Business owners ponder their futures as governor ratchets up restrictions
On Monday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order that orders the closure of public schools for the remainder of the school year and that certain “non-essential” businesses — including recreation and entertainment businesses and dining areas at restaurants — close for the next 30 days amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the social distancing in recent weeks, many local small-business owners, including some of those whose establishments have closed and others whose businesses are operating under new protocols, have been wondering about the future for their businesses as well as the employees that work within them.
Chris Bryant, who co-owns His Barber Shop in Barracks Road Shopping Center with her husband, Alan, made the “easy call” last week to close their shop, as five of their 11 employees and a substantial portion of their clientele were among the demographics most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Citing the need for social distancing as a defense against the spread of the virus, she acknowledged how businesses like salons or barber shops do not allow for the recommended 6 feet of distance.
“In the barber environment, you just can’t do that,” Bryant said. “It was just one of those things where you have to bite the bullet.”
Originally, she had said the shop would reopen by April 1, but with recent developments and day-to-day uncertainty of dealing with the virus, she said they will have to readjust those plans.
“I don’t know [whether] that will necessarily be the end of it. I think that directive could be extended, in light of how long things are taking to get back to normal in China and the continued problems in Germany and Italy,” Bryant said. “We are keeping a global eye on things to see how long it takes to both spread and then flatten out internationally.”
The Bryants laid off their employees for the time being so that they could collect unemployment benefits, stating that they were “relieved” by Northam’s previous announcement that eligibility and wait times for unemployment benefits had been altered in response to the pandemic.
In the meantime, Bryant counts her business lucky that it stands a chance of bouncing back. According to Bryant, the nature of her shop allows for most of the money to go directly to employees when operational. She said the shop has a small amount of money that usually covers bank fees and credit card fees.
“As a business, we have no debt. Everything is paid for,” Bryant said. “What we have in the savings will allow us to stay afloat for about three months without any income. We can pay our rent, and utilities will be a minimum without operations. We are one of the really lucky ones in that we don’t have a lot of debt. How long we can hold on, … [it’s] just kind of a wait and see.”
Wait and see appears to be the new normal for many local businesses that have altered operations or shut down for the interim.
There are funding resources available for struggling small businesses. Virginia Career Works is offering small reimbursement grants of up to $3,000 on a first come, first serve basis that can be used for deep cleaning, sanitization of office space and the purchase of specific software needed to work remotely. Federally, the U.S. Small Business Administration is offering low-interest disaster loans, and the Virginia Small Business Development Center is hosting various webinars on the process in both English and Spanish.
Anna Stein, the owner of Cutting Edge Hair Salon on West Main Street, shut down her business Friday and has applied for one of these disaster loans.
“We don’t know how long we’ll need to be closed,” Stein said. “And we cannot work and practice safe distance from people. So, it’s just not really safe for us to work, and it’s really not safe for people to come until we get everything under control.”
Stein said that she would like to see the state increase unemployment benefits. Currently, the maximum weekly benefit an unemployed person can receive is $378 per week, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. Stein and all her employees have filed for unemployment insurance.
“To supplement, I can do cash advances,” Stein said. “But if I were to pay my regular payroll for a month, my cash flow would be completely gone. So, I have to balance taking care of my employees and also not letting the business go completely under.”
Mincer’s UVa Imprinted Sportswear, which has been in business for 72 years, played wait-and-see throughout the initial declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic before on Saturday closing down its brick-and-mortar locations on University Avenue across from the University of Virginia and at the Shops at Stonefield for the indefinite future.
Because it is already closed, the store, in addition to its not being a non-essential business that would be required to close, is unaffected by the restrictions put in place by the governor.
Owner Mark Mincer said he was worried for his employees who are paid at an hourly wage.
“Most of the reason we stayed open, effective 3/16 with reduced hours, was so that the full-time employees with rent, and car payments and mortgage payments and children, etc., could try to stay afloat,” he said.
He said the business’ website will be operational through the closure, and online orders can be shipped. He said he is considering applying for an SBA loan.
“I think we are gonna reopen. I think we are getting through this. We may take longer than some people. … I don’t think we’re gonna close permanently,” Mincer said. “I think the country’s going to come back, I think the university’s going to come back. It might not just be a couple weeks. It might be, you know, a month or two or more. But I think that things are going to get back to normal. I think we are gonna reopen.”
At least for the next month, restaurants can remain operational but under a new normal of takeout or delivery services only.
Restaurant owner Nakesha White said she is trying to figure out what to do “day by day.”
As the owner of Royalty Eats and the neighboring Royalty Events Center on Cherry Avenue between downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, her venues have been an anchor point in the Fifeville neighborhood and drawn a variety of locals. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit close to home, she shut her businesses down temporarily. However, she has a plan to try again and see if her companies — like many other small businesses in town
can weather the pandemic that all but promises economic troubles for the near future.
“Saturday, I called my three full-time people and told them I was going to try and do curbside pickups to see how it goes,” White said. “Today, I had a meeting with those employees. We will be rotating out.”
“They won’t get a full work schedule like we normally had,” White said. “They will still get something; it may not be much, but it is something.”
In her worry about the welfare of her employees and her family, she set up a GoFundMe page.
“I planned on opening my coffee shop, but that’s not happening now,” White said. “My event center is definitely not happening right now because you can’t gather more than 10 people. All across the board, I lost out. I’m just taking it day by day and seeing what happens. That’s all I can do.”
White noted how stressful this time is for everyone, including her employees.
“A lot of people are losing their mental [stability] because this is how we eat at the end of the day,” White said. “This is what pays our bills. I pay my employees, bills for the restaurant and, of course, my personal use. I spend a lot of time at my restaurant. I’m hands on.”
White said she plans to apply for an SBA loan. In the meantime, as Royalty Eats operates via delivery, she has her employees taking precautionary measures to ensure safety.
“Lately, we are double-bagging, so when the person gets their food, whatever is on the outside of that bag is not the bag that is touching the food container.”
Small Business Resources:
- Virginia Career Works has small business grants for reimbursement of materials and services needed during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Virginia SBDC is hosting webinars on the application process for an SBA disaster loan. To sign up for the next one or view previously recorded webinars, click here.
- The Charlottesville Region Chamber of Commerce created a Facebook group for local businesses to interact with each other.