The Effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Small Businesses
By: Annsley Hill
“The Influenza outbreak of 1918 was the most recent and troubling pandemic up until this year; 2020. ”
The Influenza outbreak of 1918 was the most recent and troubling pandemic up until this year; 2020. The influenza pandemic brought about many harmful times for the businesses, small and large, of the time. Similarly, once COVID-19 hit the United States of America, many businesses began scrambling to find their new normal. While many large businesses, name brands, and big department stores had the comfort of falling back on larger “emergency funds,” the small businesses all over the world have taken an especially hard hit.
Over the last few weeks, a few employees and owners of small businesses in the local DMV area have spoken out about the hardships and new tasks that they are taking on. These interviews provided multiple perspectives on different types of businesses; a direct-contact business, an online business, and a food business. It was very interesting to hear of the ways in which these businesses have been staying afloat during such an uncertain time.
March of 2020 was when things started to really go downhill for many companies and businesses. Most had to shut down, either in precaution or in order to comply with the new laws regarding the pandemic – especially restaurants. Many restaurants had to temporarily close, let many employees off, or even shut down for good. Nonetheless, for most businesses and restaurants, things like reopening have simply been day-to-day effort. Firestone’s Culinary Tavern in Frederick, Maryland, was closed for just under three months, March of 2020 to June of 2020, when they got word from their governor that they could reopen indoor seating. For this business it was difficult to get all of their employees back – some even took advantage of the system and refused to return. According to Sabrina Coffey, a member of the support staff at Firestone’s, “When we found out we were opening it was super last minute because we had just gotten approved for outdoor dining. We were just going to plan on doing [outdoor dining] – but that Friday that we were planning on opening, our governor said that we could start seating indoors again.” Being that their restaurant felt understaffed for having only prepared to open their outdoor dining area, “[their] manager sent an email asking [of] who can come back, and a lot of people realized that once things started opening up again, they wouldn’t get unemployment anymore, and they were still trying to milk that extra 600 dollars that they were getting. So we did have a few servers that refused to come back, so we had to cut them off of unemployment to force them to come back. But maybe 10 people just didn’t come back [at all] and then when they wanted to, we said no – you didn’t come back when we needed you – and we are perfectly fine without them,” Coffey said. It is clear that, as expected, many companies and restaurants like this one, have found themselves in a few predicaments regarding employees and understaffing.
While Firestone’s Culinary Tavern has been successful in getting back most of their employees, other companies have had to adjust. Kimberly Olson, owner of Sew Seersucker, a small embroidery company in Leland, North Carolina, has had to hire some extra help in order to assist with their newly overwhelmed quantity of inquiries and orders of masks. Sew Seersucker never shut down their shop, since they were mostly online. Instead, they were able to accommodate the situation of the pandemic, and begin production of embroidered masks from her own home. Lucky for Olson, she said, “my husband works at a local university here, he was teleworking, so he was able to work from home, and then help me more regularly.”
In contrast to Olson’s experience in regards to staying open, Suzanne Ottinger, owner of Suzanne Ottinger Esthetics in Frederick, Maryland, had to shut down her business “from late March to early June” due to the pandemic. Since Ottinger runs her business from her own studio and is the sole owner of her business, she did not need to hire any extra help. Upon returning, Ottinger found that her client business had not decreased or increased. Instead, “it stayed the same.”
Aside from employees expectations and returning, nobody quite knew what to expect before reopening. Would these restaurants and companies be overwhelmed with customers and business? Would they be underwhelmed? Or would simply nothing change? Upon opening Firestone’s Culinary Tavern back up, Coffey said that “Nobody really knew what they were doing, it was very just jumbled and unorganized. But so many people came out- more than we expected. We even ran out of food. We had to close early because we had no food left. So that was really exciting.” This really seemed to be the case as these businesses not only reopened, but stayed open. As for Olson, she saw very similar results play out within her own business, saying that “Since the pandemic, our business has increased by about 35 percent. We were expecting things to slow down and be much lighter, but since everybody was at home and couldn’t really go to the stores or go out, our business has increased. So, it was a shock.” These businesses were clearly struck by the amount of customers that came flooding in – but each to their own reasons and at their own pace. After the rush of customers in the first few weeks, Coffey said that Firestone’s business “definitely declined. Maybe like a month later I think that the excitement died down. But often summertime for Firestones’ business is super low because a lot of people are just vacationing and stuff. So we don’t even get that much business anyways. So like the business that we had for the summertime was really great.” However, Olson’s case has been much different. Once customers started demanding that they make masks, Sew Seersucker decided to join the mask production business along with their creation of everything else. Since they are making masks – and the demand is still high, the business for their company has not yet died down.
