‘I Am in a Catch-22’: Main Street Is Ambivalent About Reopening

(Bloomberg) -- The paths to reopening our virus-shattered lives are as diverse as the 30 million small businesses that make up the beating heart of the U.S. economy.

A tattoo parlor in Mississippi is ready to welcome clients back as soon as the state allows it. A gym in Georgia says it’s too soon. An African-cuisine restaurant in Colorado ordered masks and spent $500 on a glass divider for its counter. And in Oregon, one restaurateur is prepared to wait until next year to reopen full dining service.

Ramese Long epitomizes the ambivalence between the urge to get back to business and the reality of Covid-19. He first opened his Atlanta fitness studio, Leg Daze, in January, weeks before Georgia’s shutdown orders. His state allowed gyms, barbershops and other businesses to reopen Friday. He decided to hold off.

“I am in a Catch-22,” said Long, 47, adding that he had a death in the family that was probably related to the coronavirus. “I am anxious to get open. However, rolling the dice medically, I don’t think is a good idea.”

‘I Am in a Catch-22’: Main Street Is Ambivalent About Reopening

The debate on when and how to reopen the U.S. economy is fraught with political bickering at the national and state levels and uncertainty about what it would take to keep people safe during the pandemic. For small-business owners, it can come down to life-or-death decisions, for their firm, for their employees and for their customers.

The tasks at hand are concrete: how to rearrange a restaurant to allow for social distancing and where to buy noncontact infrared thermometers. While many owners are struggling to obtain financial aid and simply get by every day, they wrestle with daunting questions: Is my business model viable at half-capacity and will the customers come back?

Hair salon owner Yvette Brown in Mississippi has spent the last few days doing the paperwork for financial aid. Like many small business owners across the country, she missed out on the first federal stimulus package, which ran out in 13 days. Brown needs the cash to cover the salon’s $6,000 in monthly expenses even though she’s managed to delay some, like rent and loan payments.

Despite the financial hit, she isn’t planning to fully reopen her Studio 34 Hair Salon in Jackson until the state’s coronavirus cases show a marked decline. That may well be in June, Brown said. In the meantime, she plans to sell jewelery, skin care products and accessories.

“I’m not giving up,” said Brown, 46. “I’m coming back different.”

Parts of the world are slowly reopening for business after imposing strict lockdowns -- from Wuhan in China, the first epicenter of the pandemic, to Central and Eastern European countries. In the U.S., where the disease spread later, decisions to lift restrictions placed on businesses are made state by state. Georgia is reopening more aggressively than any state, after being one of the last to order a shutdown. A few others, especially in the South, are also loosening up, with the rest of country remaining in lockdowns under a variety of rules on what kind of business is deemed essential.

Not Safe

In Oregon, there’s no timetable as to when business activities will resume. But Luke Dirks, co-founder of Submarine Hospitality in the Portland area, is planning for the long term with a four-step approach that started with takeouts based on the combined menu of two of his restaurants and a pizzeria that was about to open when the crisis hit.

The company, which includes flagship venue Ava Gene’s serving Italian-American fare, may have patio spaces in the summer for outside dining and open locations for counter orders. The last phase, reopening the dining rooms, could happen as late as next year.

“We don’t think that people are going to be safe dining in close quarters until there’s a vaccine or some kind of sense of safety,” said Dirks, 39.

That may mean giving up on filling four venues with seating capacity that ranged from 75 to 150 seats before the shutdowns. The business laid off 180 of its 200 workers, with the remaining staff handling takeouts out of a parking lot -- all wearing masks.

“The massive, massive, massive situation is just loss of revenue,” he said.

No-Touch Thermometers

At the African Bar and Grill in Denver, Theodora Osei-Fordwuo is also busy preparing for a future that remains mostly unknown.

In between cooking pan-African food for limited takeout orders, she has spent the past few weeks taking part in Zoom meetings giving sanitation advice, ordering masks and gloves online, and scouting for no-touch thermometers to check employees’ temperatures for when they return. And just this past Tuesday, she had a glass divider installed on her counter that set her back $500.

Those measures are costly at a time when revenue is dwindling, but folding the business she started with her husband 16 years ago is simply out of the question, said Osei-Fordwuo, 42, who opened a second location last year.

Neither restaurant will reopen anytime soon, but she is following guidelines such as spacing tables 10 feet, or three meters, apart. And she’s also got 20 bottles of disinfectant spray at the ready when her eatery opens again.

“I’ll be lying if I told you that I wasn’t tired,” she said. “But I am taking things one day at a time and being positive.”

‘I Am in a Catch-22’: Main Street Is Ambivalent About Reopening

Restaurant owner Kimario Smith isn’t sanguine about opening the doors of his K & K Soul Food either. About two weeks ago, he stopped offering takeout service at his eatery in Atlanta after customers didn’t properly observe social distancing measures.

The 39-year-old will resume takeouts, but one of his employees will ensure that only 10 customers are in the restaurant at one time and that they observe the floor markings designed to keep them spaced apart when picking up their orders.

“I just want to be safe,” said Smith, adding that he had closed the dining area of his 80-seat restaurant even before Georgia had mandated a statewide shelter in place. Many of his dine-in customers are elderly, and he didn’t want to endanger them, he said.

For his part, Necco Nelson, said his clients are roaring to come in. The owner of Ink Addicts Studio, a by-appointment tattoo and piercing parlor in Jackson, Mississippi, was already taking customers one at a time before the pandemic. He was already wearing gloves, and his jewelry comes presanitized. When he reopens, hopefully next week, the only difference might be requiring clients to wear masks.

“I have people call me every day, they still want tattoos and piercings,” Nelson said. “It’s a sense of having a sense of normalcy, to have a tattoo put in.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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