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With Dauphin County in the yellow, businesses start to reopen in Middletown

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Retail in downtown Middletown gradually started coming back Friday, the first day that Dauphin County entered the less-restrictive yellow phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening from the coronavirus shutdown.

Wolf had ordered all “non-essential” businesses closed as of March 19, with enforcement starting March 23. The governor put the county under a stay-at-home order effective March 30.

Critics say the shutdown disproportionately affected small businesses, as big grocery stores and “big box” retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s were allowed to stay open as the state considered them essential.

Among the first small businesses to reopen their doors to customers in Middletown was the KT Media record store at 140 S. Union St., and the Vintage Vault Gallery and Funky Finds, 17 S. Union St.

Other retailers who could open Friday appeared to be biding their time a bit more.

Amy Ebersole said she has plans to reopen her With Kidz In Mind store, which sells T-shirts and custom apparel and accessories, this week. Otherwise she’s been kept busy with business and plans tied to the Middletown Area High School 2020 graduation.

Frank Rowe and Son Inc., which sells dog grooming products at 26 S. Union St., was continuing to do business through online and phone orders but had not opened its doors to customers as of Friday. An owner did not wish to comment on the company’s future plans as far as reopening.

Vintage Vault and Funky Finds had been open by appointment only. The businesses opened their doors to customers Friday and will remain open on a limited basis, with the goal to extend to full-time hours by the time Dauphin County enters the green phase, said Chris McGee, who co-owns Funky Finds along with his wife Kelsey. 

An Army vet originally from the Thurmont, Maryland area, McGee worked in the furniture business for about 10 years before deciding he and Kelsey would strike out on their own. Funky Finds specializes in furniture items. They recently moved into a place just up the street on North Union. 

“Oh my gosh, it definitely feels amazing,” McGee said about reopening Friday. “We’ve been stuck for the last three months not being able to interact with customers and the local town so this is going to be awesome. A lot of people have been actually asking when we were going to open too, so this feels amazing. We are all excited.”

McGee is excited about the possibilities for downtown Middletown. He referred to KT Media, which opened its store in Middletown after building their vinyl business for 10 years in Saturday’s Market.

The popular market closed at the end of November. Many of the people who shopped at Saturday’s Market are looking for a new retail destination and Middletown is well-positioned to be that destination, in McGee’s opinion.

McGee also referred to a new comic book store opening in downtown. That's Comics on the Corner at 56 E. Emaus St. - the corner of Emaus and South Pine. Norman Thomas just opened the store on Saturday, May 30.

His store specializes in back issues with an inventory of 100,000 issues spanning the past 70 years. You can buy, sell or trade.

"It's time to give people an opportunity to be adults and be responsible," said Thomas, who moved his store from a 700-square-foot place in Elizabethtown to this 3,600-square foot space in Middletown. Much better for maintaining social distancing, Thomas said.

KT Media had opened on South Union just before Christmas, and was starting to attract a solid customer base when the pandemic hit and the doors closed.

“It’s great” to be back, said Kevin Thoman, who co-owns the record store with his wife Jenna, but it hasn’t been easy.

They had to keep paying the rent and utilities for the space while the store was closed. Thoman said they tried to apply for some of the programs that were supposed to be available to businesses to help them get through the pandemic, but they either had too many strings attached or by the time Thoman got through on the phone or the Internet, it seemed the money was all gone.

“If you didn’t do things exactly to the tee you had to pay it back with interest,” he said. “Who can afford another bill 

when you are already paying all your bills and don’t have any income? Where’s the money supposed to come from?” 

Thoman works a full-time job outside of the record store so he couldn’t apply for unemployment.

He could have kept the business going through online sales, but that wasn’t practical as the Thomans live in York County but all their inventory was in the store in Middletown.

Besides, the whole point Thoman opened his store is because he enjoys interacting with the customers who walk in, like Philip Costantini of Hummelstown.

Costantini had heard about KT Media a few weeks ago when he had been searching online for record stores, and then saw on their Facebook page that they would be reopening Friday. Shortly after 10 a.m. he was there.

“This is my first time here. It’s kind of nice. There aren’t too many record stores around,” Costantini said.

Thoman said he and his wife had thought of reopening KT Media earlier, after seeing Mayor James H. Curry III’s Facebook post about any enforcement by borough police of businesses violating Wolf’s order having to go through Curry for approval.

“We definitely considered” reopening then, Thoman said. But “when we saw the governor lash back — we didn’t want to risk him pulling our occupancy license or anything like that. We’re so small we probably could have floated under the radar but we just decided to err on the safe side and just wait it out like everybody else.”

Kepler’s Seafood, tucked away in a corner of the small retail complex at 100 Brown St., never closed during the pandemic.

As a wholesaler of seafood products, the business is considered essential and part of the food supply chain, said Bill Ososki.

The county going yellow Friday didn’t change anything. Ososki said what he is really looking forward to is June 5, when Wolf has said that restaurants in counties in the yellow phase such as Dauphin will be able to begin offering outdoor dining.

He expects that’s going to be a big boost to his wholesale business, which supplies seafood to about 70 restaurants throughout the greater Harrisburg region.

The restaurants that have been restricted to just take out and delivery during the shutdown have limited their menus, and wholesale seafood has not fared well in that scenario up until now, Ososki said.

But Kepler’s also sells seafood on a retail basis to individual customers, and that has helped the business stay afloat during these tough times.

“The support from the community has been outstanding,” Ososki said. “Without it we wouldn’t have been able to be here at all.”