Starting April 24, certain businesses in Georgia reopened after around a month of coronavirus-related lockdown. Nearly everyone, from public health experts to Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to President Donald Trump, condemned Governor Brian Kemp’s move to let hair salons, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, and restaurants open their doors with coronavirus cases rising. Other states, like Colorado and Oklahoma, have also let their stay-at-home orders expire, a move that increased one influential model’s estimate of the country’s coronavirus death toll. In Georgia, a little over a week into re-entry, small business owners and their employees are being forced to decide between risking their health by going back to work and the long-term economic consequences of staying closed.
Just because businesses are open doesn’t mean that people will feel safe going. Stores risk not being able to keep up with the costs of reopening if there aren’t customers. Employees who qualify for unemployment stand to lose it if their workplace is allowed to reopen and they choose not to go. The kinds of hourly and minimum-wage jobs coming back under loosened coronavirus restrictions are most likely to be held by people of color, a group particularly at risk of coronavirus infections: An April 29 CDC report found that more than four out of five of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia are Black.
As business owners and self-employed individuals throughout Georgia navigate what’s best for their economic and physical safety, three small business owners in Georgia tell Bustle how they’re reckoning with re-entry.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nicole Franklin, nail artist
I was told about [the reopening] by the owner of the salon where I rent my space. I was thrilled to know I’d see my co-workers and clients soon. So many of our clients immediately reached out to us after the state reopening was announced, ready to return.
Our salon has always used a multi-step process to ensure 100% sterilization for all of our instruments. Everything else is single-use only. We have plenty of PPE for ourselves and for our clients and are keeping a close eye on our inventory levels. If we’re unable to keep enough PPE on hand, we have a second, temporary shutdown planned until we can locate those supplies.
Being self-employed meant I was completely without income for 41 days. Like the majority of self-employed people I know, I was denied the aid being offered to small businesses. I’ve seen so many wonderful small businesses in our area permanently close their doors, due to denial for aid.
To be frank, my concerns for the safety of myself, my family, and my customers are minimal, when it comes to returning to work. There were very few changes that our salon needed to make in order to be compliant with the new regulations that have been imposed. We are operating with only two technicians at a time and removed one manicure station to allow a safe distance between clients. We are only allowing one person in the pedicure stations at a time. We are wearing masks and face shields throughout the day. We are changing our smocks in between each appointment. We are also allowing the client inside only during their service. We do not permit the next one to enter until we’ve completely cleaned all necessary areas.
Many clients have voiced concerns about the state reopening, but they’ve all felt safe to return to our salon. They’ve said our salon is probably the place where they feel the safest while being out during this pandemic.
Jenny Levison, CEO and founder of Souper Jenny
We closed our dining rooms on March 16. We are a fast-casual restaurant so we're lucky — we're designed for takeout. Takeout and delivery don’t make up for the sit-down losses, but we're doing the best we can.
When I first heard [about reopening], I was shocked. There is no real evidence that Atlanta has hit our peak yet, so we’re not opening our dining rooms until that happens. I’ve gotten countless thank you's from the team [for not reopening]. I would love to reopen and make money so we're not just surviving, but there's no economy if there's no people. I'm listening to health professionals about when we should reopen.
People may think that busy restaurants have big amounts of cash in reserve, but we don't. It's very expensive to run a restaurant. I'm fortunate — we're only 75% down in our business. We're out there hustling, we're doing deliveries, we're lucky that we're filling orders to be delivered to hospitals to thank health care workers. All of this is helping keep our workers employed. No one on my team has been laid off.
When I realized how many restaurants closed in Atlanta, I felt we had to help — so many people were out of work. Every Saturday we provide free groceries for pickup. Nothing processed, all locally made products, fresh soups, enough food to feed a family of four. It started as something for those in the hospitality industry, but now it's for anyone with food insecurity.
People are going to be wary about being in a confined space for a while. We're fortunate that all four of our locations have outside space. When we do reopen our dining rooms, we'll do whatever the CDC recommends. If we have to remove half our tables inside, we will. But we have no foreseeable plans to open up the inside of our restaurants.
Jacob Khan, owner, Jacob K Salon
We decided to close on March 17. I’ve gone without a paycheck the entire time — I decided to use that money to pad the staff’s last paychecks before we closed. We’re reopening on May 1 — that’s three paychecks my 17 employees have missed. That's two periods of rent or mortgage they have had to pay without going to work.
There's this malicious response to our reopening. People saying, “What's a little extra money over people's health?” But it's not a little extra money. These hairdressers are not getting unemployment, they're not getting government support, their bills are not being forgiven. We have employees who make six figures as a hairdresser and are watching their livelihoods get washed away in a matter of weeks.
In the time we have been closed, we have remodeled the salon to prepare for reopening. Now, there is a minimum of eight feet between each station. I've been gathering the protective gear we need: disposable towels and smocks, and making sure we have the right amount of gloves, masks, and microbial disinfectant. We cut in half the number of people who can be inside. We are now building in a down period of time between appointments to fully sanitize each chair between clients. I feel confident about reopening. Our salon is a safe environment.
We're not requiring our staff to come back, we're just giving them that option. Anyone who wants to wait knows that they will have a job with me when they want to return. But I wanted to give people the opportunity to come in and provide for themselves.