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Sunset Ice Cream Parlor adapting to new normal

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Sunset Ice Cream co-owner Jessica McDermott and Brett Harer are looking forward to opening the doors to their Lycoming Creek Road ice cream shop again. Currently they are trying to abide by COVID regulations at a store with no available drive through or pick up.

Jessica McDermott stopped working a week before Gov. Tom Wolf shut down non-life-sustaining business amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, McDermott is susceptible to lung illnesses, and what she was hearing about the novel coronavirus forced her to stop going to work at the Sunset Ice Cream Parlor on Lycoming Creek Road in Williamsport.

But even more, now that Lycoming County has been elevated to a yellow status as it begins to return to a new normal, McDermott is still hesitant about returning to work. It’s why she’s taken her time to re-open the mainstay of Lycoming County life. It’s why she’s planning an unannounced soft opening to make sure all variables are accounted for before welcoming fans in droves to the shop.

“We’re part of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association and every bit of advice we’re getting is to take it slow because it’s going to be much busier than you’ll anticipate it to be,” McDermott said. “The stressful part is planning for something I know I can’t act out myself and knowing I won’t physically be there to operate things.”

McDermott closed the shop on March 19 and it has been closed ever since. At first, she struggled to find out through the state why she was forced to close her doors while other ice cream-based restaurants in the area were allowed to stay open. And what was worse was it left her without any answers to pass along to the customers she’s grown to know in the seven years since purchasing the business.

She eventually found out Sunset was classified as a specialty food service, which is why they were not allowed to stay open to offer delivery or to-go pickup like other restaurants have been able to do. It’s a distinction McDermott says she probably could have fought and potentially been able to remain open through the pandemic. But she and her family decided closing was probably in their own best interest, as she is a high-risk individual with four kids at home, including twins under the age of 2.

“We decided as a family it was our best option,” McDermott said. “And, legally, it’s what we were supposed to do.”

But for as abruptly as the business closed, she feels like it’s abruptly having to open. She received messages from customers surprised she didn’t open the shop when Lycoming County went into the yellow phase of re-opening May 8.

She takes it as a sign people are clamoring for what has been a part of Lycoming County’s way of life for more than 40 years. She understands people want some kind of normalcy to return to in the midst of a pandemic, which has altered everyone’s lives so much.

But McDermott also wanted to make sure there’s a plan in place to comply with standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect both her employees and the customers who come to the shop. She has installed a point of sale system to take credit and debit card payments. She’s put a plan in place of how to funnel customers into the store to keep them socially distant from one another as well as her employees.

There is also another concern for McDermott. One of her employees previously dealt with a cancer diagnosis at the same time she got hers. It’s another thing which makes her apprehensive about re-opening the shop.

“I’d feel more comfortable if we felt we were making the choice to open,” McDermott said. “But with not having an income, our hand is kind of being forced. We didn’t take any of the loans. We were able to file for unemployment but that hasn’t come yet because of the backup of so many people doing the same thing. We had amazing friends who set up a GoFundMe in case we had to stay closed.

“Are we comfortable opening? Not necessarily. We kind of felt like we’re rushing it. But you feel a moral obligation to the community and we’re trying to do what we can.”

McDermott was declared cancer-free on April 3 after five years of being in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But it’s not something she felt like she’s talked enough about because of the circumstances in which everyone was living during the pandemic.

She’s taken what she’s learned from battling cancer and about how changes to life’s normal things can come so quickly, and applied it to how she’s handled the difficulties of running a business during the pandemic. It’s allowed her to adapt quickly to the situation and make a plan.

McDermott hopes people who are clamoring for the normalcy of her parlor also understand how much things are going to change. She’s hoping for patience as they work out the kinks to get back in working order.

But she knows her five to seven employees, who have also been out of work for more than two months, are clamoring to come back. Most of her employees are high school students who are trying to earn money before heading off to college in the fall.

It’s a lot to process at one time, which is part of the reason why McDermott is taking everything slowly.

“I’m very much relating this to how I handled cancer,” McDermott said. “Because I did that, I know this is how we do this. This is how we, as a community, support each other. I’ve rallied the troops before and we can do it again.”

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