confections they had been missing during the lockdown in the spring.”

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One of those Davis Street restaurants is Pinto Thai Restaurant and Bar.

“It was good to have dine-in back once lockdown lifted,” said Paul Sata, Pinto’s owner. “We missed having our guests here to serve them in person.”

Sata added that the parklets that were set up outside of Pinto’s and other establishments by the town of Culpeper over the summer helped bring back some patrons who may have been hesitant to dine among others inside a confined indoor space.

“I think it helped us a lot to have those parklets,” he said. “Especially at the beginning. People want to feel safe, and having the option to eat outside provided some peace of mind for them.”

Sata and Hanlin’s optimism may be tested very soon though.

The Virginia Department of Health reported 1,537 new cases and 14 new deaths on Saturday morning, a sobering example of the spike in coronavirus cases as the weather has gotten colder. This came less than 24 hours after Gov. Ralph Northam announced limitationsto public and private gatherings, an expanded mask mandate, strengthened enforcement at retail businesses and an alcohol curfew.

These restrictions will take effect at midnight Sunday night, Nov. 15.

Hanlin has already taken steps to combat another lockdown, however. The Frenchman’s Corner recently began offering customers the opportunity to book private shopping sessions in the boutique through its website.

”We want people to know that they can book individual time with us, either before or after our normal business hours,” Hanlin said. “So if they don’t feel comfortable being here with other people around, we’re here to block out a period of time just for them.”

Sata hasn’t made any changes to how his establishment will be running, but he says he isn’t concerned with the possibility of Northam’s new restrictions crossing back into potential lockdown territory once again.

”We were okay during the initial lockdown because of our take-out business,” he said. “Our customers are so loyal that they stayed with us regardless of the circumstances, and I think they will continue to do so.”

Over at Knakal’s, Whitt remains determined to ride things out no matter what happens.

”I’ve heard stories about other small businesses that decided to close down for three or four months and they couldn’t get things going again after that,” Whitt said. “We’re definitely nickel-and-diming things on a day-to-day basis right now, but this place has survived world wars and depressions, and we’re still here. We aren’t planning on going anywhere.”

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