BENSON — Social distancing. Curbside services. Quarantines. Shuttered storefronts.
Repercussions from the coronavirus pandemic have created a wave of uncertainty for business owners across the country, hitting small businesses especially hard.
With the exception of those businesses considered “essential,” entrepreneurs are operating under temporary state and federal restrictions aimed at keeping the virus as contained as possible.
As with most U.S. communities, Benson’s small businesses are feeling the impacts of working within new restrictions and in some cases, temporary closures.
In addition to businesses, service-oriented organizations and nonprofits such as the Benson Chamber of Commerce, Southeast Arizona Economic Development Group, Endeavor Art Gallery and Benson Historical Museum are closed to the public. While staff is on hand to answer phone calls, the Benson Visitor Center is closed to walk-in traffic while social distancing is in place.
“Because of the restrictions and closures, traffic through Benson has dropped off substantially,” said Bob Nilson, Benson Visitor Center supervisor.
“A large percentage of our tourism-related business, including RV parks and hotels, is way down right now,” Nilson added. “Benson is a tourism, travel-related community, so we depend on our visitors. The shutdowns and restrictions have been hard on the community economically.”
Benson Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Najayyah Many Horses echoed Nilson’s comments. She said there is an element of uncertainty among business owners when it comes to the pandemic’s long-term economic impact.
“The closures and changes in the way people are doing business are very concerning for our small business owners,” Many Horses said. “The Horseshoe Restaurant closed its doors, and other restaurants like Mi Casa, Rigo’s and The 86 Cafe have turned to curbside and delivery services in order to stay open.”
Despite those efforts, business has dropped by as much as 70 percent for some of the eateries, Many Horses said.
“While we certainly understand why these actions are needed to protect the public, no one really seems to know how much longer they are going to be in place. All of the unknowns are especially troubling for business owners.”
The Horseshoe Cafe and BakeryPatty Colombo has owned the Horseshoe Cafe and Bakery for 10 years. This popular 85-year-old restaurant, which is located along Fourth Street is one of the town’s landmarks.
“We tried going with curbside service for about a week-and-a-half, but finally shut down on March 24,” Colombo said. “Curbside just didn’t work for us. I did everything I could think of to make it work, but it wasn’t feasible for our restaurant to operate that way.”
Normally open seven days a week, the Horseshoe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner six of those days, and closes at 2 p.m. on Sunday. The restaurant is staffed with 28 employees and seats between 70 and 80 people, Colombo said.
“I applied for the disaster relief fund from the federal government and I just found that I’ve been approved for the loan, which I’m going to need once I’m able to reopen,” Colombo said. “Even though I’m looking forward to reopening, I support what Gov. Ducey is doing to protect staff and the public from the virus. The worst thing we could do is come back too soon and go through this all over again.”
R&R Pizza ExpressThis 4,400 square-foot restaurant seats 180 diners and features a full lunch buffet and salad bar.
“In order to follow the social distancing guidelines, before we had to close our dining area, we were seating people at every other table,” said R&R Pizza Express owner Nelson Daley.
Now that the restaurant is fully closed, Daley has lost the buffet crowd, which represents a big part of his business.
“We have gone completely to curbside and delivery,” he said. “I feel blessed because we were already providing a delivery service, so that really wasn’t a big change for us. Our work days are starting much later than usual, though.” The restaurant’s lunch traffic has dropped off significantly, said Daley, who noted that he has cut one person per shift because of the dip in business.
“We’ve reduced our hours by 20 to 30 percent,” said Daley, who added that take-out and delivery represents about half of the restaurant’s business.
“So, closing the dining has really hurt us,” he said. “I do want to thank the community for the support they’ve shown us. I think people know how difficult all these changes are for businesses, and the Benson community has been very supportive.”
Ah Hello Be You Tiful (hair salon)Master stylist Debbie Padia has been doing hair in Benson for 35 years.
Five years ago she purchased the building where her business is currently located from Mark Gibbs. Along with Padia, two other stylists work in the salon.
“I had to close by 5 p.m. on April 4 because of a mandate by Gov. Ducey,” Padia said. “All beauty salons, barber shops and spas were ordered to close because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Mark Gibbs has been gracious enough to carry my note for the building until I can reopen and get back on my feet,” Padia said.
While she plans to apply for the low interest federal disaster loan for small business owners, Padia has not started the process.
“I was hoping to tough it out, but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to reopen the salon, so I’ve decided to apply for the loan,” she said. “This whole COVID-19 crisis is very frightening. My heart goes out to the people who have died and to those who have lost loved ones from this terrible pandemic.”
Zearing’s MercantileThe building that houses Zearing’s Mercantile was built in 1885 as a meat market during Benson’s railroad heyday.
“In the early 1990s it became a mercantile and served the town on and off in that capacity until 1997, when it was shuttered after Wallace Zearing died,” said Cindy Allen, who co-owns the business with her husband, Dan Ball.
“We purchased the building in September of 2018 and have restored it to a mercantile, with a collection of antiques, candy and food, for sale.”
The couple has managed to keep the business open, but are operating at 25 percent of what they were doing pre-coronavirus.
“Because of the food we sell, we’re able to keep our doors open, so we’re one of the town’s more fortunate businesses” Allen said. “The food we sell makes us an essential business.”
Allen believes that as a community, people should be able to support local businesses if they choose to do that, without interference from the government.
“While I understand the premise behind social distancing, I do not feel that the government should be allowed to tell me what I can and cannot do,” she said. “Unfortunately, if the closures continue, some of Benson’s small businesses will be shuttered forever. And that’s very disturbing.”
Benson Feed & SupplySome small businesses may be struggling from the economic pressures created by coronavirus mandates and restrictions, but it’s business as usual for Benson Feed & Supply.
This family owned and operated business was established in 1961 when Bob Fenn started the feed store. He ran the business for 30 years, until his son, Ed Fenn took it over.
Ed continues to run the feed store today with his two sons, Ryan and Derrick.
While Ed greets customers, writes out orders and answers questions, Ryan and Derrick help customers load bales of hay, heavy feed bags and supplies.
“Because we provide hay for people who have horses, as well as food for pets and livestock, our feed store is considered an essential business,” Ed said. “We feel fortunate that we are able to stay open, especially when other businesses out there have been closed.”
Other than a brief uptick in business when the coronavirus first appeared in Arizona, Benson Feed & Supply has been unaffected by the pandemic, said Brett Miller, nephew to Ed Fenn and one of the feed store’s employees.
“When the coronavirus hit Arizona, people weren’t sure what to expect, so we were busier than usual,” Miller said. “But once our customers realized we weren’t going anywhere, things settled down for us.”