A Downtown Waco (COVID) Year in Review

The 1-year anniversary of COVID life is upon us. It’s a different exact date for a lot of us, depending on the event, cancellation, change or conversation that occurred in our lives that made us realize things were about to be very different.

For a lot of people, March 13 – Friday the 13th – was the day they got the word they’d be working from home or that schools and other entities were shutting down. For others of us, it came a little later.

It was “3/17, the last day we had people sitting at the bar, everyone was talking about COVID. We all knew we were on the edge of disaster but we didn’t know how it’d unfold. Truly bizarre,” said Hayden Smith, Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits Bar Manager.

March 17, 2020 is when the City of Waco issued an order closing bars and gyms and requiring restaurants move to take out. A shelter-in-place order followed on March 24.

A Clean and Safe crew member doing extra sanitizing downtown.

As businesses and homes alike took to extra sanitizing of spaces, so did we in Downtown Waco. Our “Clean and Safe” crew spent time cleaning and sanitizing high-traffic touch spots, including crosswalk buttons and bike racks.

Restaurants downtown (and all over) pivoted quickly to provide take-out, curbside and delivery. Others began selling entire family meals.

“We realized quickly with the onset of COVID that our sales were going to be negatively impacted with our dining room closing,” said Danielle Young, owner of Revival Eastside Eatery. “We wanted to make sure we could keep any staff who wanted to stay on board, so family meals became a way for us to supplement income. We also thought that family meals would be a helpful offering, especially as the grocery stores were not well stocked and many families were juggling working from home and homeschooling.” The eatery is still offering family meals and Young said they will continue to as long as they are popular with the regulars.

During early shelter-in-place order, some restaurants even became larders, stores selling essentials such as flour and toilet paper at a time when the grocery store shelves were empty. Clay Pot and Milo were just two of the eateries that also briefly served as pantries.

Waco Downtown Farmers Market offered fresh groceries in a fairly safe setting.

Speaking of groceries, the Waco Downtown Farmers Market never stopped providing shoppers with fresh, local produce and goods and diehard market shoppers never stopped coming. For some folks, the outdoors nature and smaller crowds at the market (early on) made them feel a bit safer about their shopping.

“Our farmers had already planned and planted for the spring season and would have food to harvest regardless of whether there was a pandemic or supply chain disruption. As the initial weeks moved along it became apparent people in our community needed greater access to food, especially in a relatively safe outdoor setting,” said Bethel Ericsson-Bruce, Executive Director of the Waco Downtown Farmers Market.

Stores and boutiques of all types had to turn to ecommerce or selling over Facebook and Instagram, with curbside pickup. Local artists and artisans also struggled to sell their wares but got a boost in that area when Creative Waco launched the Make It In Waco platform for selling goods.

photo credit: Waco Ale Co. Waco Ale Co. was just one of the bars/brewpubs that had to transition to to-go and then to offering a full food menu.

Our Downtown Waco bars and brewpubs really deserve a round of applause for all the closings and openings and maneuvering of requirements they underwent in the last year. First, they transitioned to to-go operations, filling growlers and bottling cocktails and then some became full restaurants, producing food menus tantalizing enough to draw customers on their own merit. We followed every move you made, downtown bar and brew family, and we tip our hats to you!

photo credit: Hole in the Roof Hole in the Roof marketing created signs to lift the spirits of Wacoans

The folks at Hole in the Roof marketing created a sign to rally our spirits, hanging it at their downtown HQ and making it available for yards across Waco. Their message “We’re in this together,” embodied much of what was going on among residents. Bartering for toilet paper, leaving sourdough loaves on friend’s doorsteps and homebound folks with sewing skills making thousands of masks for local healthcare workers were just a few of the ways we all cared for each other.

“When the ‘world shut down’ mid-March, we all took a deep breath and held it for what seems like months. After the first week, then another, then another – we realized that this was a long haul and not just over in March,” said Genevieve Peel, with Hole in the Roof. “Our hope was to rally Wacoans together. To offer a common design to see throughout the city and remind us that we are ‘one Waco’ – sharing food, home schooling, wearing masks, social distancing to protect those dear to us. Reflecting back a year, no one knew what we were in for. I believe we are all changed, my hope is that we have more compassion and space for our neighbors and community.”

While foot traffic downtown slowed in the spring, development just kept going. The Riverfront development, Pivovar and the Magnolia expansion were just a few of the projects kicking up dust.

In late spring, we began to reopen slowly and downtown eatery patios, porches and backyards became THE place to be.

Creative Waco worked with artists and businesses to put up murals promoting mask-wearing.

Early summer brought the city’s mask order and Creative Waco teamed up with local artists and businesses to produce chalk murals encouraging mask wearing. Those murals were located largely in Downtown Waco and some are still up!

In late summer, the Downtown Waco Public Improvement District worked with the COVID-19 Strategic Communications Workgroup to design “Mask Up!” banners –in English and Spanish- which were affixed to light poles throughout downtown. The idea was to be a helpful reminder to grab your mask.

It was heartwarming (but not surprising) to watch our downtown community come together this year, with businesses promoting one another and lending a hand whenever they could. Sendero Provisions Co. also extended a hand, holding a benefit to help out a number of small businesses, including many downtown merchants.

In the fall, a number of entities, led by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and the City of Waco, worked together to produce and promote the All In for Downtown Waco campaign, offering “Biz Bucks” that gave consumers a great deal and added incentive to spend money downtown. Downtown Waco also created a series of videos to reinvigorate people about coming downtown.

The Juneteenth parade provided a safe way to be together and foster community.

Throughout the year, groups found creative ways to still foster community and bring people together but in a safe way. The CenTex African American Chamber of Commerce put on a socially distanced Juneteenth Parade, Eastside Market started back up with masks and Keep Waco Loud hosted virtual Open Mic Nights via Facebook live stream. We (Downtown Waco) even pulled off a sold out Cocoa Crawl with extra safety protocol!

Downtown Waco was also home to quite a lot of free COVID testing and now has also hosted some of the vaccine clinics.

This is just a highlight reel of the resilience, hard work, creativity and perseverance that has played out in Downtown Waco over this incredibly difficult last year. Of course, some businesses closed and many are still struggling. There have been personal losses and our staff has grieved like so many others. It’s been a dark year in many ways but the work of everyone downtown to stay safe, stay healthy and stay afloat has been a bright spot. As much as this is a year in review, it’s also a thank you and love note to our downtown community and downtown supporters. Stay well, stay hopeful and keep coming downtown.

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