A florist and businesswoman since 1984, Donnalear Robinson has seen nothing like the coronavirus pandemic.
"Everything happened so fast," she said. "You didn't have time to think or plan or figure out what you were going to do. I had been out of the country, and I wasn't back a week before they told me I had to shut my store down."
Florists are not essential workers in Illinois, so her shop, Hyde Park Florist, 1748 E. 55th St., closed for two months.
"We couldn't do anything," she said. "It was like a hurricane. It was horrible, trying to figure out what to do, shutting the store down. And at that time, we weren't sure it was going to be two months. It was questionable how long it was going to be. It was very stressful, because you didn't know when you were going to come back, and if you came back, would you survive it?"
Robinson has been through recessions before. People typically cut back their purchases during economic contractions, she said, but this time was different. Commercial accounts dried up, and have only recently begun filing orders again. Events dried up. Parties and weddings dried up. People still call to talk about flowers for events a year from now, which makes Robinson incredulous.
Hyde Park Florist did not get the Paycheck Protection Program through the 2020 federal stimulus to small businesses, but Robinson said she had a very good year in 2019. What is keeping her going are get-well flowers, birthday flowers, just-because flowers, thinking-of-you flowers.
Beginning with Mother's Day right as the spring shutdown was ending, holidays have been great for business this year, Robinson said, including Valentine's Day. And in a pandemic that has already killed more than one in 600 Chicagoans, funerals have been good business.
"We've always done them, but we're doing more," Robinson said. "A lot of it is COVID."
She has never seen this many deaths in her career.
Even when big memorial services are not being held for social distancing's sake, she noted that people still send flowers to the bereaved as well as to funeral homes and churches where the bodies are lying before burial.
Early in the pandemic, the nation experienced a shortage of sympathy cards. The magnitude of working in a death-adjacent industry has worn upon Robinson; almost everyone in her shop, including her, has lost family members to COVID-19. One designer lost her sister and her husband. A delivery driver lost his brother. And it is not uncommon for the shop to fill five or six funereal arrangements in a day.
"Sometimes the whole store is full of funeral work," Robinson said "It wears on you. The other day, we had four at the same funeral home, so now I'm telling my delivery person, 'Make sure everything is placed with each deceased properly.' It's easy to get that stuff messed up, and then you don't want to because then you're going to get calls from the family, and you're going to have a lot of drama."
But orders continue going out. Robinson said. Customers buy because they can't see their recipients. Hyde Park Florist writes the cards. Some are pithy: "Happy quarantine." But more of them are sentimental: "Because I can't see you right now, I'm sending you flowers, and we'll celebrate later."
Robinson started off in the commercial display business and was asked to do store owners' private parties, and went to school when they asked her to do flowers for them. She likes her job. It's calming and peaceful, and the flowers are beautiful.
"I think the same thing that I thought before the pandemic: quality over quantity, service, a good job. I've always thought that. That's always been more important to me than anything else," she said. "It's still important to me now. Doing a good job, the pandemic hasn't changed that."