Westfield businesses struggle during the pandemic

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Carson Donnelly

Have you ever been walking through downtown Westfield and seen an empty storefront? If you answered yes, you have witnessed the growing problem of vacancies in downtown Westfield. Throughout the past few years, many beloved small businesses and even chains have closed their doors for good in downtown Westfield. This issue has been exacerbated due to the pandemic and the restrictions on in person shopping and dining, which have led to more people shopping online. For example, it was found that up to 40% of holiday shopping sales in 2020 were online. As a result of these many challenges, 97,966 businesses around the country closed permanently between the months of April and September 2020.

Even before the pandemic, many businesses have struggled to survive in Westfield. Some may recall the closing of Panera in 2016 or the Rialto in 2019. Both closures were upsetting to many residents of Westfield and neighboring towns. EIS social studies teacher Mr. Maver commented, “I am very upset that the Rialto closed. There used to be a Movie Club with some of the other Edison teachers and we would see movies at the Rialto. Now we can’t do that anymore.”

Other longtime Westfield stores have also closed recently, including Lord and Taylor, Brummer’s Chocolates, Ann Taylor, Alex and Ani, and almost Vicki’s Diner. Helen Rentoulis, the owner of Vicki’s diner, explained, “The pandemic has already crippled my business. Now that the winter is coming, God only knows what is going to happen. It’s not easy right now to be in business, it really isn’t.” 

Luckily, members of the community were able to raise and donate $40,000 to save the iconic restaurant from closing its doors for good.

With more community involvement, beloved Westfield businesses like Vicki’s Diner will be able to make it through these tough times. Bob Zuckerman, director of the downtown Westfield Corporation stated, “Jeff Bezos doesn’t need more of our money. Our friends and neighbors who are our local, independent shop owners and retailers, they need our money this season more than ever.”

One problem that has faced Westfield businesses even before the pandemic is competing with online shopping retailers like Amazon, who do not have to face high rent and taxes. Amazon also often finds it easier to attract business because it is more efficient to buy goods without having to travel to a store. EIS health teacher and school nurse Mrs. Kelly stated, “The problem is that the rent in town is so high even chains are closing. More people are also shopping on Amazon which makes it very hard for stores to stay in business. I’m definitely not going downtown as much as I used to.”

In the future, new steps need to be taken to help Westfield businesses stay afloat. Westfield Mayor Shelly Brindle declared that “There was an absence of preparation and vision when online shopping reached a tipping point in 2009, which was accelerated by the financial crisis…The reality is that our ‘downtown problem’ has been over a decade in the making, and will of course now take time to reverse.”

Unfortunately, struggling businesses in Westfield may not have that time to spare especially during this pandemic. Unless progress is able to be made right now, many Westfield residents are concerned that many more of the stores and restaurants they love will go out of business. Overall, the pandemic has crushed many small businesses in Westfield, and unless there is a change soon, the problem will only get worse.