Small businesses face dealing with ever-changing COVID-19 reality

Their owners navigate how to strike a balance between staying safe and getting back to being fully open amid the Delta surge, changes in guidelines, financial strains.

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A sign at a restaurant in Rolling Meadows tells patrons marks are required.

A sign at a restaurant in Rolling Meadows tells patrons marks are required.

Nam Y. Huh / AP

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.

For them, navigating ever-changing coronavirus reality comes with risks ranging from financial hardship to possibly offending customers to straining workers, challenges that could intensify as outdoor alternatives become limited come winter.

“Just weeks ago, small business owners hoped that a return to normalcy would help jump start our recovery,” said Jessica Johnson-Cope, who owns Johnson Security Bureau in New York and chairs Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices National Leadership Council.

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 opened in May and has six staffers. It’s 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 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,” Rowe said.

He said he 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.

“It’s not fair what’s going on, and it’s not practical,” he said.

Suzanne Lucey has owned Page 158 Books bookstore in Wake Forest, N.C., for six years. When the pandemic began, she closed the store for three months. Page 158 Books reopened last July and gradually increased store capacity from five to 12, abiding by state guidelines. Capacity limits were lifted ahead of the holidays last year.

When case numbers started crawling up this summer, Lucey’s Zip code became the third-highest in the state for COVID9 cases. They have a sign in the window that says a mask is required inside the store, but, without state or city rules to back them up, they’re not enforcing it.

Lucey said only about one or two people a month disregard the rule.

“You don’t want to turn people away, but I want my staff to feel secure,” Lucey said, especially since two of her employees have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable. “I don’t want my staff to feel like they have to be combative. So that’s how we’re handling it.”

Allison Glasgow, director of operations for McNally Jackson bookstores in New York, said her stores follow state and city 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,” Glasgow said. “It’s not ‘Hey, welcome in, which is what you have always wanted to do — it’s a bit of a roadblock there.”

Jennifer Williams, founder and CEO of closet organization company the Saint Louis Closet Co., said the company scrambled at first to implement a COVID plan, including masking and increased sanitization.

“We don’t have the option to ‘work from home,’ ” Williams said. “Our business happens in our manufacturing plant and in our client’s homes, so we had to adjust quickly at the onset of the pandemic with COVID precautions.”

She dropped the mask requirement July 1, after all of her employees were fully vaccinated, The number of coronavirus cases was declining, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations changed. But that was short-lived.

In early August, with Missouri one of the worst three states of coronavirus cases, Williams brought back the mask mandate. Her workers can spend up to eight hours a day in a mask installing closet organizing systems in a customer’s home.

“The mental drain on employees has been extreme,” Williams said.

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