Given the frequent inflation and deflation of their customer’s business, they have been faced with many other problems, from sanitary precautions to the scarcity of products – all of these businesses have been approached by obstacles in one way or another. As for Suzanne Ottinger Esthetics, they found their difficulties within sanitary precautions. Ottinger said that “at the beginning when they thought that everything was being spread on surfaces, I threw everything away and bought all new. I just threw away my linens – I just threw it all away- my steamers- just bought it all fresh, I was just creeped out by the whole situation. It’s good to do that every couple years anyway, but I did do that during the quarantine, that way when I came back it just felt better.” Ottinger and her business really put into practice the “better safe than sorry” ideology. Similarly, at Firestone’s Culinary Tavern, they had troubles with keeping customers safe for the good of not only their own company, but the customers. Like many other restaurants and facilities, Coffey said “[they] got a mask policy. Anytime you are standing, and you’re not at your table. So even if you’re at the bar and you’re standing you must wear a mask, because you don’t know where you’re gonna go. And that’s just our general policy because as long as you know when you’re not seated and eating at a table we want your mask to be on, because if you need to go to the bathroom, you need to have a mask, if you want to go outside or go smoke, you need to have your mask on. And that’s really hard for people to follow, for them to understand for some reason. But it’s very important because if you walk around without a mask on, well get a fine, and you’ll get in trouble- like you won’t be welcome back here.” Despite these rules in place, their restaurant still frequently gets a great deal of rude customers. Coffey said that they frequently get “customers [who] will just show up without a mask on, and you’re not allowed to show up to the facility without a mask on, it’s just the rule in Maryland – it’s the law still- customers will just refuse to put one on. They don’t understand the mask policy, they think it’s hard to breathe in, they just give us a really hard time about it. Or they put it in the wrong way.” On more than one occasion, Coffey and her coworkers have had encounters with noncompliant customers. Coffey recalled when “one guy actually yelled at them, and was cursing at all of the females, saying things like don’t you f-ing make me put this on – things like that. So we had to call the police, because that’s the law right now. And another policy is no shirt, no shoes, no mask – you’re not allowed in here. They are not as grateful as we thought they would be for the masks we give them.” After all of her experiences with rude customers, she said that “we deal with rude customers all the time, we just wish that people would be nicer these days because it’s like we’re already going through a lot – but I guess not.” It is clear of the realities of the hardships that many businesses are facing through these times.
While safety precautions are heavily important, especially in today’s times, it was not the most pressing issue for some businesses, especially solely online businesses. When asked about the toughest trials her company has faced throughout the pandemic, Olson said that “the biggest challenge would have been and is getting supplies that were randomly relatively easy to get in two to three days. With the business that I run, it’s basically embroidery. And so there’s certain things that you need to have to embroider, like stabilizers, specific needles and things like that. So that was becoming very scarce and was getting difficult even trying to find stuff in town or ordering it online and it was taking time to get to us or you know, we had to get creative and figure out what to use as opposed to regular stabilizers, and you know, it was frustrating.”
Between all of the unexpected distress that many small businesses in America have faced, they have found hope in coping with new strategies and finding a new normal in this new world we live in. For Sew Seersucker, Olson said that they have had to “Be more vigilant in ordering materials and such. So when everything started happening, people were requesting that we make masks and so we had some material, but elastic and things like that were becoming scarce, we had to make sure to order and have things like that, and make sure it’s well stocked. Because we weren’t in the mask making business and then people wanted it and the demand was high.” Despite their tribulations at the start of the pandemic, Sew Seersucker has found their niche and gotten into their own modern groove, given the current times. While this company has dealt with supply and demand issues, Firestone’s has had to readjust in more ways than one. Coffey said that they had to manage with “a lot of adjustments. First, one big adjustment was doing outdoor seating now. We had to have an extra busser out there for a really long time because we were so busy. So we had to get used to patio dining, it’s way different than indoor dining.” Firestone’s Culinary Tavern is part of a larger, three section store front. Coffey described her workplace when she said that “we have all three restaurants – Firestone’s culinary tavern, Firestone’s raw bar, and Firestone’s market on market street. We own all three restaurants all next to each other in a row. So that’s why we get to have so many tables outside, because we own all three restaurants. So we have a lot of space, which is really beneficial to us.” However, Coffey said that “We are thinking of remodeling the raw bar into something different – possibly like a pastry place. Because our chef loves desserts […] We already serve the raw bar stuff at Firestones anyways. The raw bar right now is basically used as storage for patio stuff right now – it’s very small.” It is the seemingly minor accommodations that we can see have made a larger impact on these small businesses, in the attempt of piecing back together their own small businesses.
The obstacles and hurdles that many small businesses have had to jump over during this year alone has been proven to be quite excessive. From new sanitary precautions to dealing with ill-mannered customers, employees, and people, these businesses have been forced to break away from their traditional daily routines and practices, and turn to completely contrasting exercises of their operations. In the words of Coffey, “It’s very weird, it is very awkward, and scary. We don’t know what to expect at all, but at the end of the day, we are all just happy to have a sense of normalcy back into our lives.”