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  • Caitlin DeLuca

Small Business Heroes: Lynn Irish discusses running a small business amidst COVID-19

Maine’s small businesses are an important part of our community and our economy. Many have been hit hard by this COVID-19 crisis, and have faced many challenges in keeping their doors open throughout the year.

Mainers for Working Families contacted local small business owners across Maine to talk about what they’ve done to keep their businesses running and their communities safe, and discuss what is still needed to help them through 2020 and beyond.

Lynn Irish has owned and run Whippersnappers Quilt Studio in Hallowell since May of 2003. Originally participating in craft shows, Lynn decided to expand into quilting with encouragement from friends and fabric distributors.

While Lynn has had staff before, she now manages the store by herself. “I really have two businesses, I have a retail store and I do long arm quilting. So balancing those two things... has always been a struggle.”

When the COVID-19 crisis first began, Lynn was forced to close Whippersnappers.

“When Governor Mills announced that the stores had to close, I basically sat at home and cried for a few days,” said Lynn Irish.

Instead of staying closed, Lynn decided to help her community by moving into making PPE.

“I petitioned the state and was officially deemed an essential business,” said Lynn. “I was working 10-11 hours a day every day for six days a week, and sometimes coming down on Sundays because everything just took so much longer.”

Along with making PPE, Lynn still made time to fulfill retail orders, and received a lot of support from her customers.

“I did have a lot of customers, some who hadn’t been in in a while, call... I kind of scrambled to get more stuff on my website,” said Lynn. “And I got a lot of support from my regular customers.”

Lynn has since reopened her doors. Because her customers are older, she was adamant about following protocol and keeping everyone safe.

“I started enforcing mask wearing before it was a state mandate,” Lynn said.

Her store is now open for walk-ins, but she makes sure that it is kept well below capacity. Only six people are allowed in the store at one time. All customers must be mask-compliant. Lynn keeps hand sanitizer available, and makes sure to wipe everything down.

Lynn faced minor pushback on her mask policies earlier on in the pandemic.

“I feel like Hallowell is being pretty good about it, but there’s always a couple people who don’t want to wear a mask. They just don’t come in,” said Lynn. “

“I think we can only do the responsible thing, and if that means saying wear a mask or don’t come in, then so be it, because we know that’s what works.”

Lynn had plans before the pandemic to downsize her storefront business. Now, with the virus beginning to surge again, she believes it was good timing.

“Given COVID-19, I’m actually glad that I am downsizing, because I think it’s going to get worse again. I’m very worried about what’s going to happen in the next few months.”

As she continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, Lynn found the state guidelines she received when Whippersnappers was deemed an essential business to be both helpful and clear. She also relied on the news to guide her decision making.

While she believes businesses should be provided more aid and protection, Lynn is against the push for blanket immunity for businesses who aren’t protecting their communities.

“If a company isn’t willing to take precautions, then they shouldn’t get any protection from liability. I don’t think [immunity] can be a blanket thing,” said Lynn. “If they’re not doing the safety precautions that we know work, then they shouldn’t get immunity.”

With the new year around the corner and many small businesses looking ahead, Lynn believes that we shouldn’t let our guard down.

“I feel like I’ve been vigilant about being safe and keeping my customers safe,” said Lynn. “We should keep taking precautions and stay vigilant.”

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