NEW YORK (AP) – For a brief moment this summer, it appeared like small businesses were getting a break from the relentless onslaught of the pandemic. More and more Americans, many of them vaccinated, flocked to restaurants and shops without having to mask or dissociate themselves socially.
But then there was a surge in cases due to the Delta variant, pressure on vaccine mandates, and a reluctant return to more COVID-19 precautions. Now small business owners must try to strike a balance between being safe and returning to full openness.
Navigating the ever-changing coronavirus reality carries a range of risks, from financial difficulties to offensive customers to stressful workers. These challenges could be compounded as winter approaches and outdoor alternatives become limited. Still, small business owners say whiplash is worth it to keep customers and employees as safe as possible.
“A few weeks ago, small business owners were hoping that a return to normal would help fuel our recovery,” said Jessica Johnson-Cope, chair of the National Leadership Council for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices and owner of a small business, Johnson Security Bureau in New York.
New York City placed a vaccine mandate for customers in August. For Dan Rowe, CEO of Fransmart, which runs the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, the mandate has been a financial burden and a headache. The Brooklyn Dumpling Shop first opened in May and has six employees. The pandemic-friendly format is contactless and automated.
“It was designed to be a restaurant with fewer staff,” said Rowe. Glass separates the kitchen and staff from the customers who order food via an app. When the kitchen is done preparing the food, a vending machine-style window is put in to keep workers out of contact with customers.
“We made this great restaurant with little effort and the government is making us go back,” he said.
Rowe had to hire another employee to check the vaccination cards on the door, which added to his work. His complaint is that retail and convenience food stores like Whole Foods are not subject to the same restrictions.
“It’s not fair what’s going on and it’s impractical,” he said.
The changing rules can lead to confusion among customers – and even to a certain degree of resentment. Suzanne Lucey has owned the Books store in Wake Forest, NC for six years. When the pandemic started, the store was closed for three months. Page 158 books were reopened last July, gradually increasing storage capacity from 5 to 12, while complying with government guidelines. The capacity limits were lifted before the holidays last year.
When the case numbers shot up that summer, Lucey’s zip code became the third highest in the state for COVID-19 cases. They have a sign in the shop window that says a mask is required in the store, but without state or city rules to support them, they don’t enforce it.
Lucey said only one or two people a month break the rule.
“It’s hard. You don’t want to turn people away. But I want my employees to feel safe,” said Lucey, especially since two of her employees suffer from illnesses that make them more vulnerable. “I don’t want my employees to feel safe have to be combative. This is how we deal with it. Most people are pretty respectful. “
Allison Glasgow, manager of the McNally Jackson bookstores in New York, agreed with Lucey’s opinion.
Their businesses follow state and city restrictions. One store has a coffee shop that must comply with the New York City vaccination mandate. Bookstores also require proof of vaccination at events. Otherwise, masks are optional but are recommended when customers and employees are vaccinated.
“You can act antagonistically trying to monitor people’s vaccination status,” she said. “It’s not ‘Hey, welcome to!’ You always wanted to do that – that’s a little roadblock. “
While safety is a priority for everyone, the changes can be stressful for owners and employees alike. Jennifer Williams, founder and CEO of the closet organizer company Saint Louis Closet Co., said the company initially looked to implement a COVID-19 plan, including masking and increased disinfection.
“We don’t have the option to work from home, our business takes place in our manufacturing facility and at our customers’ homes, so we had to adapt quickly with Covid precautions at the start of the pandemic,” she said.
She lifted mask requirements on July 1 after her staff were fully vaccinated, COVID-19 cases declined and CDC recommendations were changed. But it was short-lived.
In early August, Missouri was one of the three states with coronavirus cases. Williams has implemented the mask mandate again.
Williams employees can spend up to eight hours a day in a mask installing closet organization systems in a customer’s home. “The mental strain on the employees was extreme,” said Williams.
Jessica Benhaim, owner of Lumos Yoga & Barre, an independent gym in Philadelphia, has gradually increased the size limits for classes from late spring to summer, but capped them at 12, less than the pre-pandemic level of 18 students for yoga and yoga 14 for yoga bar.
Although the city has lifted capacity restrictions, it is keeping them capped in case the restrictions return. It lifted the mask requirement for vaccinated students on June 1st, but reinstated it when Philadelphia introduced a mask mandate in mid-August. Vaccinated students can take off their masks when they reach their mats.
“The constant adjustments over the past 18 months have worn off,” said Benhaim. “Above all, it was stressful to make adjustments and try to maintain a sense of normalcy for my employees and customers.”