During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, small businesses have had to tackle reopening issues in ways that keep the safety of both employees and customers a top priority.
Before putting safety measures into place, business owners need to know what kinds of measures are recommended.
Massachusetts-based environmental health professional Suzanne Howard advises small business owners to look for guidance from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local governments, and professional organizations or associations servicing their industry.
"The CDC is the first source of information for business owners, as they have a lot of safety measures listed for specific industries like restaurants, healthcare, and small businesses," Howard says. "State public health departments also list guidelines, but many refer back to the CDC. Local towns and cities also provide additional resources based on community needs."
As for recommendations from professional organizations, she notes that many have developed industry-specific guidelines.
"For example, the National Restaurant Association has a website with resources and information specific to that industry," she says. "The Retail Industry Leaders Association has similar information, plus they claim to work with government leaders to try and form policy and guidelines specific to retail. There are also public health groups that have guidelines to follow, like the American Public Health Association."
Once business owners have researched the various guidelines, Howard suggests conducting a simple risk assessment.
"Identify the hazards, determine how harm can occur, put forth control measures, and then implement them," she says.
And once a business' coronavirus safety policy has been set, clear communication is important. "People can become tired and complacent in following these new rules. However, business owners want to avoid bad press, and having a breakout in their business could be a big setback," Howard says.
Spouses Niki and Josh Quinn own two separate retail establishments, Tigertree and Cub Shrub, in Columbus, Ohio. They closed both stores prior to their state's closing mandate and didn't reopen until July.
To prepare for reopening, they purchased air-filtration units for each store, created a touchless checkout with plexiglass surrounds, implemented mask requirements, and allowed only one person to shop at a time, by appointment. They also scaled up their e-commerce operations to take some of the pressure off the stores.
Since then, they have moved Tigertree to an online-only model. "Much of our creative and office work is now done remotely," Josh Quinn says. "Everyone wears masks when working inside of our space if others are present. We don't even have the delivery folks come in. They deliver our shipments outside, and we bring them in ourselves."
Meanwhile, Cub Shrub continues to operate through a combination of online sales and in-person transactions by appointment only.
"They have developed such a strong community that goes far beyond a typical store and customer relationship," he says of his wife's approach to the business. "That sort of radical vulnerability and care has generated a lot of trust. Our customers know we're giving up a lot to continue operating in the way we are to keep our team and our customers safe."
He feels the measures they have taken have been effective so far. "It likely means we'll have smaller revenues this year than we would have if we reopened fully with fewer restrictions," he says. "We're okay with that. We hope our customers feel cared for, and if they do, we'll win in the long run."
Restaurants, and the hospitality industry as a whole, have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Despite this, enterprising restaurateurs like Rick Dissell, owner of The Blackstone Grille, in Louisville, Ky., have risen to the challenge.
With cold weather coming—along with concern about customer apprehensions over eating indoors and possibly being exposed to COVID-19 from other diners—Dissell invested in AtmosAir bipolar ionization (BPI) indoor air-quality devices.
He notes that research shows that such units are effective at reducing the presence of coronavirus in the air and on surfaces; he believes the installation of these devices will help regain customer confidence and create wellness and safety safeguards for indoor dining.
Dissell has also implemented other safety measures. "We follow all CDC guidelines, as well as state and local mandates, including measures such as social distancing, reduced guest capacity, wearing face coverings and gloves, and constant sanitizing of hard surfaces," he says. "We also decided to further reduce the maximum number of guests at a table from the mandated 10 to just six."
His decision to implement the BPI devices has garnered support from his existing customer base. "After we sent out a notice to our email club members and made postings on social media, we received dozens of responses back, complimenting us on our decision, and telling us that it does, indeed, make our customers feel more comfortable about dining out," he adds.
Businesses in the beauty services industry have also been hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis, since in-person treatments are one of the primary services they provide.
While Nidah Barber-Raymond, founder and CEO of The Peel Connection in Beverly Hills, Calif., has successfully pivoted a large portion of her business toward the online sale of in-home treatments, she continues to provide chemical peels to customers who prefer in-person treatments.
Given the nature of the treatments, her clients are unable to wear masks during their sessions. However, she and her technicians wear masks and face shields. "We feel very safe with our protocol measures," she says. "We wear full shields and masks, and offer sanitizer at the door. We are disinfecting in between clients, and check for fevers before entry. We are also having clients wait in their vehicles prior to their appointments instead of sitting in the waiting area."
Overall, she has not found the costs of these measures prohibitive. "We probably spend $150 per month on sanitation methods, which is very manageable," she says. "Clients have been cooperative and appreciative regarding our new protocols." Additionally, her decision to switch her business model toward the sale of at-home treatments has been beneficial. "I didn't expect the pandemic to have any positive impacts, but as a result of scaling, my revenue went up 250% in just the first week," she notes.
Health and wellness
Small businesses in health and wellness face similar challenges of keeping clients and employees safe in the context of in-person appointments. Amy Lokken, owner of R3 Chattanooga, which offers different modalities to help reduce pain and inflammation, implemented a number of safety measures that she feels have been effective.
In addition to removing customer items such as gloves, socks, shoes, and robes from the changing rooms, areas that clients have touched, such as door handles, are sanitized after each client's session. Only two customers are allowed inside at any given time, and while the business previously had primarily walk-in clientele, they now require appointments. Lokken also notes that "there are some services we aren't doing—Cryofacial and CryoToning facial—since the customer wouldn't be able to wear a face covering."
She has found the costs of these measures to be manageable. "However, it has affected how many customers we can serve, and some customers have not liked the change to required appointments," she says
Operating and reopening during COVID-19
Jeff Moriarty, marketing manager for the family-owned jewelry business Moriarty's Gem Art/Tanzanite Jewelry Designs, notes that safety measures have gone better than they had expected with both customers and sales associates. Measures such as masks and sanitizer stations are easy to set up, and have the overall effect of making customers feel safer. "This whole change sounds harder than it is," he says. "We are a small, family-owned business and were easily able to implement the required measures."
Josh Quinn offers small business owners some thoughtful advice. "Now is the time for long-term strategic thinking," he suggests. "If you are in a business expecting 20% to 30% declines for the next few months, see if there is a way to bring in enough revenue to keep going and then put on your strategic hat. The world is going to be completely different on the other side of this. Stop pretending that things are going to get back to 'normal,' and you'll have your old business back."
Safety measures form part of the costs of doing business during these trying times, and many small businesses are rising to meet the challenge.