Small businesses navigate ever-changing COVID-19 reality
For a brief moment this summer, it seemed like small businesses might be getting a break from the relentless onslaught of the pandemic. More Americans, many of them vaccinated, flocked to restaurants and stores without needing to mask-up or socially distance.
But then came a surge in cases due to the Delta variant, a push for vaccine mandates and a reluctant return to more COVID-19 precautions. Now, small business owners are left trying to strike a balance between staying safe and getting back to being fully open.
Navigating ever-changing coronavirus reality comes with a number of risks, from financial hardship to offending customers to straining workers. Those challenges could intensify as winter approaches and outdoor alternatives become limited. Still, small business owners say the whiplash is worth it to keep customers and employees as safe as possible.
“Just weeks ago, small business owners hoped that a return to normalcy would help jump start our recovery,” said Jessica Johnson-Cope, chair of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices National Leadership Council and owner of a small business herself, Johnson Security Bureau in New York.
New York City ordered 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.
Brooklyn Dumpling Shop first opened in May and has six staffers. While the first location was in Manhattan, in August it signed a multi-franchise agreement to bring at least six outlets to Brooklyn itself. Its pandemic-friendly format is contactless and automated.
“It was engineered to be a restaurant with less employees,” Rowe said. Glass separates the kitchen and staff from customers, who order food from an app. When the kitchen is finished making the food, it’s placed in an automat-style window, so workers don’t come into contact with customers.
“We’ve engineered this great low-labor restaurant, and the government is making us go backward,” he said.
Rowe had to hire another staffer to check vaccine cards at the door, increasing his overhead. His complaint is that retail stores and groceries with prepared foods like Whole Foods don’t face the same restrictions.
Allison Glasgow, director of operations for McNally Jackson bookstores in New York, also commented on the situation.
Her stores follow state and city rules for restrictions. One store has a cafe, which must follow the New York City mandate for customers being vaccinated. The bookstores also require vaccination proof at events. Otherwise, masks are optional, though recommended, if customers and staff are vaccinated.
“You can seem antagonistic when you’re trying to monitor people’s vaccination status,” she said. “It’s not ‘Hey, welcome in!’ which is what you have always wanted to do — it’s a bit of a roadblock there.”
Jessica Benhaim, owner of Lumos Yoga & Barre, an independent fitness studio in Philadelphia, gradually increased size limits of classes from late spring into the summer, but capped them at 12, short of pre-pandemic levels of 18 students for yoga and 14 for barre.
Even though the city has lifted capacity restrictions, she’s keeping it capped in case restrictions come back. She lifted mask requirements for vaccinated students on June 15 but reinstated them when Philadelphia implemented a mask mandate in mid-August. Vaccinated students can remove their masks when they reach their mats.
“The constant adjustments over the last 18 months have been draining,” Benhaim said. “More than anything, it’s been stressful balancing making adjustments with trying to keep a sense of normalcy for my staff and clients.”
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