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Coronavirus Special Coverage

Climbing Out

It’s not easy for a business to be shut down — seriously curtailing or even eliminating all revenue — for any period of time. But it’s much more frustrating not to know how long that period of time will actually be. That’s where Massachusetts businesses deemed non-essential during the COVID-19 pandemic stand right now — in a limbo of treading water and being as flexible, creative, and patient as they can while they await word on when the state will reopen its economy, and what form that re-emergence will take.

At some point in early March, Ashley Batlle knew what was coming. And she knew what it meant for her health and wellness spa, Beauty Batlles Lounge, that she opened in Chicopee about a year ago.

“This is a personal, physical-contact business. You’re definitely in close proximity with the client, giving them a service that everyone looks forward to — something they’re accustomed to making part of their schedule,” Batlle said. Yet, the rumblings were that, at some point, the rising threat of COVID-19 was going to force businesses to shut their doors. “So we tried to get as many clients in as we could.”

And then, suddenly, those appointments that clients look forward to were cancelled, postponed until — well, nobody knows yet. And that’s the problem for businesses the state deemed non-essential: the unknown.

Toward the end of April, the Baker-Polito administration extended the statewide essential-services emergency order by two weeks, from May 4 to May 18. Businesses and organizations not on the list of essential services can only continue operations through remote means — if at all possible.

For Batlle, well … she can’t offer facials, waxing, microblading, and other treatments remotely. And she was unable to access benefits through the CARES Act and other government relief measures.

“My anxiety level has been very, very high. It hasn’t been fun, not knowing when we’ll begin to open and what kind of measures will be asked of us by the state and city to be able to reopen,” she said, noting that, as a one-woman operation, it will be easy to comply with social-distancing regulations sure to accompany any sort of reopening.

What’s less certain is how customers will respond — to all types of interactions, not just her services.

“I’m going to be able to open up my doors and get everyone in as quick as possible — that’s what I would love to do, but I think it’s going to be a soft situation, where, little by little, we’re getting back to business,” she explained, noting that some people will be leery of close contact at first, especially since the virus doesn’t tend to show symptoms for a while.

Still, most business owners shuttered by the pandemic would love an opportunity to at least try to get back to normal, even if they understand why the governor put the stay-at-home mandate in place.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“We may be seeing the number of cases plateauing, but [development of] a vaccine, or treatment medication, is still in its infancy, so the data still says go slow. I do think some businesses previously deemed non-essential could have protocols put in place to allow partial reopening. However, nobody wants to reopen prematurely and see worse spikes later in the year.”

“While we expected and understand Governor Baker’s decision to extend the stay-at-home advisory, that tough decision underscores the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in as a business community,” said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber. “We’re doing a balancing act between wanting to get back to work and getting back to work in a safe manner.”

Many of her members supported the two-week extension; a late-April chamber poll, right before the non-essential closures were extended by two weeks, asked what worried them more: the spread of the virus if restrictions were loosened too soon, or the negative economic impact of not reopening quickly enough. It also asked if Massachusetts was ready for a May 4 reopening.

“Seventy-seven percent responded that the spread of the virus was more worrisome, and an overwhelming number — 91% — responded that Massachusetts was not ready for a May 4 reopening,” Creed said, “clearly revealing that much of the business community is concerned about protecting those most vulnerable and stopping the spread of the disease, and demonstrating the commitment our business community has to the community as a whole.”

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, took a similar outlook.

“I do not think that anyone is surprised that the shutdown has been extended, as the governor has been clear he will follow the data as to when to begin reopening the economy,” Sullivan said. “We may be seeing the number of cases plateauing, but [development of] a vaccine, or treatment medication, is still in its infancy, so the data still says go slow. I do think some businesses previously deemed non-essential could have protocols put in place to allow partial reopening. However, nobody wants to reopen prematurely and see worse spikes later in the year.”

