From her floral studio in West Philadelphia, Tolani Lawrence-Lightfoot has a unique window into love in the time of the coronavirus.
AT Snapdragon Flowers at Cedar Park, she can see the community’s desire to connect — her desire to support and mourn with each other, and celebrate together — in the number of orders she receives. Philadelphians sent more flowers during the pandemic, she said, than in each of the previous five years.
Her Valentine’s Day week was busier than usual, she said, but over the past 11 months people have most often sent flowers for no reason other than to say “I’m thinking of you” or “I hope this brightens your day”.
She gets the best insight into people’s hearts, she said, when she sits down and handwrites messages from senders to receivers.
“It can be very sad,” Lawrence-Lightfoot said, “but more often than not it reminds me of how wonderful humans can be to each other.”
Across the region, others in the floral industry have made the same observation, saying the pandemic has strengthened their faith in the goodness of people. Not only have people kept these small businesses afloat, they have deeply moved the owners with floral displays of kindness, sympathy, affection and humor – “more humor than I’ve ever seen in my notes,” Lawrence-Lightfoot said.
Nationally, most small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, but the flower industry is an exception. The industry has seen increased demand for flowers and plants since the start of the pandemic, a spokesperson for the Society of American Florists. Some delivery services even record revenues announcedwith a strong increase in online sales, in the fourth quarter of 2020.
Stores have also encountered obstacles. Some farms have been hit by virus outbreaks and outbreaks have been limited. They lost revenue from large weddings, funerals, baby showers and parties.
Places that relied on heavy foot traffic have had to adapt. In the downtown suburban station, Philadelphia Flower Market now sees about five walk-in clients a day, up from 30 to 50 before the pandemic, said co-owner Danielle DeMott, 26. Other florists, like Snapdragon, left storefronts due to security concerns, forcing themselves to promote more on social media.
After closing to the public in March, some businesses have never reopened.
But a surge in “just because” or “daily” orders has saved many florists. Now more than ever, people yearn to connect safely with loved ones, surprise struggling friends, and bring smiles to loved ones amid a year of heartbreak and pain. Many people have felt their mental health deteriorate due to isolation, racial trauma and unrest, economic hardship and political division, and flowers have been proven to boost people’s moods, according to several psychological studies.
READ MORE: COVID-19 meant mental health issues in 2020. Here’s how to get help in 2021.
While a Sunday on Valentine’s Day is usually bad news for the industry – with couples traveling or going out to dinner instead of sending flowers – some florists say this year is shaping up to be different.
On Thursday, Domino Mack, 31, and his mother moved their floral design business, Floral DNAfrom Brewerytown to South Philadelphia Bok Building, just in time for customers to pick up pre-ordered Valentine’s Day bouquets, which were nearly sold out earlier this week. When DNA first opened in the spring, Mack said she was “in shock” when the business took off immediately. It has been booming ever since.
“I continue to thank God that we are able to thrive at a time like this,” Mack said.
The flowers marked the highest price of the pandemic: lives lost to the virus and other ills that had to be mourned in isolation and without a funeral.
In Runnemede, a regular customer of Cook’s Florist – who owner Michael Boskey has described as an 80-year-old “romantic” – has been ordering his wife a gardenia for special occasions for decades. His wife passed away this year, but this week the man still ordered an arrangement of three floating gardenias to send home for Valentine’s Day.
In West Philadelphia, Snapdragon sometimes delivers multiple sympathy deals to the same address over several weeks, said Lawrence-Lightfoot, 40.
» READ MORE: Coronavirus deaths: The people we lost to COVID-19 in the Philadelphia area
AT Stein’s, a 134-year-old stalwart with stores in Mayfair and Burlington City, owner Patrick Kelly said his team held many small funerals, including services in people’s homes, and worked out countless sympathy arrangements. The floral industry has always been emotional, he said, but the pandemic has intensified shared experiences of loss.
“We stand at the counter with our customers with tears streaming down our face,” Kelly, 61, said. “Everything you hear on the news that people are dealing with, people are sending flowers for those purposes.”
Sometimes people’s loneliness and pain can also be overwhelming. Florists across the region say they’ve written lots of “I miss you” and “Sorry we can’t visit you” messages on bouquet cards.
Recently, Boskey, 50, said he saw people include another line: “I can’t wait for this to be over.”
People who live in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are particularly anxious, and loved ones have sent flowers instead of hugs they can’t give, said Clare, 37, and Brendan Mulloy, 41 years, who own Matlack Florist in West Chester.
Much of their business over the past year has come from relatives of residents of several establishments near the store, the couple said.
In the spring, a client created a pulley system to deliver an arrangement to her parents’ bedroom on the second floor, they said, and another woman dropped off the same teacup once a month to fill it with flowers and deliver her to her mother, whom she cannot visit. This weekend, Matlack will donate bouquets of tulips to retirement homes – one for every dozen roses purchased for Valentine’s Day.
The holidays promise to be busy enough, said the Mulloys, who bought the store in September. But earlier this week they were hoping for last-minute orders to boost business.
In Jamison, Bucks County, Liz Bininger, 60, owner Mom’s Flower Shopsaid she was “a little nervous”, crossing her fingers for a similar influx.
Without big weddings, her business is down, she said, but like others, “just because” orders have buoyed her up. She is optimistic, she said, about moving the store to the busy Peddler’s Village next month.
Other florists shared this sense of hope, a feeling they say reflects the resilience they have witnessed in the community over the past 11 months.
What are some of the biggest lessons they learned?
“Philly is a city that cares about each other,” said Snapdragon’s Lawrence-Lightfoot.
“We’re so much more alike than anyone thinks,” Kelly of Stein’s said. “Pain is pain. Grief is grief. Grief is grief.
“Deep people are good,” Cook’s Boskey said. “They just miss their loved ones.”