Wide open

The streets in Shipshewana were empty mid-March as visitors to the small LaGrange County town stopped showing up amid Indiana’s efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

SHIPSHEWANA — Business in Shipshewana has slowed to a crawl with the state restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But by forcing a limit on the size of crowds at any event and limiting restaurants to carry-out service only, the coronavirus has thrown business in Shipshewana into a tailspin.

Shipshewana is a tourism town, and its business and restaurants rely heavily on a steady stream of visitors. During the summer, peak season here, merchants sometimes welcome as many as 15,000 visitors a day, many arriving by bus.

This time of year, things are a little slower. But no one has ever seen things this slow. March 17, traffic in Shipshewana was almost nonexistent. Several merchants hadn’t even bothered turning on their stores’ open signs.

No one here is protesting the state’s decision to shut down dine-in service at restaurants and limit events to stem the spread of the virus, but the effects of that order arrived here quickly. Two parking lots across the street from the Blue Gate Restaurant, normally filled with cars almost any day, now sit empty. In town, the parking spots along Shipshewana’s streets are wide open, and few guests are visiting.

“Obviously, it’s challenging times right now to be in business,” said Ryan Riegsecker, president of Blue Gate Hospitality. His company owns the Blue Gate Restaurant, Blue Gate Performing Arts Center and the Blue Gate Garden Inn and Conference Center. All three businesses have been hit especially hard by the slowdown. Business at the restaurant, for example, which typically serves 1,000-1,500 people a day on Saturdays this time of the year has slowed to a trickle.

“Basically, we’re open, but it’s like we’re not really open,” he said. “Its minute compared to what open is.”

Riegsecker said he had no choice but to send some staff home. The company’s hotel, which was booked full every weekend for the rest of the month now has an occupancy rate of around 30% as guests continue to cancel reservations.

“We’re optimistic that it’s going to be over some time, so we’ll just put our heads down and get through it,” Riegsecker added. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Phyllis Youga, executive director of the LaGrange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls the rapid decline of business in Shipshewana nothing short of dramatic.

“We were on a call today with the Indiana Office of Tourism and Development, and it is a concern for the entire state, and for us as CVB. We’re looking at it from a point of what do we need to do for the safety of visitors, patrons, and staff. And we’re following all the recommended cautions,” she said. “At the same time, we’re looking ahead at the economic impact to our partners, especially our small business partners, and looking at what we can do put the message out that there are restaurants available to do take out. And then, of course, we’re looking long term. What does this mean for the season? Hopefully, the chaos will pass quickly and we can get back to business as usual, and we’ll be prepared at that point to double our efforts in marketing.”

Youga said the CVB learned 24 large events have been canceled in Shipshewana through May 1, events such as concerts at the Blue Gate Theater and its new Performing Arts Center, large shows at the Michiana Events Center as well as Mayfest, Shipshewana’s annual street festival that opens the summer season in town.

Many of the large tour groups that routinely visit Shipshewana are comprised of seniors, and those tours canceled quickly.

“Six dinner theater groups canceled, four hotel groups canceled, two event center rental groups canceled,” Youga said looking over her notes. “These are groups of 10 or more. One of our hotels went from nearly full to 35% full in the span of five days, and those numbers are still falling.”

On the south side of town at Shipshewana’s other big draw, Shipshewana Trading Place, several antique auctions have been canceled or postponed. Regular weekly livestock auctions are still taking place, but access to the arena is now limited to 50 people or less. The auction’s restaurant is open but with a limited menu and only serving carryout meals.

According to the company’s website, the flea market, one of town’s greatest tourist draws, is still scheduled to open May 5. But the website does note that those plans are subject to change.

Several workers at local businesses who asked not to be identified said they believe business here can survive because this is the slow season. But, they worry about what will happen to their jobs if business isn’t back to normal this summer.

Riegsecker said business owners here understand the urgency of the situation, and he’s confident most business and the town of Shipshewana will survive this slowdown. But he fears not everyone will be so lucky.

“We understand. Everyone is in the same boat here,” he said. “But I don’t think the town will look exactly the same after this is over.”

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