Small business owners around the U.S. face an unnerving decision: Unlock their doors in hopes of reviving the vital cash flow they need to remain viable, or keep them bolted as public health experts warn against reopening too quickly amid the.
That difficult choice comes as a number of states ease restrictions on commercial activity and allow businesses including barbershops, gyms, nail salons and retail stores to reopen. In some states, businesses say it's too soon.
"We are united in our decision to not reopen our dining rooms & shops to the public at this time. It's just too soon," a group of Arizona restaurateurs, bar owners, chefs, service providers and retailers wrote in a letter after Gov. Doug Ducey on May 11 allowed restaurants to.
Tracy Singleton, the owner of Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where restaurants may only offer curbside pickup and delivery, said she she's not ready yet to welcome patrons back.
"There is this Catch-22 where I am weighing our business interests against the public health interest. It's definitely a tension I'm living with that's causing a lot of anxiety," she said, while acknowledging that many business owners like herself are eager to reopen. "There are people pushing to open right away, like today, and I am not one of those."
Of course, Singleton wants to start making money again — her livelihood depends on it. But potentially jeopardizing people's health to get her cafe back on track is too risky, and ultimately not good for business, she said. "All it takes is one person to get sick and then you become a hotspot and that raises fear in customers' minds even higher, and they'll come back even slower."
A "repugnant choice"
Aaron Seyedian, the owner of Well-Paid Maids, a Washington, D.C., home cleaning company, has temporarily closed his business even though it is defined as an essential service and could stay open.
"The ability for my staff to distance themselves from customers has evaporated, and I'm not willing to risk my staff's lives to clean some kitchens and bathrooms," he said.
That decision comes with a price, however. Seyedian, who argues that cleaning companies shouldn't be classified as essential, concedes that staying closed while his competitors reopen hurts his business. He likened his situation to the dilemma many workers now face as their employers reopen.
"Workers are faced with repugnant choice: Go to work and risk your life, or lose your job. Small business owners are in a very similar situation, which is, either risk the lives of your employees or lose your business," Seyedian said.
"I think we offer a luxury service that if folks are wealthy enough to have, can go without," he added.
One Well-Paid Maids competitor that has reopened is MK Cleaning. The owner, Michael Kasmirski, said business remains down by 80%, but many of his 20 workers are eager to start earning income.
"My people are working because they need to work. This is the only thing they know how to do, and they need to pay the bills," he said.
To minimize the risks, the company is following a new set of protocols to ensure safety. "We ask our customers if anyone in the house is sick, because I don't want to put my people in any trouble," Kasmirski said.
Seyedian said the future of his business depends on how long the coronavirus outbreak continues. And he hopes that prioritizing the health of his employees and customers will, despite the immediate impact on business, ultimately benefit his cleaning company.
"I struggle to see who wants this right now and how is this not going to come back to bite all these people who are operating," he said. "It might be fine until the first round of phone calls you have to make after one employee gets sick and tests positive. Then you have to let customers know they've been in your house."