Since the earliest days of the Covid-19 response in the US in March, the nation’s small businesses—which are collectively among the nation’s largest employers, yet often operate on the thinnest of margins—have found themselves facing an unprecedented calamity. They are trying to navigate local stay-at-home orders and business restrictions, severe drop-offs in customers and revenue, trying to hold onto treasured employees, and find assistance.
The federal government has scrambled, with no shortage of missteps, to help the businesses that line the country’s Main Streets and fill its shopping centers. The first round of aid—the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, part of the Cares Act passed by Congress—disappeared in just 13 days, and tens of thousands of businesses never got their loans. Lawmakers eventually added another $300 billion, and $175 billion of that has now been spoken for in just five days. Yet those forgivable loans backed by the Small Business Administration were only ever intended to cover about eight weeks of payroll and rent, meaning that even those companies lucky enough to get a loan will need more help by June—just as one new government model reportedly shows cases growing at a rate of 200,000 a day, meaning that there’s no return to “business as usual” in sight.
To capture the seemingly apocalyptic toll of the Covid-19 epidemic on the nation’s local entrepreneurs and their struggles to access government aid, we compiled this oral history from online postings, news articles, and original interviews.
Read past installments of Covid Spring.
I. The Beginning
Abbie Rice, owner, 9Round Kickboxing Fitness Franchise, Hendersonville, Tennessee: My husband and I own a national franchise that is a kickboxing circuit training gym, with about 800 locations worldwide. We have been franchise owners for a little over five years. I don’t remember exactly what day of the week it was—the first confirmed case in Davidson County, where Nashville is located, about 20 minutes away from us. One of our trainers came in and said, “You know, when you leave here today, go get some hand sanitizer to have up front, just because I know that people are going to start asking.”
I went over to the store that was right by the gym—I was in shock that there was not a single hand sanitizer left in the entire store. I ran into another customer I know, and she said, “Yeah, this is my third stop.” That was within a matter of hours of a case being confirmed in this area. That was when I was like, “What is going on?” From there, it escalated very quickly. We made the decision—independently of our country, our county had not decided to close gyms—but we made the decision that next Tuesday to close our doors to the public. It was me and two other gym owners in the area who got together and decided to make the decision as a united front. We closed our doors on St. Patrick’s Day, on March 17. There was a bit of a fear factor there if I’m being honest—I don’t want to be the first business in this county that has a confirmed case.
Shy Pahlevani, cofounder, HUNGRY Catering, Washington, DC, via a CBS News video diary: What a difference a month makes. A few weeks ago, HUNGRY was riding a high. Suddenly, nobody’s looking for catering. Social distancing and shelter-in-place forced offices—our entire customer base—to close.
Dan Kingsley, architect, New York City: The absolute dagger when I knew we were definitely going to feel this was when New York City shut down their school district. Because they don’t close for anything. There could be a hurricane, they don’t close; but if they’re closing, we’re definitely in trouble.
Rebecca Elwell, owner, Water Element Creations, Maui, Hawaii: I am a jewelry designer, manufacturer, and retailer. This year’s been nothing but growth and opportunity for my business. I started it in 2017, and transitioned from being a corporate massage therapist and acupuncturist to becoming an entrepreneur and a full-time small business owner and self-employed. My customer base, especially in these resorts, is more from mid- to high-end tourism, where people are paying generally like a thousand dollars a night on average for a room. I had been offered a retail space that I pulled the trigger on and said yes to in November, and I had poured money into renovating the space. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I had the visions all laid out, like in little clouds out in the sky. I had built the space and was almost done with it actually in February, March—and then the Covid happened.
Daniel Lewis, co-owner, Brooklyn Tailors, Brooklyn, New York: A metaphor that I’ve come up with is we’ve all had to kind of descend the staircase into this new reality—it’s been a process of coming to terms with it. I think in hindsight we all saw what was coming but weren’t ready to accept it yet. Like, “There’s no way that New York City will shut down for weeks, that just can’t happen.” Like it just seemed impossible. And then fast-forward, here we are, and not only has New York City been shut down for weeks, but we still don’t know an end date.
