Masked Messaging

Now that it looks like masks are going to be with us for a while, we can expect to see a trend away from those blue-and-white paper masks and homemade cloth masks to more high-end masks with special messages or corporate branding. The process is already starting, as shown by this mask that is for sale at one of the downtown Stonington shops.

Will masks with the Starbucks logo, for example, become as much a part of the Starbucks employee “uniform” as the barista’s apron? Will the political types among us use masks to alert us to their voting preferences? And will matching masks be offered as part of the complete ensemble at women’s fashion websites? How long will it be before mask ads become a familiar part of the Facebook experience?

The American economy tends to move pretty quickly on this stuff when there is money to be made, and American consumers will lead the way. Before we know it, masks will be just another part of keeping up with the Joneses.

As The Dow Turns

Those of us who have 401(k) plans regularly check on the stock market indexes to see whether the market is “up” or “down.”  One of the oldest and most well-down stock price indexes is the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is often called a “blue chip” index because it includes some of the biggest companies in the country.  The Dow, the Standard & Poor’s 500, and the NASDAQ are a kind of financial pulse of the United States, consulted to see whether the economy is robust and healthy or weak and failing.

Most of us don’t really pay attention to it, but the Dow is supposed to represent a kind of reflection of the American economy as a whole.  And because the American economy is ever-changing, that means the roster of companies that make up the Dow has to change, too.  The last remaining member of the original Dow, which started in 1896, was General Electric, which ended a 122-year run in the index in 2018.  Sometimes the changes happen because the companies in the Dow falter, or are acquired, or succeed to the point where their stock splits, which would have an affect on the overall average.  And sometimes the index changes because the American economy is just moving in a different direction.

That point was driven home this week when it was announced that some of the well-known companies in the U.S. are being dropped from the Dow index and replaced by some of the companies in our “new economy.”  Energy giant ExxonMobil, which has been part of the Dow since 1928, will end its run at the end of this month.  In its stead, a company I’ve never heard of called Salesforce.com — described as an “enterprise software” concern — will join the Dow.  Pfizer, the drug company, and Raytheon, a well-known defense contractor, also will be taken off the index list, to be replaced by Amgen and Honeywell.  The changes are being made to account for Apple’s stock split and, according to the folks who run the index, are intended to “add new types of businesses that better reflect the American economy.”

The original Dow included companies like American Sugar, National Lead, Chicago Gas, and U.S. Leather, along with General Electric.  Now we’re talking about “enterprise software” concerns, biotech firms, and diversified technology conglomerates, and they are being added because a company that makes computers, smartphones, and other devices has been so successful that it is undergoing a stock split.  That’s a pretty good indication of how our economy has evolved, and how the evolution continues.

The Lure Of Lobstering

The official welcome sign outside of Stonington says the town is Maine’s largest lobster port, and the visual evidence around here supports that assertion. You see the paraphernalia of the lobster business pretty much everywhere, from the lobster boats at anchor in the harbor to the brightly colored buoys, coiled ropes, and stacked rows of lobster traps seen on the properties around town. Especially traps. More traps than you can imagine!

And it appears that the younger generation is embracing Stonington’s traditional occupation. According to statements from this year’s graduates published in the local newspaper, a number of the 2020 graduates of the Deer Isle-Stonington High School — both male and female — are planning on “lobstering” as their career. It’s the kind of future plan you wouldn’t see from a student in, say, Columbus, Ohio.

My hat is off to the kids who are going into the lobster trade. It’s a tough, physically demanding job that requires you to get up before dawn and spend your days on the water, going from buoy to buoy, hauling traps up from the ocean floor, removing any catch, rebaiting the traps with yukky objects that lobsters like, and winching the traps back down again. But it makes a living, and you get to be your own boss. From the decisions of the local high school kids, that’s still an attractive option.

Masked Market

Stonington holds a farmers’ market in the parking lot of the community center every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon.  Last Friday we paid our first visit to the market during the COVID-19 era.

