Close-contact businesses face stark choices in new era

For some companies, social-distancing restrictions will force a ‘new normal.’

When one’s livelihood involves getting physically close to your customers, how do you navigate a new era of strict social distancing?

Barbers, physical therapists, spa employees, health care workers, fitness instructors and many others face a moment of truth in their businesses: Adapt or die.

Tori Reynolds, co-owner of Speakeasy Yoga in Dayton, said every business will have to find its own new equilibrium. Even when her downtown Dayton yoga studios are able to fully reopen, classes will likely be smaller, she said.

This will be the “new normal” for many businesses, she believes.

“It’s going to look different from here on out, and I know a lot of people are struggling to adopt that mentality and accept it,” Reynolds said. “But it’s really true.”

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended “social” or physical distancing, meaning people should try to keep at least six feet or two meters from other people in an effort to reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

The CDC also recommends that Americans refrain from gathering in groups and avoid crowded places generally.

The guidelines affect businesses large and small. Kroger, Walmart and others are requiring one-way customer flow down retail aisles. Airline industry observers have warned that social distancing requirements will raise ticket prices once flights again become an option for more travelers.

Jeremy Roadruck, a martial arts instructor who owns Meng’s Martial Arts in Centerville, said maintaining six feet of distance from his students will immediately sweep away some two-thirds of his typical instruction, which often involves forceful but controlled physical contact.

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“No grappling, no weapon defense or counters to grab, no short-range bridging skills,” Roadruck said. “Only kicks, strikes, bag work.”

“So a 1,500-year tradition turns into a fitness class,” he added. “Cash flow is almost zero, (I) will definitely fall behind on rent and utilities.”

Roadruck believes that normal physical contact at some point will be restored. But for the time being, he and Reynolds — among many other businesses — are maintaining contact with students and customers via live-streamed classes and videos.

In fact, Speakeasy Yoga turned to online classes before its two Dayton studios closed in mid-March.

“What if this happened 10 or 15 years ago?” Reynolds asked. “We wouldn’t have the technology and access to do what we’re doing.”

“We’ve been able to pivot, as a lot of the restaurants have been able to pivot,” she added. “It’s not the same profit as when we were open for regular classes. We’ve definitely lost a lot of business and income, but at least we have been able to do something.”

Other close-contact businesses face more difficult choices.

“If they (state regulators) say we have to stay closed, then we have to stay closed,” said Jason Laveck, co-owner of 937 Salon & Spa in Kettering.

Jason and Esther Laveck opened 937 Salon & Spa a year ago. The business offers an array of hair and nail services, with spa services like waxing, skin care and facials.

The business has ordered face masks for all of its employees and the Lavecks are looking into hands-free sanitizer and soap dispensers for their spa at 1835 E. Stroop Road. The business had planned on paying off its debt on the one-year anniversary of its opening, but that’s looking uncertain at best.

“Whatever they (state regulators) tell us we need to do to open, I guess that’s what we’re going to do,” Laveck said.

Answers on exactly how to reopen are scarce right now.

“We do not have any information yet from the Ohio Department of Health as to what a new order for business and the public would look like after May 1,” said Dan Suffoleto, spokesman for the Dayton-Montgomery County Public Health Department.

Suffoleto referred questions to the Department of Heath, where a spokeswoman offered a similar answer.

“Since we don’t know what the governor’s plan to reopen Ohio looks like, this is still too soon for us to talk about what it would look like for these business owners,” Melanie Amato said.

A spokesman for Ohio State University said the university had no public health experts or professionals who could offer thoughts on what close-contact businesses might have to do in coming weeks.

Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, suggested in a press conference last week that entrepreneurial ingenuity will somehow find a way.

“If there’s a way people can social distance and do those things, then they can do those things. I don’t know how, but people are very creative,” Birx said.

Cody Amstutz, a massage therapist, has owned Knot Your Average Massage in Bellbrook for nearly three years. She last saw customers in the week of March 18.

She acknowledged that she and her contract employees can’t perform their jobs while maintaining six feet of distance from customers. But Amstutz hopes that as virus infection numbers decrease, CDC guidelines in time will be relaxed.

“When people start getting healthy again, that will ease up a little bit for us,” Amstutz said. “We have talked about obviously masks and checking temperatures of each therapist prior to work and for clients.”

She’s confident that her clients want to return as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Amstutz’ business is licensed through the Ohio State Medical Board and her firm’s insurance company is essentially echoing CDC guidelines at this point.

For government and entrepreneurs alike, this is uncharted territory.

“It’s so new for everybody, I don’t think anyone really knows how to handle it yet,” Amstutz said.

Ken Ellerbe is head trainer at Enhance U Sports Performance Academy in Beavercreek while serving as an Air Force major and intelligence officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

His location at 3060 Dayton-Xenia Road has 3,500 square feet, so there’s room to maintain distancing as students lift weights or train in other ways.

“We’re definitely going to have to think about doing this as we stay six feet away,” Ellerbe said. “It’s definitely going to hamper some of what we do.”

He expects smaller classes may be necessary, and employees will continue to wipe equipment down after workout sessions with “military-grade” antibiotic fluid. He also expects to take the temperature of students as they come in.

“It will definitely hurt,” Ellerbe added. “But we have 3,500 square feet … we’ve been planning this for a while. What will be the restrictions? Maybe five people in the class instead of ten.”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines

  • The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus.
  • Stay home as much as possible.
  • Put distance between yourself and other people.
  • Remember that some people without symptoms may be able to spread virus.

Source: CDC

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