What began as a two-week closure for many small businesses in March has turned into permanent shutter for some, while others are barely squeaking by with no end in sight.
Coffee shop owner Christie Bruffy closed her doors for a weeklong renovation on March 15—the first week of forced closures for bars and restaurants in Ohio due to the pandemic.
Bruffy owns Highline Coffee Co. located in a small-business district in the City of Worthington, a suburb of Columbus.
At the time, Bruffy said it made sense to continue with the renovation despite the cost, as some of the flooring needed to be replaced in any case.
Back on March 17, she told The Epoch Times: “Our original plan was to reopen by the weekend. We still hope to do that, with carry-out only.”
It wasn’t until May 2, seven weeks later, that Highline was able to open for carry-out only. Bruffy installed a walk-up window with contactless service—which has had the unexpected bonus of attracting more business from dog-owners.
“I’m just grateful to have any business right now, and I think we are faring better than some—coffee just lends itself to the grab-and-go model,” Bruffy said on July 6.
Sales are down by about 30 percent, but she has been able to bring back her six employees—two of whom relied solely on their wages from Highline. During the hiatus, one received immediate unemployment assistance, and the other, a musician, got creative and made tips by playing weekly “happy hour” gigs on Facebook. The four others, part-time employees, weren’t eligible for unemployment but were able to make it through due to family support.
The cafe’s patrons are stepping up to fill the gaps. Employees are currently receiving a “huge bonus” on each paycheck “thanks to the extremely generous tips we have been receiving,” Bruffy said.
Bruffy had to take out a personal loan to carry her over while her Emergency Disaster Relief loan came through from the Small Business Administration. She said it was an easy application, and the money was deposited within four weeks.
“I hope to have that repaid in a few months,” she said. “Everything else is caught up, there’s just no wiggle room if this were to happen again.”
Her landlord offered a rent deferral, but she declined, saying it would be more of a struggle to repay it in the long run. “As long as the current sales trends continue, we can sustain,” she said.
“We will definitely be reluctant to hire or expand. All projects are being put on hold for at least the next year. I wish I could say that I was setting aside money to protect us against the unknown, but there is nothing to set aside. We’re making it week by week.”
Nationally, an estimated 100,000 small businesses had permanently shuttered nationwide by April, according to researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). A survey of 5,800 businesses found 43 percent were temporarily closed and owners had reduced staff by 40 percent compared to January.
Farmers Market Reopens
The Worthington Farmers Market, which used to give Bruffy a boost in sales every Saturday during summer, has been unable to reopen in its traditional format along the sidewalks of the business district. It’s now held in a large parking lot.
The market organizers had to close the indoor, winter location on March 15, said Annina Parini, the executive director of Worthington Partnership, the market’s umbrella organization. “Even though we’re providing access to fresh food, it’s not the same as a supermarket,” she said.
For the next 11 weeks, a system was set up in which customers could pre-order and pre-pay, and each Saturday they’d have a two-hour window to drive by and get their orders placed in their trunks. It worked for most, but not all, of the 60 to 70 vendors who rely on the market to sell their wares, ranging from fresh produce to honey, homemade soap, and organic meat. Some vendors don’t take credit cards and others don’t have an ordering system.
The second week of June provided the first foray back into a traditional farmers market format, with stalls being spaced out in a parking lot and systems for controlling capacity and social distancing implemented.
“Some things are slightly different, like, vendors are not allowed to sample. Obviously, all the vendors have masks on,” Parini told The Epoch Times on July 10. “But you can go up and see the produce and choose it yourself and make that transaction in person.”
Capacity is down from the 2,000 to 3,000 people during normal operations and is now at 1,800 to 1,900 people every week, Parini said. But it’s a marked improvement on the drive-thru model.
Parini said no vendors have completely shut down due to financial hardship, but the next few months will be telling.
“It’s exhausting trying to keep things going when you don’t know what’s going to happen next month or six months from now,” she said.
Small businesses will likely be reluctant to hire or expand in the foreseeable future, she said, but she remains hopeful.
“Once you’ve scaled down and really narrowed your margins, it will be hard to think about opening back up. But I think Americans are optimistic by nature, and hopefully our community will continue to support small businesses and we’ll make a full recovery,” she said.
Parini said her organization has helped Worthington businesses connect with local banks to access the federal Paycheck Protection Program relief funds and other resources. And the local community has also been extremely supportive.
“When this first happened … there was a lot of outpouring of support, but the unfortunate thing is, as this continues to go on, people’s discretionary spending goes down, more people are losing their jobs. It’s just hard to keep that level of support going,” she said.
“It’s hard on everybody. No one is unaffected.”