All that may be true, but it’s still difficult — and, for many businesses, exceptionally concerning — to stay closed this long, and possibly longer. Businesses are doing what they can to be creative, in many cases opening doors of commerce they will continue to pursue after the COVID-19 threat passes, or even using the time to support other community members in need (more on that later).

But no one likes the uncertainty of not knowing whether May 18 is the real target for reopening, or just another can to be kicked down the road.

Waiting Game

Paul DiGrigoli would like to reopen, too.

“This has impacted us tremendously,” said the owner of DiGrigoli Salon and DiGrigoli School of Cosmetology in West Springfield. “We haven’t had a chance to reach out to all our clients; some we have. But we just have to wait until Charlie Baker gives us the green light, which hopefully will be May 18.”

He was able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, succeeding in the second round of that program’s disbursements after missing on the first round. That will help cover costs like utilities and mortgage interest while keeping his employees paid for eight weeks as well. “We went through Community Bank, and they were phenomenal,” he said.

And he’s getting ready for some anticipated changes when the salon does reopen.

“We bought a lot of hand sanitizer to put at the front desk in the school and the salon, we’ve gotten gloves and masks, and what we’re going to do initially is get the clients’ cell phone numbers and call them from the reception desk to let them know when their appointment is available. And we’ll stick with staying six feet apart, spreading out the stations. Both the stylist and the client will have to wear a mask until further notice. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first.”

As for the school, online training has been effective for theory, but students haven’t been able to practice what they learn.

In general, he told BusinessWest, “we’re really trying our hardest to get back to normal, but we’ve really been handcuffed. There has been frustration and anxiety because we don’t know what to expect.”

Or when to expect it, he added. “We don’t know when it will happen. They’re saying May 18, but who the heck knows? We’re hoping it doesn’t go beyond that, but thank God for the relief funds — that really saved us.”

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, polled her members at the end of April and put some of that anxiety into raw numbers. For example, responding businesses are losing an average of $55,837 per month in revenue during the shutdown, and 61% have had to lay off or furlough employees. More than 20% have serious concerns about being able to reopen if the state of emergency extends beyond June 1.

“They’re worried,” she said. “Rent, utilities, and payroll are three areas that continue to be a struggle.”

Amherst is also in an unusual situation, as it’s a small town that loses more than half its population when UMass Amherst and Amherst College aren’t in session. The downtown businesses in particular rely heavily on students — and now there’s talk across the region that colleges might start the fall with distance learning only.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany

“On the flip side, this has stirred a lot of innovation from businesses who have been deemed non-essential or limited; they’ve pivoted or gone online. The creativity and innovation we’ve seen have been really exciting.”

“Initially, there hasn’t been a lot of grumbling, but they’re generally frustrated and just sad. Everything is unknown,” Pazmany told BusinessWest. “They’re fearful — so much is unknown, and delays keep coming. We don’t have a deadline or guidelines; they just keep pushing back the date, and that causes more fear and anxiety.”

Driving Innovation

And also a good deal of invention, driven by necessity.

“On the flip side, this has stirred a lot of innovation from businesses who have been deemed non-essential or limited; they’ve pivoted or gone online,” Pazmany said. “The creativity and innovation we’ve seen have been really exciting.”

Take Zanna, a clothing shop that has been a staple of Amherst’s downtown for decades, but has never had an online store. Until now.

“You have to look at the good in this crisis,” owner Amy Benson said. “In my case, it moved me — encouraged me — to get an online store open. I’ve only owned the store a year, so I didn’t have time to even think about an online store before. Now I did, so I took the time to get it up and going.

“Do I think it’s the wave of Zanna’s future? No, but I think it’s an extension. We’ll probably keep it going once we’re open,” she added, noting that it opens more opportunities. “We’re in a transient community. We see people from all over the country, between the university and Amherst College. We all want things to be the way they were, but we know we’ll have to adapt. Some of these new trends, like my online store, I’m not going to shut that off.”