There’s no doubt the coronavirus has had an impact on the market.  For starters, there were fewer tents and tables set up by sellers, and they all were all distanced from each other, which gave the market a more spread-out feel.  There were fewer people walking around, too — and of course everyone was masked.  There was a pleasant young woman at the entrance to the market who was the designated “masking enforcer,” tasked with keeping the unmasked from entering.  She reminded us of the need to be masked and had hand sanitizer that she was ready to share with anyone who wanted to scrub up.  The potential customers weren’t supposed to touch or handle anything and also were supposed to keep their distance from each other — as the posted signs indicated.  As a result of all of these factors, the market didn’t have the bustling, crowded atmosphere that you associate with a good farmers’ market and that we saw at this market last year.

Still, in a weird year where all kinds of performances and events and community gathering opportunities are being cancelled outright, it was encouraging that the Stonington farmers’ market was being held at all.  And my sense from interacting with them was that the artisanal farmers who were participating definitely appreciated just having the opportunity to sell their vegetables and fruits and smoked meats and farm fresh eggs directly to the public.  If you are a small-business owner who is counting on different farmers’ markets as venues to sell your products, outright cancellation of all of your sales outlets would be devastating.  If the economy is truly going to recover, and the recovery is going to small-business owners like artisanal farmers, it is crucial to have events like farmers’ markets.

As has been the case throughout the coronavirus reopening period, Kish and I spent more than we really needed to, just to try to help the sellers get back on their feet and recover from a challenging time.  We bought eggs and cheese and smoked meat from multiple stands, and it all was great.

We’ll be going back to the farmers’ market on Friday, and will try to pay the market a visit on every Friday when we are here.  And I bet that we’re going to see a definite pick-up in the number of people selling and the number of people buying, as the word gets out that you can do so safely and people decide they are willing to accept the risk.  While appropriately masked and distanced, of course.

Coronavirus And Commerce: One Town’s Story

The coronavirus pandemic, and the shutdown orders issued in response to it, have affected pretty much everything, and everywhere, over the past few months. Stonington, Maine is no different.

There’s no doubt that there has been a huge economic impact on this beautiful little town and the surrounding community. Stonington’s economy has two primary engines — the lobster trade, and tourism. Tourism clearly has been affected by Maine Governor Janet Mills’ orders closing hotels until June 1, and requiring visitors to Maine to quarantine for 14 days before interacting with locals. There aren’t many visitors to the town, and the businesses that depend on tourists have felt the resulting pinch. Three of the tourist-type shops in town are closed, and it isn’t clear whether they will open at s as you time this summer. One restaurant has announced it won’t be operating at all this year, another is running at dramatically reduced hours, and a third isn’t nearly as busy as it normally would be. There isn’t much foot traffic in town, either.

The lobster trade has been affected, too. The word is that prices are low, due in part to reduced demand caused by restaurant shutdown orders. The locals are hoping that prices increase when the Canadian lobster fishing season ends and only the U.S. supply is affecting the market.

2020 is going to be a tough year for all of these businesses. Stonington doesn’t have big box stores, chain restaurants, or franchises — it’s a small business haven where all of the businesses are locally owned, and the summer tourism provides a huge chunk of their annual cash flow.

The real estate market, on the other hand, is reportedly very strong, with places going on the market and being sold promptly — in some instances, solely on the basis of a video tour. Realtors are attributing the strong market to East Coast residents who want to establish a second home far away from the overcrowded cities where “social distancing “ is a challenge.

So, the coronavirus giveth, but the coronavirus mostly taketh away. It’s sad to see businesses closed and favorite restaurants going unopened this summer. We’re just hoping that the businesses can ride out 2020 and will be back in full swing in 2021, when things get back to normal — hopefully.

Eating Out (Again)

Last night, to celebrate the end of our 14-day quarantine, we went out to eat at the Harbor Cafe. It was our first dinner out in three months.

It was a little weird, being served by masked wait staff, but the restaurant had erected plexiglass barriers between booths and had implemented procedures to address social distancing, including having a designated “in” door and “out” door to ensure that people don’t bump into each other. And patrons are required to wear their masks until they are seated.

