‘It never should have closed’: In Erie, residents take tentative, first steps out of quarantine

Allison Gorman stands inside her store, E. Lane Boutique, in a homemade face mask on May 8 as excited shoppers visit retail stores on the first day of “yellow phase.” (Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

ERIE, Pa. — On Friday, the first day that Erie County took its premier steps out of lockdown, Richelle Eighmy braved a mid-May snow to shop at the Hobby Lobby in the Peach Street Marketplace.

I’m hoping to find some fabric here,” Eighmy told the Capital-Star through a Cleveland Browns facemask she made herself. She is planning on making more face masks — hence the fabric run — but believes “we overreacted a little bit,” with the shutdown. 

Erie County was one of 24 northwestern and north-central Pennsylvania counties to move into the “yellow” phase of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 mitigation effort. Despite the order, however, it appeared Friday that many county residents were content to stay home. 

On Peach Street — the core of Erie’s retail sector — traffic was still nearly non-existent, as it has been through the seven and a half weeks of lockdown. While in-person retail is allowed in the yellow phase, it appeared Friday that many stores chose to remain closed.

Another shopper who followed Eighmy into the store chose not to share her name, but told the Capital-Star, “I actually ordered something online and it’s going to take about a month to get here. So when I called [Hobby Lobby] this morning, I was so excited and decided to just come in.” 

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Robert H. and Sandy R. were not wearing masks when entering the craft store, despite signage that read: No Mask No Service. The pair believe they had COVID-19 back in January. Sandy shopped on May 8 because; 

“Erie is reopen,” she said excitedly, adding, “It never should have closed.”

Hobby Lobby, along with Lowe’s, seemed busy Friday. Still closed in Erie are major chains such as HomeGoods, The Gap, Macy’s and JCPenney. The parking lot surrounding the Millcreek Mall, outside downtown, was almost entirely empty around 1 p.m.

While some major clothing stores have yet to reopen, locally owned E. Lane Boutique in the West Erie Plaza opened to shoppers at 10 a.m. In the first two hours of operation, it served roughly seven customers, business owner Allison Gorman said. 

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“I think that everybody is just cautious because we’re not used to it yet,” Gorman told the Capital-Star. As she spoke, two shoppers tried on wares in the dressing rooms behind her. 

Gorman adjusted her homemade face mask and said: “I feel, probably, how everyone feels; Excited to reopen, but cautious about everyone’s health. I feel like our store is a nice place to be able to go out because we don’t have a lot of people, it’s easier to clean, so it’s a little safer. But I still feel responsible for people who come into my store to make sure it’s safe and clean and nothing happens.” 

“This is what we do,” Gorman told the Capital-Star. “This is what we like to do. We have all this inventory to share, but we’re cautious about it.” 

“It’s a very exciting day for Erie,” said James Grunke, CEO and president of Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, as a guest on Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper’s daily COVID-19 brief. 

“Just from my own observation, [business] appears to be slower than we expected,” Grunke told the Capital-Star. “But we have to remember that everybody is nervous about the reopening and so I think it’s going to be cautious steps.”

“Mother Nature, honestly, is our friend right now, as it’s a little snowy out there today,” Dahlkemper said during the Friday brief. “It keeps people more at home. But we know the weather forecast for next week is looking lovely later on. And that will get more people out. So we gotta wear our masks. We got to keep our six foot distance, we’ve got to do our hand washing and good sanitizing. Those are the tools we have.”

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that 13 more counties in southwestern Pennsylvania would begin reopening on May 15. 

Dahlkemper announced ten new cases of COVID-19 on May 8, the largest single-day increase of cases that the county has had so far. In total, Erie County has 114 cases of COVID-19. Two residents have died. 

Kraus Department Store on State Street and Creamland on West 26th Street in Erie were named as “model businesses” by Dahlkemper during the brief, Friday. 

At Kraus, the county enforcement team “found a woman cleaning the doorknobs on the handles inside and outside the doors. Every person going in was wearing a mask and every person in the store was wearing a mask. And the owner said he had to actually go outside a few times to take orders out to people who had health concerns and didn’t want to go inside the store,” Dahlkemper said. 

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.