Brenna Lewis, co-owner, Brooklyn Tailors, Brooklyn, New York: It just spiraled so quickly. We had no business, no one was coming into the store. That was really scary because then there’s nothing for anyone to do. We would just, like, stand around in the store and watch press conferences and nervously read the news.
Stephanie Hart, owner, Brown Sugar Bakery, Chicago, Eater.com: We were having a wonderful year. Initially, of course, it was, “You’ve got to be kidding, this is not happening.” You just trudge along; you hear about it and think, “Oh maybe it’s not going to affect me.” But as things got tighter and people literally started going in their homes, all the event cakes started canceling. For everybody, it was a shock, so you’ve got to grab ahold of yourself, and that’s what I did. It’s just a lot to have that all happening all at one time.
Heidi Hageman, president and cofounder, H2 Public Relations, San Diego, California, via a Good Morning America video diary: My business was in a place where we were going to have the best year yet. Obviously things have changed. We instantly had a complete halt in revenue, which unfortunately left me in a position that I had to let go about 90 percent of my workforce.
Ryan McCaskey, chef and owner, Acadia, Chicago, Illinois, Eater.com: A lot of us are real small with very thin margins.
Jason Beukema, founder, Whet Travel, Miami Beach, Florida, via a Good Morning America video diary: It’s been challenging to say the least.
II. The Big Picture for Small Businesses
Key Findings, “Place Matters: Small Business Financial Health in Urban Communities,” J.P. Morgan Chase, September 2019: In the typical community, 29 percent of small businesses were unprofitable, and 47 percent had two weeks or less of cash liquidity.
Summary, “National Employment Report—April 2020,” May 6: Private sector employment decreased by 20,236,000 jobs from March to April. The report utilizes data through the 12th of the month. As such, the April NER does not reflect the full impact of Covid-19 on the overall employment situation. Very small businesses (1-19 employees) lost 3,361,000 jobs. Other small businesses (20-49 employees) lost 2,644,000
Laura Wronski, “CNBC-SurveyMonkey Small Business Index Q2 2020,” May 4: The economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic are staggering. Almost a third of small business owners have been required by their state or local government to close their in-person business operations, and 23 percent have temporarily closed their entire business. A substantial 36 percent have cut their own pay, while 13 percent have furloughed some or all of their employees, 11 percent have laid off some or all of their employees, and another 8 percent have cut their employees’ pay. For a few, the crisis has brought opportunity: 7 percent of small business owners say they’ve pivoted to provide products or services to aid in fighting the outbreak. All told, a whopping 72 percent of all small business owners say the coronavirus outbreak is likely to have permanent effects on the way they run their business.
Jon Cohen, chief research officer, SurveyMonkey, May 4: The totality of the plunge in expectations from just a dozen weeks ago to now is staggering, with small business owners representing every industry, firm size, and political affiliation all reporting the same reversal in sentiment.
Summary, “MetLife & US Chamber of Commerce Special Report on Coronavirus and Small Business,” April 3: Forty-three percent of small businesses believe they have less than six months until a permanent shutdown is unavoidable.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president, Society for Human Resource Management, May 6: Small business is truly the backbone of our economy. So, when half say they’re worried about being wiped out, let’s remember: We’re talking about roughly 14 million businesses. You can’t sugarcoat that reality.
III. The Economic Hit
Micaela Brown, CEO, Blush & Whimsy, Albuquerque, New Mexico: My packaging is made in China. I am sold out of nearly everything—I think I’ve got 100 units left, a handful of lipsticks and some jewelry. My manufacturers have been pushing back, asking for more time. I was supposed to get a shipment in December, supposed to get a shipment in January, nothing arrived, nothing arrived, nothing arrived. Then my sales started tanking. By end of February, I knew that there was an issue. By the first week of March, that was it. Everything stopped.
Molly Moon Neitzel, owner, Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream, Seattle, via a CBS News video diary: I had over 100 employees before coronavirus and did about $7.9 million in ice cream sales last year, and I was on track to break the $10 million mark, which almost no women-owned business does. I now have nine employees and I am selling $5,000 worth of ice cream pints to grocery stores a month, which isn’t even enough to pay for the chefs and delivery drivers left in the company.
