Small businesses close, watch big box stores thrive

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Many small business owners in West Michigan have been forced to close amid the governor’s emergency orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Some of them are wondering if the closures are really helping as they watch shoppers clamor to purchase goods from the big box stores that have been deemed essential and remain open. In many cases, the goods they see customers purchasing are the same goods smaller specialty businesses have been prohibited from selling at their stores.

“(Customers) are buying flowers if they want to buy flowers,” Bing Goei, owner of Eastern Floral in Grand Rapids, told News 8 Monday. “The inconsistency of the application of the law is what’s frustrating and is going to hurt our small business economy.”

Goei has been in the floral business since the 1970s and says he has not seen anything have such a devastating impact.

“Never,” he said emphatically.

Goei was forced to lay off about 70 people from his staff — all of the employees with the exception of the person in charge of finances.

“It was horrible. It was horrible. I still get emotional about that because it’s horrible,” Goei said, fighting back tears. “These are people’s lives. These are people who helped build Eastern Floral.”

He said he’d like Eastern Floral to continue no-contact flower delivery, but that’s not allowed under the governor’s orders. He said it seems unfair that other delivery personnel — like Amazon workers — are able to continue, among other inequities.

“I’ve never seen a person being cited for driving under the influence because they received a bunch of flowers. But yet liquor stores are open,” Goei said.

A closed Eastern Floral. (March 30, 2020)

Crosstown competitor Flowerland is facing similar circumstances. Owner Rick Vuyst echoed many of Goei’s concerns.

Vuyst emphasized that he understood the need to stop the spread of COVID-19 but said the broad executive order has caused ‘chaos’ and ‘confusion.’

“It’s been a shock to the system,” Vuyst told News 8 during an interview inside his Wyoming store. “I’ve never seen the store closed for this long.”

The original Flowerland in Wyoming is closed completely, though his other two stores in Alpine Township and Kentwood are allowing customers to place orders and pick them up curbside.

A sign announces Flowerland on Clyde Park Avenue at 28th Street in Wyoming is closed. (March 30, 2020)

Vuyst said he is concerned that the closure of his business and others like it may actually increase the risk to the public as shoppers are forced to find what they’re looking for in a smaller number of places.

One local business owner shared images with News 8 of a packed parking lot at a local big box store over the weekend. The owner reported that there were hundreds of customers in the store and that it was all but impossible to abide by 6-foot social distancing standards because of the crowding.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” Vuyst said. “Wherever there are crowds gathered, there’s a very huge risk and you put the community at a risk… In the midst of the chaos and the confusion, some are picked to be open and some are picked to be closed.”

Vuyst said he is confident Flowerland will survive the shutdown. He also questioned whether his store should be considered essential once gardening season begins and shoppers search for materials to plant fruits and vegetables. 

Because Vuyst reported the closure of his Wyoming store Google so customers are aware, the Google Maps application states the his business “may be permanently closed.” Vuyst seemed to take the message as a challenge.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Vuyst said. “We’re not permanently closed. We’ll be back.”

Goei is hopeful the same will be true for Eastern Floral, but he’s not as confident.

“If this lasts much longer,” he said. “I will have some doubts.”

News 8 has contacted the governor’s office for comment.

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