At Littleton's O’Toole’s, pandemic puts a twist on spring tradition

Masks required, customer count restricted at beloved garden center, but heart remains

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Spring days at Littleton’s O’Toole’s Garden Center are about the experience.

Stroll in beneath the hanging baskets, grab a bag of popcorn, and let the stress of life melt away as you peruse the greenhouses — and try to get out without spending too much money.

But in the age of COVID-19, the O’Toole’s experience faces some changes. Normally the store bursts at the seams on weekends in May, but not this year.

Customers are restricted to 30 at a time inside the store to maintain social distancing, meaning the line can stretch across the parking lot. Masks are required — no exceptions. Dogs must wait outside. The popcorn machine is off until further notice.

The restrictions aren’t fun, said general manager and plant guru Chris Ibsen, but they’re the right thing to do.

“A packet of seeds isn’t worth someone’s life,” Ibsen said from behind an O’Toole’s bandana folded into a face mask. “These precautions are about safety. It’s what the majority wants, and it’s what the governor has asked us to do, so we’re abiding.”

By and large, customers are simply happy to be able to be back in the store, and the shelves are as well-stocked with flowers, veggies and herbs as ever.

“This is a place of refuge for people,” Ibsen said. “We love our customers and they love us back. If we told people they had to hop on one leg to get in here, they would do it.”

The garden center also offers a new curbside pickup service that allows customers to call in the morning and pick up their items in the afternoon. It’s not without its kinks, but customers are lining up to use it.

“You’re not getting the hand-holding you might normally get with our staff, but you’re getting what you need,” Ibsen said.

O’Toole’s is an important community gathering place in times of crisis, Ibsen said. The store shut down completely in April, which felt counterintuitive.

“You want to give people a place to get away from things,” Ibsen said. “Our customer count spiked after 9/11. It’s hard to recognize your neighbor with a face mask on, but it’s what we have to do for now. On the plus side, with only 30 people in here at a time, you can have the place to yourself.”

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