Navigating a changing reality
Small business owners look to keep customers, workers safe amid pandemic’s challenges
NEW YORK — 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 risks, from financial hardship to offending customers to straining workers. Those challenges could intensify as winter approaches and outdoor alternatives become limited.
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,” he said.
The changing rules can cause customer confusion — and even resentment. Suzanne Lucey has owned Page 158 Books bookstore in Wake Forest, North Carolina, for six years. When the pandemic began, the store was closed for three months. Page 158 Books reopened last July, and gradually increased store capacity from 5 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 COVID-19 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.
“It’s hard. You don’t want to turn people away. But I want my staff to feel secure,” Lucey said, especially since two of her staff have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable. “I don’t want my staff to feel like they have to be combative.”
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.