Bike shops, deemed ‘essential,’ boom as people seek ways to travel solo

Philadelphia bike shops, declared an essential business and allowed to remain open are seeing a surge in demand from coronavirus-wary commuters.

South Philly Bikes owner Dan Oettinger said he’d keep the shop open as long as he’s healthy and permitted to do so. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

South Philly Bikes owner Dan Oettinger said he’d keep the shop open as long as he’s healthy and permitted to do so. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

West Philadelphia bike shop Firehouse Bicycles remains open for business during the citywide shutdown. Good luck getting in, though.

“We are doing drop-offs and pickups of bikes, and we are doing tube sales, but that’s the extent of it,” said Kareem Wahlgren, a bicycle mechanic at the shop, over the phone. Only one customer at a time is allowed inside to promote social distancing. After the customer leaves, Wahlgren says they wipe down the store with bleach. 

“[If we can] do business without somebody having come in, it keeps both people safer, but also we don’t have to spend as much time disinfecting after,” Wahlgren said. 

The city deemed bike shops essential businesses, allowing them to operate during the shutdown. But business is all but usual. 

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Keswick Cycle in University City prohibits customers from entering altogether. Christopher Foltz, a store associate, says they’re taking orders online, disinfecting them, and issuing them without making physical contact with customers. They’re not taking in new bikes. 

Foltz said they’re doing what they can to disinfect and sanitize, but he wonders, “is it enough.”

“That’s kind of one of the perils of being open and interacting with this stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of a strange thing.”

Dan Oettinger owner South Philly Bikes allows two customers in at a time. Oettinger keeps his distance, though. He has customers “leave the bikes here for a little bit, and we’ll call them when it’s done.”

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“You know, I’ve had customers that feel like they’re not sure if they’re sick or not,” he said. “So they’re just leaving their bikes outside for me to come out and get so that way, they’re just being cautious with me, being cautious with themselves. That’s pretty much as much caution as we can take, just keep about six feet away from everybody.”

The decision to continue working in the shop may be at his peril. He received a kidney from his father in 1993 and is immunosuppressed as a result. Health officials say people with compromised immune systems are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Doing my best to stay as healthy as possible, you know,” said Oettinger. “Just doing the usual exercise, eat right, and … keeping my distance from people.”

South Philly Bikes, like other open businesses, has instituted social distancing policies. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Bicyclists are having a moment as their preferred mode of transportation proves to be a less risky mode of transportation. Plus, SEPTA plans to announce a reduced schedule for city transit any day now as more riders stay home or choose to avoid public transportation to social distance. 

Foltz said Keswick was “tremendously busy” last weekend through Monday with people buying bikes. He pointed out that families with children “were a big demographic of folks coming out.”

“Knowing that one, you may not be taking public transit; two, you might be stuck in your house, you’re going to need some recreation,” said Foltz. “You’re going to want something to do to get outside. Bikes are fortunately great for that.”

Cyclists bike past South Philly Bikes on March 18, 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jillian Lopez’s bike has needed repair since November. “The convenience of SEPTA during the winter months just made it not a priority,” she said. But when the mayor announced the citywide shutdown last Monday, she got in gear and took it to South Philly Bikes.

“As someone who only really knows how to change tubes… I always feel safer going to a bike shop,” said Lopez. 

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