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Hanna Quist of Somerset, Wis., savors a treat from Nelson’s Ice Cream on Saturday, May 2. It was opening day for the popular Stillwater shop. (Gazette staff photo by Stuart Groskreutz)

After waiting through winter and a later than normal opening day, customers lined up nearly an hour before Nelson’s Ice Cream opened for the season on Saturday, May 2.

When the “Open” sign finally flickered on at 11 a.m., patrons embraced the return of a familiar Stillwater establishment in abnormal times due to COVID-19.

“We have to come at least a couple times a year,” said Sarah Germain of Somerset, Wis. “It’s our favorite.”

The lines were definitely longer than usual, but that is by design.

Nelson’s manager Daved Najarian instituted several changes to provide social distancing for customers and employees to limit the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Sidewalk markings provided guidance for customers as they waited in a line that stretched around the corner and down the sidewalk north along Greeley St.

“Normally 45 minutes is to the stop sign,” Najarian said. “It may look incredibly long, but the wait times are not anything to be scared of.”

Customers order immediately after entering the building, which limits the number of people inside. The employees are wearing masks and they’ve also stepped up the cleaning frequency for common areas, in addition to providing hand sanitizer atop the ATM and other locations in the building. Ropes are also used to keep customers a safe distance from the counters.

“We’re food service so we already had strong standards in place,” Najarian said. “We’re super happy to be open and proud of scoopers for adapting to what we’re dealing with.”

The store is not serving shakes or malts during this time, but don’t worry, the huge-portioned servings have not changed.

Nelson’s did cut out one of its more popular offerings — The Lumberjack, a heaping five-scoop creation. The Lumberjack Challenge has been shelved because the seating in front of the store is off limits because bars and restaurants in Minnesota are restricted to delivery and carry-out.

The other usual spots adjacent to Nelson’s provided well-spaced seating for customers.

The employee policies and procedures were included in a 17-page manual distributed to staff prior to opening. Najarian consulted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Washington County Public Health Department, and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) prior to establishing the new policies.

The initial markings were seven feet apart, but with groups and families that didn’t provide enough room. The marks were extended to 12 feet — which nearly doubles what is called for with social distancing guidelines.

“It’s an evolving situation,” Najarian said. “Now, even if a family unit is standing together, there’s more than enough room. We recognized the problem and adjusted and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

Nelson’s stays busy throughout the summer and waiting in line is part of the deal for an ice cream payoff. Opening on the warmest day of the spring to date, complete with plenty of sun, kept things busy.

This year’s opening was nearly a month later than normal.

“It’s definitely later,” Najarian said. “We’ve had times we opened at least a month earlier. Our average is the beginning of April so we’re about a month behind. We wanted to see kind of the direction of things and ensure we had proper policies in place on our opening.

“In retrospect, we probably could have tried to open on a day that was a little more tame, but we were up to the challenge and we adapted quickly to any issues that did come up. It was very busy and it was great to see so much support for local businesses, too. If we’re making sales six months out of the year, to lose one of those months is a big deal. That people are buying gift cards, too, and more quarts, that really made me proud. Stillwater just does a really good job of rallying around small businesses, and Nelson’s, in particular.”

Nelson’s will make another adjustment before opening this weekend when it more fully incorporates a trailer that is otherwise used for special events to help spread out the traffic. The trailer offered only ice cream sandwiches last weekend, but the majority opted for the 44 flavor choices found inside.

“We want to turn it into a “5-buck truck,” Najarian said. “We’ll have single-size cups, waffle cones and cookie sandwiches with our top 16 flavors. The line did get long, so we’ll separate into two lines and keep people farther apart. We’re going to make things better each day.”

These aren’t the first changes to occur at Nelson’s, which started as a grocery store called “Seven Corners” in the early 1920s, and likely won’t be the last.

“Our customers have been so respectful of every rule we put down,” Najarian said. “For the most part, 99 percent are reading the signs and having their order in mind and following the markings on the ground. Everybody is trying to do what is right. Everyone wants to try and get back to normal and they know this is what’s necessary. It was great to see families out and it’s a great time of the year in Stillwater when we’re able to see people enjoying ice cream.”

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@ecm-inc.com

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