Doug Jardine, owner, Color My Nails salon, Midvale, Utah, via Facebook, March 25: We’re just frustrated. We’re trying to stay alive today as small businesses. We absolutely believe, 100 percent, and support the regulations governing social distancing for everybody. We all want to go through this and be as safe as possible for ourselves and our families. This is not, however, about social distancing—this is about the survival of small businesses in Utah and across the nation. We’re empty. Our business is down at least 85 percent, and business is going to be down 100 percent. That scenario is playing out in hundreds of thousands of small businesses. What do we do?
Rebecca Elwell: It happened so fast, to be honest, from early March. This corona thing started becoming more and more prevalent in the news, and there was more buzz about it. It was starting to hit home because they’re talking about wanting to shut down like the airports and wanting to shut down tourism. It took another week or two before those planes stopped coming. There was this huge dispute amongst residents of the island. Anti-tourist sentiment started to grow amongst the locals—everything from protests at the airport to catcalls on the street, even petty crime like defacing their rental cars. Then the resorts closed down. I knew, “Oh, God—we can’t sustain this when all of the resorts decided to close down.” I immediately felt fear and panic, anxiety.
Angie Bowen, co-owner, Blue Sky Productions, Owasso, Oklahoma, via a CBS News video diary: My business is a part of the gig economy, which means that we work large and small events such as basketball games, football games, or concerts. So as long as people are not allowed to gather together, we have no prospect of making money. And then to make matters worse, I got a call from the state of Oklahoma yesterday that my unemployment claim had been denied because they are currently not set up for independent contractors.
Rebecca Elwell: I looked out of my shop and I saw all the small businesses around me—kiosks and the popular restaurant across the parking lot. It was just this air of panic. Not in 2008 that this happened, not 9/11. Yeah, there was a little shock wave of that, but it was like it just happened once. This was more like the slow rumble of an earthquake that just seemed to get stronger and stronger and stronger. Shit just started to fall. It was probably the hardest week I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I almost didn’t have a choice to shut my shop down. I felt a lot of intense sadness and grief when I realized what was happening around me, realizing I’m not sure what the new normal is ever going to be.
IV. ‘Closed Forever’
Profit margins in the restaurant business are tight even in good times, so the industry has been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 crisis. The forced closures in many parts of the country due to stay-at-home orders or requirements to restrict operations to takeout or delivery have caused revenue to slow to a fraction of normal or stop entirely.
The combination of the short-term closures and long-term uncertainty about reopening timelines, social-distancing requirements that might limit overall diner capacity, and a public skittishness about dining out again anytime soon has led to near-daily social media announcements from beloved restaurants, coffee houses, bakeries, and bars across the country saying they are hanging it up for good.
Jacob Bodden, owner, Bica Coffeehouse, Oakland, California, via Instagram, April 7: Bica has been on a great run, but sadly that run has come to a halt.
Jaynelle St. Jean, owner, PieTisserie, Oakland, California, via Instagram, April 28: A pretty major update for PieTisserie—the pie shop is going to be closing on Thursday. That’s the last day of the month, so we’ll be moved out by then. We started delivering a couple of weeks after shelter-in-place, and we’re still gonna be doing that.
Blue Dahlia Bistro, Austin, Texas, via Facebook, April 30: With the heaviest of hearts, we regret to announce our original East Side location will not be reopening.
Magnolia Café West, Austin, Texas, via Facebook, April 16: In the face of such a huge hit with the reality of Covid-19 and the incredible uncertainty of the future, we’ve had to confront the fact that this location will not survive.
Parkway Social Kitchen, Kansas City, Missouri, in a letter posted on its door: Due to a loss in business caused by the Covid-19 shutdown, we can no longer justify continuing operations at this time.
Gimme! Coffee, New York City, via Instagram, April 7: As the weeks progressed and we experienced the same challenges that many small businesses in the hospitality industry are facing, we have had to make the difficult decision to close our cafes.
