By Bob Uphues
It'll be tougher than ever for the holidays to make your days merry and bright, as the surging COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation of almost all of the traditional celebrations in Riverside and Brookfield that kick off the season right after Thanksgiving.
The Riverside Chamber of Commerce for 45 straight years has invited residents to wander in and out of downtown businesses, the township hall and other locations, soaking up holiday cheer during the annual Holiday Stroll.
But, the beloved event – including the arrival of Santa Claus via fire engine for a tree lighting beneath the water tower at Centennial Park – is off this year.
The story is the same in Brookfield, where the village has called off its Santa meet-and-greet and tree-lighting ceremony that typically takes place the Saturday following Thanksgiving weekend.
The village's chamber of commerce, likewise, has called off that day's business open house event on Grand Boulevard and at Eight Corners.
With the governor instituting Tier 3 mitigations due to COVID-19, there's just no safe way to have crowds of people wandering in and out of cramped stores.
"We get over 1,000 people in here during the Holiday Stroll," said Derrick Mancini, owner of Quincy Street Distillery, 39 E. Quincy St. in downtown Riverside, a popular stop to grab a cup of hard punch and perhaps pick up a bottle of bourbon or gin. "It's a big deal. We make a significant number of sales that day. That's going to affect us, obviously."
While Mancini expects some uptick of business simply due to the upcoming gift-giving season, he said the Holiday Stroll provides a reminder to people to perhaps follow up with a purchase. But, even purchases by regular customers have fallen off a bit.
"Out of sight, out of mind," said Mancini, whose tasting room has been closed since the initial shutdown of bars and restaurants was ordered in March.
Quincy Street Distillery's tasting room is too small to have allowed for proper social distancing and there's no outdoor space for tables. When the state allowed cocktails to go for bars and restaurants, craft distilleries were cut out of the picture.
"We've never been able to figure out a way to serve at all," Mancini said.
A few weeks ago, the distillery was able to resume tours that included tastings by limiting participation to single social groups. Now those are in jeopardy.
"Every marketing tool we lose is a big deal," Mancini said.
And while liquor sales are up generally during the pandemic, craft distillers whose high-end products come with higher prices, haven't benefitted as much, according to Mancini.
"While liquor sales are up in larger venues, craft spirit sales have fallen," he said. "People may be buying more for their homes, but because of the financial stresses are buying down market."
Higgins Glass Studio, 33 E. Quincy St., is another popular stop for Holiday Strollers, though the makers of art glass objects have relied more recently by hosting an open house on Small Business Saturday as a revenue generator.
"That works out better for us, because it's a whole day instead of just a couple hours," said Celeste Loeffler, daughter of Higgins Glass owner Louise Wimmer.
Assuming the Holiday Stroll and open house were not happening this year, said Loeffler, Higgins Glass also got an early jump on advertising holiday gift ideas via social media and postcards to people on their mailing list. The store is still open by appointment.
With no downtown open house in Brookfield next week, foot traffic is guaranteed to be lighter over at Christopher Mark Fine Flowers and Gifts, 3742 Grand Blvd.
"On tree-lighting day we do have people come in and we do have a decent day [for sales,]" said owner Chris Borzym. "I don't foresee that happening this year."
The pandemic has also thrown cold water on the store's annual anniversary celebration, for which Borzym hauls out all of the Christmas decorations, does up the store and throws an open house/sale weekend with food and drinks for customers.
"We're not able to do it the way we want," said Borzym, who marked his 15th anniversary in business last week with a week-long drop-by-and-say-hi version of the celebration.
"It's just not the same as when it's a party atmosphere," Borzym said.
Instead, inspired by a customer suggestion, Borzym is planning a blowout "Sweet 16" anniversary celebration next November.
"That idea brought my spirits right back up," he said.