The masks and procedures made it a different experience, but it was a great pleasure to be served a hot meal and an ice-cold beer again. I got the fish and chips, and can honestly report that french fries truly are a revelation after a three-month respite.

We enjoyed our meal and gave our server a hefty tip. Working in a mask can’t be fun, and waiters and waitresses still have to make up for their shutdown period. We all should be generous with the people whose jobs were closed down due to the coronavirus.

Reopening . . . One Step At A Time (Cont.)

Today another German Village business opened its doors to walk-in business after the prolonged coronavirus shutdown.  This time, it’s the Hausfrau Haven, a great wine (and beer) shop that has been a German Village mainstay for decades.  The HH had been open for carryout business — which we gladly took advantage of — but now you can walk in to make your wine selections.  As we spring back from the shutdown period, increased access to adult beverages can only be a good thing.

My guess is that the Hausfrau Haven sign is (no pun intended) a sign of things to come in Columbus and Ohio as other businesses open up.  That is, masks will be required, and the requirement will be enforced by the business itself, out of concern for its employees and its other patrons.  I think most people will happily comply with that.

Next up for Ohio and German Village — a restaurant or bar open for foot traffic and in-restaurant dining.  When G. Michael’s and Lindey’s and Ambrose and Eve and the High-Beck open up to dining and drinking patrons, that will seem like a very big deal.

 

Reopening . . . One Step At A Time (Cont.)

And speaking of reopening, our neighborhood Starbucks is reopening this morning after weeks of shutdown. I walked by before the official opening and the coffee emporium was ready to go with designated lines, signage, ground tape to show proper social distances, and masked baristas.

I never thought I would say I was glad to see a Starbucks open, but I was. These are extraordinary times, indeed.

Reopening . . . One Step At A Time (Cont.)

A sense of palpable excitement swept through Ohio yesterday, like a fresh, warm May breeze carrying the scent of lilac trees and spring flowers.  Continuing with its gradual approach to reopening the state’s economy after a prolonged shutdown, the DeWine Administration announced the next step in the process:  allowing hair salons, nail salons, barber shops, and bars and restaurants to begin to service customers once more.

gettyimages-638568556Some other businesses and offices opened this week, and retail stores and service businesses can reopen next Monday.  Under the Governor’s latest order, tonsorial parlors will be allowed to begin operating next Friday, May 15.  Restaurants and bars that have outdoor seating will be allowed to start serving patrons in their outdoor areas that same day, and indoor dining will begin again on May 21.  By May 21, the vast majority of the state’s businesses will have been permitted to reopen in some form or another, and the economy will lurch into gear once more.  Governor DeWine has concluded that, with the curve flattened, the economy simply can’t be shuttered for much longer without doing irreparable damages.

The Governor’s order indicates that the reopening won’t be an immediate return to the old, pre-coronavirus operations:  customers and stylists will be masked, for example, and restaurants will be trying to align tables and establish patron admission procedures to achieve social distancing.  There will probably be a run on plexiglass and plastic barriers, too.

Shaggy Ohioans who are heartily sick and tired of eating their own cooking, and who yearn for a return to more normal times, greeted this news with breathless excitement.  Soon we can get haircuts again!  And eat at a restaurant, too!  (Well, kind of.)

The news spread like wildfire on social media, where announcements of hair styling appointments became, for the moment, more popular than unsubtle political memes or cute videos of tumbling kittens.  Expect to see lots of Facebook posts with selfies of masked people getting their hair trimmed by other masked people, or people eating at some outdoor venue.  What used to be taken for granted is exciting news right now.

Reopening . . . One Step At A Time

Some Ohio businesses reopened today.  The sign in the photograph above was on the finely carved door of Winan’s, a chocolate and coffee emporium here in German Village that is reputed to sell some of the finest candy, and coffee, you can find anywhere in Columbus.  

Winan’s reopened, subject to the limitations stated on the sign, just in time for Mothers’ Day.  I took the picture above shortly before the store opened, with new hours, and when I passed by the store later in the day it was at its maximum capacity of four customers, and another patron was waiting patiently outside for the chance to go in.  Interestingly, although the Winan’s shop was open, the Starbucks near our house was still closed.  I imagine businesses are making individualized decisions about the reopening process.