Sparrows Coffee, Portland, Oregon, via Facebook, April 14: We won’t be able to reopen our doors after the dust settles.
Jeanne Roeser, owner, Toast, Chicago, Illinois, via Facebook, April 22: Toast will be closed forever.
McKinley Pierce, proprieter, Outback Steakhouse, Jackson, Mississippi, via Facebook, April 30: It comes with a heavy heart, but the decision was made to close Outback Jackson and cease operations effective April 29, 2020.
Rod and Karen Okuno, co-owners, 20th Street Café, Denver, Colorado, via Facebook, April 22: Somehow 20th Street Cafe managed stay open through a lot of good times and not-so-good times. Some upturns and crazy downturns in the economy, but this final one proved to be insurmountable for our little corner of the world.
Nick Iannarone, chef and owner, Arleta Library Bakery & Café, Portland, Oregon, via a press release announcing its permanent closing: New Covid-19 distancing restrictions will be burdensome or costly for some small restaurants or simply impossible to achieve for others, as is the case for Arleta Library.
Jeff Bobby, founder and general manager, Caveman Burgers, Phoenix, Arizona, via Facebook, April 17: In this environment, it’s not sustainable to keep the business open. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m disappointed. I’m especially sad that the employees are going to be losing their jobs as well. It’s been really special to create jobs for people and employ them, see their lives change and grow. A lot of my employees have been with me since the very beginning.
Trostel’s Dish, Clive, Iowa, via Facebook, April 14: The Covid-19 mandatory closing of restaurants and bars hastened a decision that didn’t come lightly.
Eric Dayton, co-owner, the Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar, Minneapolis, Minnestoas, in a letter to customers, April 30: I have reached the very difficult decision that we will not reopen. As you know, the future of hospitality is incredibly uncertain, and over the past month, we have tried our best to navigate this uncharted territory. We have explored the option of takeout, most likely evolving into a hybrid model of takeout and reduced-capacity dining room service in the months ahead, but there’s just no way for that level of business to support the financial weight of our company and the building we call home. We were already walking a fine line before Covid-19, and given that no one knows how long the impacts of this pandemic will last, or what the new normal will be, I do not see a viable path forward.
Rose McCormick, co-owner, Liberty Glass Bar, Portland, Oregon, via Instagram, April 16: I was too tired to pivot, and I didn’t want to fight another round.
Audrey Saunders, owner, Pegu Club cocktail bar, New York City, in a letter to customers, April 30: It is with a heavy heart that we have to ring the bell for last call. Pegu Club will not be reopening. We knew the day would eventually come when we would have to say goodbye to her, but never did we ever dream that it would be under these conditions. Our lease was due to expire on October 31, and we had every intention of staying put until then. We were also looking forward to celebrating our 15th anniversary on August 29th in a grand way. But Covid-19 has taken every bit of the life we had out of us, and a soft reopening following NYC guidelines would not be enough to sustain us.
Cindy Lalime Krikorian, co-owner, Lalime’s, Berkeley, California, via Facebook, April 23: We’ve been around since Ronald Reagan was the president, vinyl records were still on everyone’s shelves, rotary phones with 20-foot tangled cords. When times were before email and we mailed out a newsletter by bulk snail mail.
Eric Dayton: The loss fills me with sadness, but I am also overwhelmed with gratitude. We had the privilege of serving you for almost nine years.
Jacob Bodden: Nearly 10 years.
Jeff Bobby: Three and a half years.
Jaynelle St. Jean: Ten years for the whole business, five years for the shop.
McKinley Pierce: Twelve years.
Blue Dahlia Bistro: Thirteen years.
Trostel’s Dish: Nearly 15 years.
Jeanne Roeser: Twenty-four years.
Rod and Karen Okuno: Since 1946.
Cindy Lalime Krikorian: Thirty-five Christmas and New Years Eves, Mother’s Day buffets, special seasonal dinner events, winemaker’s dinners. We were booked solid every year. Covid-19 has made the decision for us; Lalime’s is retiring. We would have liked to bid you adieu in person, but the masks and the gloves are in the way. In the words of Harvey Peskin, it’s “FETA ccompli.”
