WELLSBORO, Pa. — The phone rang and rang for weeks, echoing through a 115-year-old department store emptied out by the pandemic in this quaint rural town in Tioga County.
Sometimes Nancy Dunham, the store’s matriarch, or her daughter Ann Dunham Rawson would pop into Dunham’s on Main Street to check on utilities or grab merchandise for a customer at the family’s adjacent hardware store, which was allowed to remain open.
Mother and daughter occasionally answered the phone, and they rarely had answers.
“Are you open?”
“Can you get me a size 10 boot?”
“When are you opening again?”
On Friday, just after 11 a.m., Ann unlocked the door and ushered in shoppers and a small semblance of normalcy for the first time in eight weeks. Dozens came during the first 30 minutes, all of them wearing masks and a few in gloves.
“You’re the first customers in!” she said.
Tioga County, population 40,763, is one of 24 north-central and northwest Pennsylvania counties that entered the “yellow” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s color-coded reopening plan Friday morning. At that point, Tioga had 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death. Neighboring Potter County, one of the state’s most rural counties, had four cases and no deaths. The yellow phase permits most businesses to resume in-person operations, though restaurants and bars remain limited to takeout and delivery. Stay-at-home orders become “aggressive mitigation.”
Counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania will move from red to yellow next week. Meanwhile, stay-at-home orders in Philadelphia will continue until at least June 4.
In Wellsboro, a borough of 3,239 known for its gas lamps on Main Street and Christmas celebrations, reopening didn’t look the same for every business. It’s a town where the owners are likely behind the counter.
Dunham’s, opened in 1905 by Roy and Fannie Dunham, felt like a community center, everyone eager to catch up after holing up indoors since March. The cafe’s chairs were placed atop tables, but customers still came in for takeout coffee.
“How’s your husband?” Nancy Dunham asked a shopper.
He died, the woman said, “but it wasn’t COVID.”
John Dunham, the patriarch of the department store, had suffered a stroke in the small cafe and coffee shop there just days before it shut down in mid-March. Nancy said she’s cried in the closed cafe a few times since then, though his condition has improved.
Customers at Dunham’s bought greeting cards, socks, a toaster, everything the Walmart in nearby Mansfield has been selling all along.
“Just normal stuff,” said shopper Beth Scheiderman. “It feels good to feel normal.”
One Dunham’s employee, Councilman Michael Wood, walked up and down Main Street Friday and found most people who’d come out were wearing masks. The cold, rainy weather didn’t help.
“We’re supposed to get a few inches of snow,” he said.
Across the street from Dunham’s, Bonnie Hoffpowier, 39, wrote “Hello World. We missed you" on a sign outside her skin-health boutique. Hoffpowier was permitted only to sell retail products and had a handful of customers by noon. The bulk of her business is giving treatments for acne and rosacea, which is not permitted in the yellow phase.
“I really have no idea when that’s going to be allowed,” she said.
Anja and Julian Stam, owners of Pop’s Culture Shoppe, implemented their own rules. Their shelves are crammed with puzzles, games, and toys, the sort of items customers, particularly children, want to pick up. The Stams asked shoppers to stop at the door, so they could guide them through the store.
“We’re trying to act as their hands, to minimize the touching,” Julian said.
The art deco Arcadia Theatre, visible though the cafe window at Dunham’s, has no timetable for reopening. Ann Rawson’s sister, Ellen Bryant, runs the theater, along with a lodge and historic seasonal hotel in town. Bryant said she can envision a smaller audience through social distancing, but in the meantime, she is using the theater’s wide marquee to showcase the names of 110 graduating seniors from Wellsboro High School.
“We put four new ones up there a day,” she said. “The families come by and take pictures beneath it."
Bryant and her sister have both been putting in time at the family’s hardware and furniture store, part of the 200,000 square feet of retail space the Dunhams own in Wellsboro. They employ nearly 30 people, many of whom they encouraged to go on unemployment.
Ann said she was out of her element among the hardware.
“I learned you can wear jeans and a T-shirt in the hardware. You don’t need to run around in three-inch heels,” she said. “I also broke down plumbing into two sections. Hard plumbing and easy plumbing. I know easy plumbing.”
While Dunham’s three stores draw in locals, other businesses in Wellsboro depend more on tourism in the summer and fall as people drive along scenic Route 6. Councilman Craig West said the 79th annual Pennsylvania State Laurel Festival in downtown Wellsboro in June has been canceled. The event typically brings about 20,000 tourists.
“That’s the biggest weekend of the year for Wellsboro,” he said. “That’s a lot of money lost for the town, and they won’t be able to make that up.”
West said Wellsboro has an older population of mostly retirees who could weather the closed businesses and job losses better than younger couples. Tioga County’s median age, 44, is three years older than the state average.
“I’m worried about people who are out of work, who would be unable to pay taxes," he said.
The Stams said they had to cancel multiple events they typically host in their store in April and May. They worry about whether tourists from New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh will come and what health dangers those outsiders could present if they do show up.
“I mean, no offense, but we worry about people from more dense areas,” Julian said.
Wood said small local hotels are usually booked every night through the summer as tourists visit the town and nearby Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.
Bryant was helping out in Dunham’s furniture Friday, surprised at the number of people shopping for new couches on Day One of the yellow phase.
“It’s a little hectic,” she said. “I mean, how many times can you wipe down wood furniture with Lysol?”