COVID-19

Small businesses struggle with the pandemic and protests

Kimberly Adams Jun 11, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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Antoine Tate shampoos a single client in a room at LocLov salon in Washington, D.C. Normally, multiple clients and stylists would be in the room. Kimberly Adams/Marketplace
COVID-19

Small businesses struggle with the pandemic and protests

Kimberly Adams Jun 11, 2020
Antoine Tate shampoos a single client in a room at LocLov salon in Washington, D.C. Normally, multiple clients and stylists would be in the room. Kimberly Adams/Marketplace
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The nation is in the middle of a hard — and long overdue — look at racism and police brutality in the country. That has many big corporate brands scrambling to find an appropriate response, and small businesses navigating their role while trying to stay afloat amid the pandemic.

At LocLov Salon in Washington, D.C., owner Salih Watts has recently started welcoming back clients and staff when the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by police broke out. 

Watts said normally, he and his staff would be deeply engaged in the protests, posting photos of his team at demonstrations and donating money to social justice groups. But his salons in D.C. and LA have been closed for months under COVID-19 lockdowns, and, like many small businesses, he said it’s all he can do to just keep the business afloat. 

“It’s tough to see all that it’s happening,” he said, “and to and to be juggling both situations — I feel terrible that I can’t even be more responsive in the way that I normally would be.”

Salih Watts, owner of Loc.L.ov salon in D.C., works on a client. He has had to slash his staff and the number of clients he sees due to COVID-19 restrictions. (Kimberly Adams/Marketplace)

Watts said he is still supporting the movement as best he can, but he says a big part of that is trying to keep as many of his staff employed as possible. 

“We have the same amount of rent, and then back pay,” Watts said of his business challenges. “And then temporary plastic drapes and masks for staff, masks for our clients, face shields, you know, UV ovens …”

Higher costs for PPE moving forward are also playing into the calculations for Shobha Tummala, who owns Shobha, a chain of hair removal salons in New York, D.C., and Maryland, almost all of which are still closed.

One of her locations in D.C. was boarded up when early protests turned into violent clashes with police. Tummala said she is constantly recalculating how she can keep her business going, and the protests were happening just as she was shopping around for new business insurance, which expired June 1. 

She said, based on the quotes she’s seeing rates have gone way up, while, at the same time, her income has gone way down. 

“We are probably going to end up paying close to what we paid last year for what we’re estimating will be maybe a third or a quarter of the revenues.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed in police custody, Lee Wallace owns Peace Coffee, a coffee shop and roastery located in the same neighborhood where the police precinct burned. Wallace recently opened her doors to the public again, but said she’s not really focused on business plans for the future. 

“I suppose I should be,” she said. “But, to be honest, when you’re in the middle of the kind of heartbreak and, and pain that our community is going through. I haven’t been able to think that far ahead yet. I think everybody here is, is trying to support the peaceful protests that are going on, and looking forward to the state’s investigation into the Minneapolis police department.”

Wallace’s business sustained little damage in the protests, but she said she sympathizes with all the small business owners who’ve lost what may be their life’s work. At the same, she said it’s time to acknowledge the pain in the community that needs addressing.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

With a slow vaccine rollout so far, how has the government changed its approach?

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced changes to how the federal government is distributing vaccine doses. The CDC has expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older, along with people with conditions that might raise their risks of complications from COVID-19. The new approach also looks to reward those states that are the most efficient by giving them more doses, but critics say that won’t address underlying problems some states are having with vaccine rollout.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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