As marketing budgets dried up this spring for many businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, so too did demand for traditional signage.

The trend appeared to be a bad sign for folks in the sign-making business.

But as it turns out, local sign makers say the lost business has been partly replaced by an entirely new line of work: making signs in direct response to the pandemic.

Such signs include not only the now-omnipresent reminders about social distancing, washing hands, covering coughs and other public health messages aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, but also placards erected by businesses to inform customers about changes in services or hours.

You could call them signs of the times.

While sign makers certainly weren’t pleased by the arrival of the pandemic or its impact on Chippewa Valley businesses, they have been grateful to find a niche to continue serving clients — and providing a community service — in these unsettling times.

“This COVID thing has been a little different twist for everybody, but the demand for signs reminding people to keep their distance has been helpful,” said Jay Bearson, owner of Jay’s Sign Service in Eau Claire.

The company has crafted a number of social distancing signs for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department as well as some signs for businesses who wanted to let customers know they were offering curbside service during Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order or fully open again after the lockdown ended in May, Bearson said.

Bill Eklund, owner of FastSigns of Eau Claire, also said the pandemic-related business has been welcome at a time when a lot of businesses are struggling and can’t afford to buy signage.

“When COVID hit, our business really transferred to a lot of social distancing signs,” Eklund said. “We did a number of banners for restaurants and food vendors that needed a fairly inexpensive way to communicate to people that they were open and available for drive-up service.”

The public health-related signage helped fill the gap created when music festivals, fairs and other annual community events were canceled — along with the multitude of signs such gatherings normally require, he said, adding, “Those orders have just disappeared.”

Both Eklund and Bearson acknowledged they were forced to reduce staffing somewhat in response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, but said the resulting new areas of demand have helped minimize the negative impact on their bottom lines.

When Chippewa Valley high schools canceled or altered in-person commencement ceremonies and public health orders banned large gatherings, FastSigns got a major boost from families who ordered yard signs to honor graduating seniors who had to go without the big parties and pomp and circumstance traditionally associated with that life milestone.

“We did thousands of those signs, both in Eau Claire and in the surrounding area,” Eklund said.

Some families opted for the life-sized photo cutouts of their graduates playing sports.

“When people couldn’t really host the parties they usually would have, they had us print those and put them in the front yard,” Eklund said.

Eklund sees a related business opportunity almost every time he sets foot in a business or government office around the Chippewa Valley. As a sign maker, it bothers him to see all of the ragged floor markings made of tape to indicate where people should stand to stay the recommended 6 feet apart. As a result, he said, the franchise plans to offer clients a limited number of free vinyl stickers to serve that purpose — and possibly drum up more business in the future.

Jay’s Sign Service also has responded to a surge in orders for acrylic shields to serve as physical coronavirus barriers between customers and workers, Bearson said.

After seeing some offices installing labor-intensive, semi-permanent shield structures, Bearson was inspired to design free-standing shields with feet for clients desiring more flexibility. It was also his way of applying his usual positive outlook to a worldwide health crisis.

“That way they can avoid making permanent holes on their desks,” he said, “for something that, hopefully, is temporary.”