NEW YORK — It seemed that small businesses could be getting a break this summer from the constant onslaught of pandemic. Many more Americans, many of whom were vaccinated, went to stores and restaurants without the need to hide or avoid social situations.
Then came the rise in cases caused by the delta variant. There was a push to mandate vaccines and a reluctant return of more COVID-19 precautions. Small business owners now have to find a way to balance safety and openness.
The constant changes in coronavirus reality can be difficult to navigate. As winter draws near, outdoor options become more limited, these challenges will only get worse. Small business owners believe the whiplash is worth it to keep their customers and employees safe.
“Just weeks ago small business owners hoped that the return to normalcy could help jumpstart our recovery,” stated Jessica Johnson-Cope. She is Chair of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices National Leadership Council, and also owns a small business, Johnson Security Bureau in New York.
In August, New York City issued a mandate to all customers for vaccines. Fransmart CEO Dan Rowe has found the mandate to be a financial and logistical burden. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop was established in May. It employs six people. The contactless, automated format makes it pandemic-friendly.
Rowe stated, “It was designed to be a restaurant that has fewer employees.” Glass is used to separate the kitchen staff and customers who order food via an app. After the food is prepared, the kitchen will place an automat-style window so that workers are not in direct contact with customers.
He said, “We’ve engineered a great low labor restaurant. And the government is making it go backward.”
Rowe needed to hire another employee to verify vaccine cards at the doors, which increased his overhead. Rowe is unhappy that grocery stores and supermarkets with prepared foods such as Whole Foods are not subject to the same restrictions.
He said, “It’s unfair what’s happening and it’s just not feasible.”
Customers can be confused by the changing rules, which can lead to some resentment. Suzanne Lucey owned Page 158 Books in Wake Forest, N.C. for six years. The store was closed for three weeks after the pandemic. Page 158 Books was reopened last July and increased its capacity gradually from 5 to 12 according to state guidelines. Last year, capacity limits were removed in advance of the holidays.
As the number of COVID-19 cases climbed this summer, Lucey became the third most populous zip code in the state. Although they have a sign at the front stating that a mask must be worn inside the store, there are no state or local rules supporting this.
Lucey stated that only one to two people per month ignore the rule.
It’s difficult. It’s hard not to turn people away. But I want my employees to feel safe,” Lucey stated, particularly since two of her staff members have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable. “I don’t want my staff feeling like they have to be aggressive. This is how we are handling it. Most people are very respectful.”
Allison Glasgow, McNally Jackson’s director of operations in New York, echoed Lucey.
The rules of her stores are governed by the state and city regulations. A cafe is one store that must comply with the New York City mandate to ensure customers are vaccinated. Bookstores must also be able to provide proof of vaccination at events. If customers or staff are not vaccinated, masks may be used, but they are recommended.
She said that it is possible to appear antagonistic when trying to monitor peoples’ vaccination status. It’s not “Hey, welcome to!,” which is what you’ve always wanted to do.
Safety is a priority for all, but the changes can be stressful for both staff and owners. Jennifer Williams, founder of the closet organization company Saint Louis Closet Co., stated that the company had to scramble at first to implement a COVID-19 program, which included masking and increased sanitation.
She stated that she doesn’t have the opportunity to work from home as her business is located in the manufacturing plant and at the homes of our clients. “So we had to adapt quickly to the pandemic by using Covid precautions.”
After her staff had been fully vaccinated and COVID-19 cases had declined, she decided to scrap the mask requirement July 1. However, this was temporary.
Missouri was among the three top states for coronavirus cases in early August. Williams reinstated the mask mandate.
Williams’ employees can spend as much time each day as eight hours installing closet organizers in customers’ homes. Williams stated that employees have suffered a severe mental drain.
Jessica Benhaim, the owner of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, slowly increased class sizes from late spring to the summer. However, they capped them at 12 students, short of the pre-pandemic level of 18 for barre and yoga.
She’s keeping the city’s capacity limits at a maximum in case it is reimposed. On June 15, she lifted the mask requirements for students who had been vaccinated, but she reinstated them after Philadelphia introduced a mandate to remove masks in mid-August. Students who have been vaccinated can take off their masks once they reach their mats.
Benhaim stated that the 18-months of constant adjustments have been exhausting. “More than anything it’s been stressful trying to balance making adjustments and trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in my staff members and clients.”