Audrey Saunders: On a more personal level, it’s hard to imagine that I will no longer have the pleasure of seeing any of you enjoying yourselves within our walls, or even be able to sit with any of you at the bar for even one last drink … We wanted to give her a great send-off, but it simply was not in the cards. I’m comforted in the good memories that I get to take with me. When I think of people who have lost loved ones to Covid without being able to touch or kiss them goodbye, it puts my personal sadness all into perspective.
Jeff Bobby: It’s difficult to see it end like this. Hopefully, looking back, the sacrifice we’re all making will be worth it.
Audrey Saunders: We knew the day would eventually come when we would have to say goodbye to her, but never did we ever dream that it would be under these conditions.
Jeanne Roeser: I am grief-stricken.
V. An Uncertain Future
For those businesses that plan, for now, to continue, the coronavirus pandemic has meant a scramble to reimagine revenue models, invent new processes, and implement new guidelines for an age of social distancing.
Shy Pahlevani: Rather than lay off our chefs, delivery drivers, and hardworking sales staff to weather the storm, we decided to do what entrepreneurs do best: pivot. In less than two weeks, we launched HUNGRY@Home—a contactless, subscription-based meal service that delivers the same high-quality, local chef-prepared food our customers have come to love directly to people’s homes. And for every HUNGRY@Home meal sold, we’re donating four to help feed people in need. Like everyone else, we’re still acclimating to this new normal and adapting day by day. And although this month has been one of the hardest times our business has ever seen, it’s also been one of the most rewarding.
TJ Steele, chef and owner, Claro, Brooklyn, New York: These takeout firms take a huge chunk—we’re losing 20 percent of our sale right there. And then people aren’t spending at home like they are when they go out and they’re getting a dining experience of having multiple cocktails each or get a couple things to share. We see a lot of single diner orders, people that are home alone quarantined. When people are celebrating something, they want to spend money. We’re losing out on that. Then just the amount of time and effort that it takes the four of us to do all the prep work, and then all the cleaning as well because we don’t have any dishwashers or anything, and then doing the service as well. It’s from early morning to end at night to just have a couple hours—two or three hours—that we’re actually putting out a bunch of orders. It’s insane.
Abbie Rice: I was one of the group of owners that helped our franchise pivot from being a completely brick-and-mortar model to an online model. Within 72 hours, our IT team and our exercise group who creates our exercises completely pivoted and turned us into an online company. That’s been excellent—making the best of the situation. We do have a brand-new, brand-specific workout for our members every single day that every single paying member is still able to access every day.
Amy Quinn Suplina, owner, Bend and Bloom Yoga, Brooklyn, New York: We agreed that people were going to really want the comfort of familiarity of their teachers that they practice with day to day as they moved home and moved more into isolation. So we felt it was important to continue to offer people as much of their regular routine as possible. A large inspiration for us to get our classes online from day one of our closure in mid-March was to help our community to manage the increasing sense of panic we were experiencing. Yoga and meditation are tools to help bring us out of a panic spiral, to restore balance to our nervous system, to bring us to a sense of safety.
Lily Joyal, Bowerbird Flowers and Apothecary, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, via an ABC News video diary: We had to quickly pivot our business and try to figure out a different way to bring in income and also support the farmers in our area who rely on these events just as much as we do. We created a love and hope bouquet, they’re $25, and we do free deliveries.
Abbie Rice: Pre-closing our doors, six weeks ago, we had roughly 250 clients. As of this morning, we’re down to around 200. We’re a very tight-knit community. Many, many, many of our members have stayed with us at full capacity. The day that we decided to close, I can’t even tell you how many people reached out to say, “Until my financial situation changes, we will support you 100 percent.” But we have had a lot of our members who have either lost their jobs or their spouses', and they had to request to either bump their membership cost down or in some cases to completely pause their membership. They just say, “I have to get through this time.” The truth of the matter is, in the gym world, we are in a business of attrition. We are constantly losing members and trying to get new blood in the door. That’s just the business model. Where normally we lose 10 a month, we also add 15—as long as you’re moving in that upward trend. In two months now, we’ve added one new member that has signed up for only the online portion of the workout.