I’m inclined to patronize as many German Village businesses as possible now that they are reopening to help get the economy back in gear, and I was encouraged to see that Winan’s was getting some traffic on its first day back.  Some chocolate and coffee sounds pretty good, too, don’t you think?     

Increasingly Online

Even before the coronavirus shutdown, our economy was increasingly moving into more of an internet economy, where a lot of consumer commerce was done through online ordering.  With the shutdown, that process has accelerated to warp speed.  We’re to the point now where Amazon, Fed Ex, UPS, and U.S. Postal Service trucks are an everyday sight in our neighborhood, appearing at all hours.  And when you walk down the street you see packages left on a lot of doorsteps.

It’s been a godsend during the shutdown, when the “brick and mortar” stores are for the most part closed by governmental order and people have turned to the internet to supply everything from groceries to clothing to shoes to whatever might help to keep their kids entertained while they are cooped up indoors.  It’s hard to imagine what this period would have been like without the online economy to fill the void when the traditional stores were shuttered.  That’s the reason you see signs in many places, like the one above, thanking the hardy delivery people for playing such a key role in helping people to make it through this extraordinary period.

But . . . what’s going to happen when the reopening occurs?  Are people going to go back to the real-world stores, or will the shift to online shopping be permanent?  That’s a crucial question, because while the online world is convenient, it employs only a fraction of the people who worked in the brick-and-mortar retail world before the shutdown.  If the American shopper goes into full online mode and the local businesses close, we’re going to have a serious, systemic unemployment problem.  And there’s also a local, community element at play.  The online behemoths are usually located far away — and perhaps overseas — the stores in your neighborhood typically are small businesses, owned by people in the community who have an interest in the community.  I saw a sign recently that read something like “Amazon won’t sponsor your kid’s baseball team.”  There’s a lot of truth in that sentiment.

Like everyone else, we’ve done our share of online ordering during this shutdown period, and have appreciated having that option.  But when the shutdown ends, I’m going to focus on trying to buy from the local businesses and brick-and-mortar stores that have been so hard hit by the shutdown, and perhaps even be a little more generous than normal in my spending.  These parts of our community are going to need help to get back on their feet.   

The Leading Scooter Indicator

They’ve put the scooters out around Schiller Park. I’m going to keep a close eye on them, because I think scooter use in the coming weeks may give us a lot of telling information about how things are going to be, post-shutdown.

Here’s my reasoning. Last year, scooters really made inroads. Lots of people, of different ages, were using them to move around town. Then the scooter weather ended, winter came, and then the coronavirus shutdown hit before scooter weather returned. Now we’re on the cusp of scooter weather again, and the scooters are out. Will people use them?

Of course, scooters are a pretty basic example of vehicle sharing. And, in post-shutdown America, the key word there is “sharing.” You can’t ride a scooter without touching the handlebars. Will people be willing to do that? Or will we see scooters standing idle due to fear of COVID-19?

And that’s why scooters are a kind of leading indicator. A big question for the post-shutdown economy is whether people will be too freaked out by the risk of infection to return to the pre-shutdown norm. If the Scooter Brigade — by self-selection risk-takers, since riders are willing to go zipping through vehicular traffic without any protective shielding — is willing to go back to scooting, that will tell us something about people, and the economy, bouncing back.

What if the Scooter Brigade doesn’t ride? Well, that will tell us there’s a lot of work yet to be done in the social confidence category.

