Heidi Neal had an odd thought for a store owner as she unlocked one of her Loyal Biscuit Company pet food and supply stores Monday morning.

“It’s not the thing any retailer ever wants to say: ‘No one come in my store,’ ” Neal said. “I just had this nervous pit in my stomach that I haven’t had since we opened the (business) 10 years ago.”

Many retailers in Maine are now grappling with how to reopen their stores safely and in accordance with state guidelines. They will have to follow a long list of new rules related to physical distancing, occupancy limits, cleaning and disinfecting, and other measures intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus within their walls.

Some retail stores in rural areas of the state were allowed to open this week, while all others statewide will be able to do so on June 1, according to the current reopening plan.

With pet supplies deemed an essential service, Neal had continued to operate her stores through the pandemic shutdown, but on reduced hours and with no in-store shopping, only allowing online or phone orders with curbside pickup. She cut staff hours, operating the Maine-based chain’s seven stores with only one worker each, but she and her employees found the six-hour shifts exhausting.

So when state officials said late last week that retail stores could reopen to customers in most of the state, Neal greeted the news with mixed emotions. While eager to get back to full operations, she worried that a crush of customers, particularly in the first day or two, could be overwhelming.

But business was slow for the early part of the week, she said, and many customers wanted to continue buying through the curbside pickup option.

“It was definitely a relief,” Neal said.

Neal said she’s careful about complying with state guidelines – all 55 bullet points she counted in the Department of Economic and Community Development’s instructions for reopening. She rearranged the layout of stores over the weekend, making sure that displays were moved to give customers more room to practice physical distancing, installed Plexiglas barriers at checkouts, reorganized the staff in teams of two and instituted safety training, among other measures.

L.L. Bean employee Tony Diaz helps customers Nate Lawler and Teague Brewer-Frazee look for a hunting rifle Wednesday at the L.L. Bean Hunting & Fishing store, one of three stores that Bean has reopened. No date has been set for the reopening of its flagship store. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On Sunday, she met with her employees again and went over the safety protocols.

The operation will be different, Neal said, with the stores open just six hours a day and closed on Sundays. Curbside pickup will continue to be an option, she said, and at least initially, many of her customers have stuck with that practice.

Reny’s also is eliminating Sunday hours for now, said John Reny, president of the Newcastle-based discount department store chain with 17 locations statewide.

Reny’s had shifted to phone orders and curbside pickup since closing on March 20, he said, and the company didn’t rush to reopen this week. Stores will open their doors on Monday, he said.

“We’re trying to do things safely,” Reny said, and he praised the state’s leadership for how it has handled the closings and reopening plans. “This is pretty serious and it seems to be working good in Maine.”

The company’s office and warehouse have been open during the shutdown period, so Reny said the store shelves should be full as customers return next week.

“We’re loaded up for bear – ready to go,” he said.

Reny’s didn’t lay anyone off and continued to pay employees during the shutdown. Most are expected to return as the stores reopen, he said, and the company will work with any employees who have health problems or special concerns about going back to work in a store where customers are allowed to enter.

L.L. Bean employee Brandon Hillard sets down a bow in front of customer Anthony Paine so he can take a look at it Wednesday at the  L.L. Bean Hunting & Fishing store in Freeport. The Bean stores that reopened this week will operate on limited hours, won’t accept cash or checks, and will take returns only by mail. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Outdoor retailer L.L. Bean closed its flagship store in Freeport in mid-March – it had to install locks on the doors because it had closed, briefly, only five times before the statewide shutdown – and began offering curbside delivery in early May.

This week, it opened its Bike, Boat & Ski and Hunting & Fishing stores. Under state guidelines, the stores could have reopened when bicycle repair and hunting and fishing stores were reclassified as essential on March 31, but the company chose to keep them closed “out of an abundance of caution,” spokeswoman Amanda Hannah said.

No date has been set for L.L. Bean’s flagship store or its home goods store to reopen, she said. “We have taken a very cautious approach in regards to reopening our retail locations.”

The L.L. Bean stores that reopened this week will operate on limited hours – 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with 9-10 a.m. set aside for high-risk customers to shop. The stores will operate seven days a week, Hannah said.

L.L. Bean will use no-contact interaction with customers at checkout – no cash or checks will be accepted. It also will institute capacity restrictions for the stores and won’t accept returns or repairs on site. Items can be returned by mail.

Retailers should be patient and keep lines of communication open with employees and customers as they reopen, a Hannaford Supermarkets executive advised Wednesday.

Jim Hamilton, the Scarborough-based grocery chain’s vice president of retail operations, said that was a key lesson company executives learned as Hannaford stores remained open as an essential business during the shutdown. Hamilton held a news a conference Wednesday to “share what we have learned as an essential business” as more retailers in the state prepare to open back up for business.

He said Hannaford store managers have talked frequently with employees, reminding them of social distancing guidelines and the latest on safety precautions. For instance, the store had to advise workers that state rules mandated the use of face masks, a requirement imposed weeks after the state’s initial stay-at-home order and shutdown of nonessential, public-facing businesses.

Workers also were given talking points, he said, to deal with customers who balk at the face mask requirement or other new rules, such as lining up outside the supermarket because of capacity restrictions, and one-way aisles to help comply with social distancing rules.

“When people show up to our stores, they’re already under a lot of different pressures,” Hamilton said. “Most importantly, they have to better understand how to navigate the supermarket differently.”

That learning may go on for some time. Many retail analysts predict it will be early next year before foot traffic in stores settles into a new normal.

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