As Ohio’s stay-at-home order gradually starts to lift, allowing stores, restaurants and salons to reopen, many small business owners say they’re still living in a precarious state of uncertainty.
For Megan Smith, owner of St. Anne the Tart, a bakery, cafe and event space in the heart of the historic St. Anne’s Hill neighborhood, not much has changed since Gov. Mike DeWine’s announcement to allow outdoor dining at restaurants and bars on May 15, and indoor dining starting May 21.
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Due to the new guidelines for reopening, businesses have to rework their floor plans to ensure social distancing under its six-feet-apart or physical-barrier rules. Part of St. Anne the Tart’s charm is its intimate and cozy space, which is ideal for a neighborhood coffee shop. That very quality, however, makes it challenging to reopen. In order to comply with the guidelines, the shop will have to operate at much lower numbers than usual.
“I wish I could say I feel a sense of relief at the governor's news last week,” Smith told us. “The reality is, we as small businesses are still in peril. To get back to a place of 'normalcy' again with our staffing, our menus, our inventory, and our customer base will take many months, not weeks.”
Smith’s concern has not been with the shutdown itself. “We aren't insensitive to the virus and its ability to spread rapidly. We just are literally struggling to hold not only our businesses together, but our families,” Smith said. “As owners we aren't eligible for unemployment and the PPP money generally went to larger companies, not us scrappy go-getters who have invested our life savings into building our city's unique business landscape.”
She is not alone. Down a few blocks sits The Brightside, a newly opened and renovated warehouse space that’s now a chic new venue for concerts, weddings and events. Carli Dixon, who owns and operates the venue with her husband Hamilton, ponders what’s next for their business, which is built around gathering large groups of people together. These types of businesses still have no reopen date on the horizon.
“We’ve poured our blood, sweat and tears into this building.” Dixon said. “We’re past the grief stage now. We’re just wondering what’s next? How do we pivot from here?”
During the shutdown, pivoting has been the name of the game. Small business owners are taking fashion guru Tim Gunn’s famous “make it work” mantra to heart.
St. Anne the Tart has been able to open for carryout Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Revenue is far from the norm, however. Smith reported that her business is making 10 percent of normal sales. “That isn’t sustainable. And I know that we aren’t alone in this reality,” she said.
While the Brightside’s 6,400-square-feet of space sits uncommonly quiet, Dixon’s first move was to create a virtual bridal tour in an effort to court newly engaged couples planning their weddings. They also launched a campaign to sell the venue’s custom T-shirts and glassware online. Dixon did so many sales she had to order more merchandise, but it’s a fraction of the normal revenue the venue earns from room rental fees and alcohol sales. Now she’s dreaming up inventive new ways to keep the space activated.
Some businesses had nothing else to do but close their doors and wait. Anne Rose and Julie Jacoby co-own Artistry, a small salon in Belmont. After the lockdown went into effect, they found themselves overwhelmed by the uncertainty the situation presented. The duo decided to make to the most of the free time and their stimulus checks, and put new floors in their salon.
“Having to close our small business has been very stressful,” Rose explained. “We chose to put our time and energy into updating and focusing on the future. Although we have had no income to speak of, we wanted to show our clients that we are extremely dedicated and want to offer every person that walks through our doors a safe, sanitary and professional environment to welcome them back.”
For the business owners like Rose, who can start to reopen on Friday, May 15, it’s a step forward, but one made with trepidation and a great deal of pre-planning to ensure safety.
Gov. DeWine said reopening is “a high-risk operation, but it would be high risk if we didn’t do anything.”
Still many health experts and leaders fear that states such as Ohio are leapfrogging over critical milestones, which could cause another wave of infections.
“I am very concerned about the timeline the governor has laid out to reopen bars, restaurants, and salons,” Dayton’s Mayor Nan Whaley wrote in a recent statement. “We still do not have the infrastructure of testing and contact tracing in place that experts say we need to be able to reopen the economy safely ... Just because we can do something does not mean we should. Keeping people safe must be our top priority.”
Some business owners share the mayor’s concerns, but with bank accounts begging for deposits, few feel like they have a choice. The ultimate question is if customers will feel safe to return. One thing is certain: the overwhelming sense of uncertainty will be with these business owners for the foreseeable future.
“In the quiet moments it challenges our beliefs about what we’re doing and its importance. Will we even be able to survive the damage?” Smith said. “Yet, our customers put the wind in our sails each and every day. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about the generosity and encouragement they give us, and the camaraderie of spirit that we feel to them.”
“We all love this city so much,” she continued. “It's in our bones to see it thrive and to do good for one another. We will do what we know to do and what got our dream to reality in the first place. We'll hustle, focus and stay absolutely unrelenting in our lemonade making.”