Upon entering Frenchtown, you can see a digital sign flashing MASK UP! and DO YOUR PART. The signage around town isn’t the only thing affected by the pandemic.
Starting in March, COVID-19 has reshaped reality – especially for store owners and restaurateurs. “When it first happened, we didn’t want to lay off the 35 staff we had, but we had to. And we’re like family, so it was very, very hard to do that,” says Colleen Tomko, who has owned the Frenchtown Inn with her husband, Andrew, for over 24 years. They needed to process challenges like this one, as well as provide for their own family’s well-being. “So that’s what was going through our minds, how to survive."
However, this river town isn’t going anywhere. An organization ensuring this is the Frenchtown Business & Professional Association, headed by Lacy Phelps. The FBPA advocates for the needs of Frenchtown businesses to borough officials, such as Mayor Brad Myhre. The association, along with the mayor and council, created an ordinance to meet the emergency. Adopted on July 1, it allows cafes, coffee shops and restaurants to use the sidewalks and adjacent property for outdoor dining, and merchants to display their wares on the sidewalks. This relaxation of the usual rules expires on Oct. 31, 2020.
Downtown establishments can’t allow customers to use the restrooms for now, which is a major concern for potential visitors. So, the FBPA asked the borough to provide portable toilets for public use. Two of them have been set up near the river bridge.
Although the pandemic has prevented the association from hosting its usual festivities, it is still finding ways to celebrate. The FBPA set up dozens of large street flags downtown – first rainbow flags for Pride Month, then French tricolor flags for Bastille Day. There were also two community “chalkings,” in which sayings for Pride Month and 2020 graduation were written on the downtown sidewalks.
“The ingenuity of restaurant owners in town has really inspired me,” says Myhre. There is curbside pick up with online ordering, new signs, and even take-out windows like the Bamboo House and the Bridge Cafe have begun using. The Frenchtown Inn and The National Hotel already had front-porch dining, but both places have expanded their outdoor seating – the Inn with a cozy dining area under red umbrellas and the National with a big white tent in its parking lot.
“All the local businesses have helped each other,” says Tomko. For instance the Bridge Cafe has allowed Yoga Loka to conduct classes on its property, and ArtYard, a nonprofit, found willing partners downtown. Even though its Trenton Avenue gallery was closed, ArtYard managed to present a Pride Month exhibition. It placed 20 life-size plywood-cutout portraits of important queer people in store windows along with explanations of their achievements.
Laura Pointon, treasurer of the FBPA and owner of a bookkeeping business, helped many of the businesses get online at a reduced rate. This was especially valuable in the earlier days when “non-essential” stores had to close up, mask or no mask.
Tomko says, “The customers themselves have been a huge help, by dedicating themselves to doing takeout with us once a week, or coming now that we’re open on the porch and the side yard.” At least one resident has bought gift cards from favorite businesses to be redeemed later on.
As Frenchtown reopens and the sidewalks are filling up with mostly mask-wearing visitors, the mayor makes himself clear on masks. “Without a vaccine, this is the only proven way to slow the spread of COVID-19,” he says. “You are allowed to have your own opinion on this matter, but it’s about being considerate of others. In Frenchtown, you must wear a mask.”
Even during a global pandemic, Frenchtown still has much to offer. Many of the businesses and restaurants are open, the river invites swimmers and tubers, and a shady riverside path is ideal for summer strolling and biking. Phelps says, “Come to Frenchtown, enjoy it!”
And Tomko predicts with confidence that, when the pandemic ends, “We’ll definitely be here."