Benson has been creative in other ways as well, from curbside pickup — with everyone wearing masks — to ‘virtual shopping,’ where she walks a customer around the store using an iPad and FaceTime, showing them tops and bottoms and coordinating outfits.

“We want customers to be engaged, and they want to hear from us because we form those kinds of relationships,” she said. “When we’re FaceTiming, we’re FaceTiming with a friend and shopping with a friend. It’s a really important way to stay connected.

“You have to do something,” she went on. “You can’t just close your doors and do nothing. Our customers are women who have supported us for over 40 years; we’re not going to just shut our doors and not communicate. I do whatever I can to stay engaged with our customers, they’re the lifeline of our business.”

In other words, Zanna has come a long way since last month, when Benson was in “full panic mode” and offering nothing but a gift-certificate promotion. “We’re not bringing in nearly the revenue we would normally, but we’re supporting what we’re able to do right now.”

She’s not alone, Pazmany noted, citing examples like restaurants revamping their online presence with expanded takeout menus to Amherst Books shipping and delivering items to customers, to the Amherst Area Chamber itself, which has been connecting with the business community through marketing seminars.

Doing Some Good

Or taking advantage of an unusual time to do some good in the community.

Dean’s Beans, based in Orange, has seen a surge in web sales as coffee drinkers are brewing more at home due to social distancing and telecommuting. With COVID-19 causing great economic hardship, the company has chosen to share the money from these web sales with the community by helping to fund school food programs — a total of $26,000, in fact, divided among seven Western Mass. school districts.

“Making sure children have access to food throughout this pandemic is crucial, and we are proud to support these essential programs in Springfield, Amherst, and Orange,” said Dean Cycon, founder and CEO of Dean’s Beans. “Part of a company’s profitability is the positivity it generates for others, and we are committed to helping our communities ease the pain of this crisis.”

Amy Benson

Amy Benson

“You have to look at the good in this crisis. In my case, it moved me — encouraged me — to get an online store open. I’ve only owned the store a year, so I didn’t have time to even think about an online store before. Now I did, so I took the time to get it up and going.”

Meanwhile, Batlle has launched the Hero Project, a virtual fundraiser designed to give back to those on the front lines fighting the pandemic. Funds raised will be set aside to provide complimentary self-care services at Beauty Batlles Lounge for healthcare professionals, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and employees of sheriffs’ departments, once she can open her doors again. Visit beautybatlles.com to donate.

Considering the masks they’re wearing all day long, “they’re going to need facials when this is done,” Batlle joked, before getting serious.

“I reached out to my nurse friends and heard their stories, about the trauma they’re going through. One friend works in the ICU at a COVID unit — she goes into work one day and has four patients, and when it’s time to leave, she only has one. That has to do something to you. How can I give back to them? That’s where the idea for the Hero Project came in.”

It’s a way to pay it forward while anticipating the light at the end of the tunnel, she told BusinessWest. “This isn’t easy on anybody.”

It would be easier with some clarity from Beacon Hill, but that’s not coming right now. Instead, Baker convened a Reopening Advisory Board of public-health officials, representatives from the business community, and municipal leaders from across the Commonwealth. They are charged with advising the administration on strategies to reopen the economy in phases based on health and safety metrics, and are expected to develop a report by May 18.

That’s just the report date. So it’s easy to see why businesses might not suddenly be reopening on that date.

“Personally, every time Governor Baker gives us a date when we’re going to open, I think, ‘hmm, I don’t know if that’s going to happen,’” Benson said. “I’m always thinking, ‘what’s the worst-case scenario? June 1? They keep pushing it back.”

That’s why it bothers Batlle that some proprietors of businesses like hers continue to offer services from their home.

“We should all just be staying stationary; we’re all in the same boat,” she said. “That just puts more stress on business owners who are actually following the rules, and it’s could extend the time we’re going to be out of work.”

Which, for too many business owners and employees across Western Mass., already feels like too long.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]