Daniel Lewis: You’re sitting there thinking about your small business and you’re like, “I’m all alone here.”
Brenna Lewis: If we get the Payroll Protection Program loan, it specifically covers maximum eight weeks of payroll. When we first heard about it, it’s like, “Oh well, that would be great because you know, that’s probably about how long this will all last, right?” The reality has changed. We are not talking about an eight-week situation here.
Micaela Brown: Overwhelmingly, my interactions with the people around me have been very positive since this happened. Everyone is seeing how hard it is for everyone else. There isn’t one person that has come out of this unscathed.
Molly Moon Neitzel: This recovery is going to take small businesses years if we’re going to recover at all, and I’m really afraid that without more stimulus help in another bill, all of our favorite small businesses in our cities and towns might be lost forever.
Dan Gordon, owner, Dan Gordon’s brewery, Palo Alto, California, announcing the closing of his establishment during a remote meeting of the Palo Alto City Council: If you want us to have open storefronts in the next nine months. you’re really going to have to start being proactive and brainstorming what you can do for the business community locally to give them an incentive to want to reopen and hire people.
Matthias Merges, chef and head of the hospitality group Folkart Mangement, Chicago, Eater.com: That uncertainty has really laid a heavy cloud upon myself, my family and community, and the restaurant community … It’s really frustrating that our governmental leaders on a national level haven’t taken small business owners and leaders into account in decisionmaking—it’s sad to see the lack of response and caring.
Summary, “Navigating Covid-19: Impact of the Pandemic on Small Businesses,” Society for Human Resource Management, May 6: Over four in 10 small business owners agree the relief from PPP loans will likely arrive too late to help their businesses.
Rudy Navarrete, owner, Rudy M. Navarrete’s Tex-Mexican Restaurant, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in an interview with the local news: I was walking a tightrope the past six months. I was optimistic, but the bank wasn’t. This is going to go on for a couple of months. Small businesses, we’re going to be dropping like flies.
Heidi Hageman: It’s just going to be a disaster on the other side.
Abbie Rice: As soon as announcements got made to start reopening, we were inundated with, “Does this mean you’re reopening? Does this mean you’re reopening?” We have not as a company made a decision on that. We don’t feel that there’s enough information out about how gyms are going to make that transition safely. Because what we won’t do is reopen if we aren’t confident that we can put every process in place to make sure that our employees and our members are safe.
Dan Gordon, in an interview with the local newspaper: Nobody knows when distancing is going to be removed, and even then, psychologically, unless there’s an antibody test and a vaccine, nobody’s going to go out in masses.
Amy Quinn Suplina: I can imagine that it will be a slow roll and getting back to normal. Even when we are able to reopen our doors I certainly can understand that people will be timid to come and breathe deeply together with people in close proximity and for any time in the near future.
Eric Dayton: Hospitality will be more important than ever as we heal from the shared trauma of this experience.
Micaela Brown: As an entrepreneur, we know we cannot wait around for anyone to save us. We have to save ourselves.
Chris Costoso, photographer and owner, Impact Images Studio, Chicago, Illinois, quoting Dale Carnegie, via Instagram: Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.
Abbie Rice: My husband has picked up a part-time job—that has been a blessing, not just financially but also he is a busy-body—and then I am at home, doing my best to keep our business afloat from a digital side. I spend every day on social media, keeping in touch with the membership that we have. I’m in constant contact with our home office and the 9 Round corporate offices so that we can keep moving forward. I’m also teaching Zoom workouts. Everything’s just digital.
At the same time, we as a family also realize the gift that all this is—that we have the opportunity for some rest. We are trying to take advantage and trying to recognize that we have been given this opportunity that we never would have gotten before. We always tried to take one day a week when we were completely off as a family. We still try to make sure we’re doing that, even though there’s always a little bit of that survival mode in the back of our head.
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