A Life Lesson In Uncertainty

I’ve been thinking about the Great Depression lately.  Not because I think we’re heading toward another one, but because it is one of those historical events that left an obvious, lasting mark on the people who experienced it.

dustbowl_unemployed_men_queued_outside_a_depression_soup_kitchen_1931_-_nara.jpg__2000x1457_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleIf you knew somebody who lived through the Great Depression as an adult — and not as a kid who probably wasn’t fully aware of what was going on — you know what I mean.  The adults who lived through the Depression clearly had a world view that was forever, unalterably affected by that difficult time.  After the Depression ended, they generally lived frugally and saved money.  They wanted to avoid debt at all costs.  They tended not to trust newfangled ideas and were as cautious and conservative in their investments as you could possibly be.  And they generally did not  have the sunny faith that things were necessarily going to get better.  There was a hard edge, a Depression-inflicted scar, that was lurking just beneath the surface that tended to influence and affect, in some way or another, just about everything they did.  My grandfather, for example, always wanted to have plenty of cash on hand — just in case everything went to hell tomorrow and he needed it.

Later generations of Americans didn’t share that same worldview.  They lived when times were flush, and they expected that the high times they had always known would inevitably continue.  Sure, there were some bumps in the road, but for the most part we lived lives and developed plans and made decisions about buying cars and houses, determining whether we could afford a particular college for our kids, and planning for retirement on the assumption that life as we always knew it would be pretty much the same in a month, or a year, or five years.  There was a kind of presumed certainty about the future that served as the unconscious basis for all of those kinds of decisions.

Now we’ve had the fates throw an enormous wrench into the works.  We’ve learned in a brutal, stunning, totally unexpected way that we can’t presume to know for sure what will happen in the future.  How is that going to affect people’s decisions going forward?

I wonder if this coronavirus experience, too, is going to also have a lifelong effect in terms of where people choose to live and how they choose to live.  At minimum, when we are trying to make a decision about a course of action, will we always be thinking:  “what if another global pandemic occurs?”

The Masked Economy

We’re inching closer to the point where some significant portion of the United States is going to reopen again, and one question people are asking is:  how is the economy going to perform after the reopening occurs?

face-mask-for-sale-best-face-mask-africa-blooms-2Of course, no one can predict what’s going to happen, because we’re truly in virgin, unprecedented territory.  Never before have we stopped the world’s largest economy with a series of closure orders, kept it shut down for weeks, and then tried to restart it through a series of piecemeal orders issued on a state-by-state basis.  There are no meaningful historical parallels.  Anyone — regardless of their claims to “expertise” — who tells you that they know with confidence what’s going to happen is lying, because no one can possibly know.

The ultimate economic response is going to be the product of millions of individual decisions made by our different economic actors, and no one knows for sure how they’re going to respond.  Are consumers going to go out and spend those checks from the federal government in brick and mortar businesses, or are they going to bank them, or are they going to permanently shift their buying to on-line shopping?  Are people pining for a sit-down meal in a restaurant?  Is there a pent-up demand for products — like, say, shoes — where you really need to try them on that will bring people back to brick and mortar stores?  Are the countless small businesses going to reopen, or has the hit to their cash flow been fatal — and if they reopen, are they going to rehire all of their former employees immediately, or take a partial, wait-and-see approach?  Are restaurant owners going to reconfigure their restaurants, and advertise that they have implemented a new social distancing seating policy, and adjust their prices to reflect the new normal?  Will entirely new jobs — like the roaming disinfecting wipedown specialist, the entranceway COVID-19 test administerer, and the mask patrol — be created, that will help to nudge unemployment statistics back down sooner than anticipated?  Will businesses default on loans, putting pressure on bank financial statements and cash flow?

I’ve got no special insight into any of this.  I would only note one thing:  I think it’s pretty clear that many business people are very good at figuring out a way to make money.  If you’ve been on social media recently, you’ve probably had it seep into your consciousness that a lot of places are selling different kinds of masks and other protective gear — more websites selling more masks, in fact, than you ever thought possible.  It’s an example of how the participants in the modern American economy are both inventive and adaptable.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the economy will come roaring back from a total standstill.  But it does suggest that the people who were successful in business before the great shutdown are going to apply all of their creative, flexible impulses toward getting that “invisible hand” to work in their favor, and to entice homebound consumers into going out to the world at large and spending.  Where some people are going to see a cause for hand-wringing, others are going to see great opportunity.

What does it mean?  We’re about to find out, in the greatest economic experiment in the history of the human species.