The COVID-19 crisis has taken its toll on La Conner businesses – including the nonprofits that rely on volunteer workers.
The Friends of the Library and Soroptimists International Vintage La Conner thrift stores were deemed non-essential and forced to close this spring as part of statewide measures to curb spread of the coronavirus. But La Conner residents have long known the two stores are plenty essential.
Proceeds from Vintage La Conner go to help women and girls here as well as in the community at large. Sales at the Friends of the Library store have been paying the mortgage on the property where the new La Conner-Swinomish Regional Library will be built.
The best-case scenario for Vintage La Conner re-opening a few days per week – as opposed to its normal six-day weekly schedule – is between mid-June and early July.
“We have set no date,” La Conner Soroptimist President Jan Paul told the Weekly News. “We are in the process of looking at recommendations from Gov. Inslee, L&I (the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries) and others, as well as best practices in our community.”
As for the Friends of the Library thrift store, the future is even more uncertain.
“Last fall,” explained Friends of the Library President Joan Scarboro, “we were told that the thrift store would be closed and demolished this spring. Well, we did indeed close in March, but because of the coronavirus, neither the library director nor the (new library) project manager can give us any idea how much longer we will be able to operate the store if we re-open it.”
“It’s difficult to think of getting the store up and running again, she added, “only to have to close within a matter of months.”
Scarboro met last Friday with library director Jared Fair to discuss the thrift store’s immediate future.
“We will continue to meet and discuss our options,” Scarboro said.
For now, the Friends of the Library are planning to re-open.
“As you may know, our wonderful volunteers are in the at-risk group (for COVID-19),” said Scarboro. “Our volunteer coordinator has sent an email to them asking whether they plan to return to volunteer. Out of five responses, three were ‘no’ and two were ‘wait and see.’ People in the at-risk group are going to be very cautious about returning to the life we used to live.”
At Vintage La Conner, Paul anticipates the level of staffing when the store re-opens will be increased due to the need for higher levels of vigilance related to regular disinfecting and oversight of social distancing requirements.
“We have in the past had two volunteers per shift,” Paul said, “and we are considering three or four per shift.”
That’s not all.
“We are also looking at implementing (new) safety standards within the store,” she said.
Even so, as is the case with the Friends of the Library volunteer corps, there remains some anxiety ahead of returning to the sales floor.
“We have a spectrum of concerns about coming back as volunteers,” said Paul. “Some are ready to come back now, and others are needing a little more time. We, of course, respect all decisions about when people are comfortable to come back to the store.”
The Friends of the Library, like Vintage La Conner volunteers, are exploring additional in-store safety measures. To that end, the questions are endless, Scarboro noted.
“The state has provided some guidelines,” she pointed out, “but how can they be applied in our specific store? What rearangements to the store and our business operations will need to be made and at what cost? If the changes are costly, is it worth it for a short-time re-opening?”
Both stores are weighing how to accept donated items going forward.
“We are still evaluating different ways and processes for accepting donations,” Paul said. “We will likely have structured times for people to bring in donations.”
Donors will be asked to carefully clean their donations beforehand.
“We are seriously evaluating whether we can take clothing items at this time,” said Paul. “Again, we are evaluating L&I standards as well as other thrift store standards before we begin to accept donations. We continue to ask that donations not be left at our doorstep at this time as we simply cannot accept them now.”
Donation procedures would likewise be different at the Friends of the Library thrift store.
“Regarding accepting donations – again, if we do – new protocols will need to be in place which limit interaction between donors and volunteers,” Scarboro said.
Once more, questions arise, she said.
“The state,” said Scarboro, “hasn’t provided protocols on sorting and selling used merchandise.”
For Paul, despite all the uncertainties that define the virus crisis, one crucial element remains certain.
She said La Conner Soroptimists will go above and beyond their stated mission of service to the community.
“We have a higher standard at this time,” she said, “which is to assure that all of our volunteers and customers have the highest level of safety in our store so we can continue to work our mission statement.”