Small Businesses Navigate Ever-Changing COVID-19 Reality

NEW YORK (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.

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. 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 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.

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

The changing rules can cause customer confusion – and even some resentment. Suzanne Lucey has owned Page 158 Books bookstore in Wake Forest, N.C., 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 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 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. So that’s how we’re handling it. Most people are pretty respectful.”