As the new coronavirus pandemic spread and Illinoisans were ordered to stay home, dispensaries — which are deemed essential by the state and allowed to stay open — suddenly had to figure out how to enforce social distancing in their stores. Protecting medical marijuana patients, many of whom have compromised immune systems, became a pressing concern. And plans to open new dispensaries were put on the back burner as city approvals for new sites ground to a halt.

“We had to literally change the entire way we operate overnight,” said Paul Lee, general manager for Dispensary33, which shut down recreational weed sales and is asking medical patients to preorder. “It’s like reinventing the wheel all the time here. We just got our feet under us.”

Like many businesses, the marijuana industry is trying to pivot and adapt as coronavirus reshapes the landscape. But unlike some other industries, dispensaries are regulated by the state, which means they can’t make operational changes without first getting approval. Even allowing medical patients to pick up their orders curbside, an industry effort to facilitate social distancing, required approval by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Dispensaries also were instructed by the agency to keep customers 6 feet apart.

Coronavirus has meant a swift turn for an industry that, in the first two months after recreational sales launched on Jan. 1, was focused on serving long lines of customers as quickly as possible.

The intersection on the Near West Side where The Herbal Care Center is located is too busy for curbside pickup, said general manager Michael Mandera. However, without recreational customers, the waiting room and show room floor are large enough to keep customers at a safe distance from each other.

“We’ve essentially cut our showroom in half in order to abide by these 6-foot rules,” he said.

A customer gets their temperature checked before entering The Herbal Care Center on March 31, 2020.(Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

The dispensary is also taking people’s temperatures as they enter, and encouraging preordering through an online system to limit the number of customers in the shop at once.

Others have done the same. Some dispensaries have instituted reservations, or are taking orders via phone. And many are doing it all with skeleton crews, as staff members not feeling well or worried about exposure to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, work remotely.

On top of the operational shake-ups, many dispensaries set to open in Chicago and other parts of the state are facing delays.

The 55 stores operating when recreational marijuana went on sale Jan. 1 were allowed a second location, and many in Chicago were in a mad dash to open those shops. But as the city’s activities ground to a halt because of the coronavirus, so too has the race to open.

PharmaCann, which already operates four dispensaries in the state, has plans to open two more in Chicago — one each in the Near North and Logan Square neighborhoods. But one potential location needs the City Council to approve a zoning change, and both need approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to move forward.

Both governmental bodies have rescheduled meetings because of coronavirus, delaying PharmaCann’s progress on the two shops.

“There’s nothing we can really do,” said Jeremy Unruh, director of public and regulatory affairs for PharmaCann. “It sets us back probably the same amount that the city has been delayed.”

Signs at the entrance to The Herbal Care Center give instructions to customers about social distancing at the marijuana dispensary on the Near West Side of Chicago.
Signs at the entrance to The Herbal Care Center give instructions to customers about social distancing at the marijuana dispensary on the Near West Side of Chicago.(Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Cresco Labs is facing similar issues with dispensaries it wants to open in the Gold Coast neighborhood and in Schaumburg, a northwestern suburb that also has delayed meetings because of the virus.

Cresco already operates five dispensaries in the state and plans to open five more. Construction at planned shops in South Beloit and Danville also have been delayed because of supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, said spokesman Jason Erkes.

The delays and operational limitations are coming at an inopportune time for the cannabis industry. April 20, or 4/20, is three weeks away. The day is treated as a marijuana holiday of sorts, and some operators have likened it to the industry’s Black Friday.

“We were going to try to be open for 4/20,” said Gorgi Naumovski, principal officer at Thrive dispensaries, speaking of a third location the company is planning in Mount Vernon. “We’re not going to be open … I don’t see having a big fanfare this year.”

Thrive’s existing dispensaries in Anna and Harrisburg have seen a 30% to 50% drop in customers over the past two weeks, as Illinoisans have hunkered down and followed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. Those that do venture to the dispensary sometimes lose patience with the slow pace the dispensary is operating at now, Naumovski said.

“You only have two to three people at a time coming in, so it does make for a slower transaction,” Naumovski said. “Some people can’t wait and abandon their orders. It’s just part of the game right now.”

In early March, marijuana sales around the state spiked, as people stocked up on products heading into the state shutdown. The average sale through March 25 was up 13% over February, according to New Frontier Data, which tracks sales at more than 40 Illinois dispensaries.

Though that rush has dropped off for some dispensaries, like Thrive, others have continued to see high purchase volumes.The South Chicago dispensary now uses an appointment system to limit the number of people in the store, said Kris Krane, president and co-founder of 4Front Ventures, which owns the dispensary. But it also removed buying limits it had in place since Jan. 1.

It’s serving fewer people per day, but those customers are buying more.

“From a health standpoint, it’s better if people can buy more and don’t have to come in as frequently,” Krane said. “It’s not really panic stocking up, it’s just responsible stocking up.”

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