Five months into a pandemic, many local small businesses are getting by

Evoke Style in Guilderland

Enterprise file photo— Michael Koff

Sandra Dollard, owner of Evoke Style in Guilderland, said that she’s still in business five months into the coronavirus pandemic due in part to her landlord, Stuyvesant Plaza, who she said was “willing to work” with her on rent, and federal funding. While her shop was closed to the public for about three months, she was able to transition some of her business to online, starting a new Evoke website.

ALBANY COUNTY — The coronavirus’s impact on local small businesses was swift and staggering. Less than a month after the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect, one-third of small businesses in Albany County had “closed” signs hanging in their windows.

Five months into the new normal, entire swaths of the economy remain unopened. And coupled with the decline in county-wide consumer spending during that time — a 40-percent drop during the worst of the pandemic in April, according to real-time credit-card transaction data tracked by researchers at Harvard, while the most recent numbers, from July 27, show spending is still down about 13 percent — total small-business revenue in the county has decreased dramatically. 

Revenue from small businesses in Albany County decreased nearly 50 percent a week after the stay-at-home order took hold. In July, that number was still down by an average of about 23 percent.

Research from Harvard suggests the pandemic has caused 2 percent of small businesses to close permanently. A report from Yelp, the online review site, found that, as of July 10, fifty-five percent of the 132,500 pandemic-caused closures on the site are now permanent. 

Locally, Veronica’s Culinary Tavern on Main Street in Altamont officially made Aug. 6 its last day of business; across Maple Avenue, the Home Front Café remains closed, while over on Western Avenue in Guilderland, the yoga studio A Place Called Om announced via social media that Aug. 31 would be its last day of operations.

In March, before the state told residents to shelter in place and directed nonessential businesses to implement work-from-home policies, The Enterprise spoke with small businesses attempting to adjust on-the-fly to rules and regulations being handed down by the state and federal governments at breakneck speeds in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.

New York State along with its tri-state neighbors, New Jersey and Connecticut, announced that, effective March 16, crowd capacity for social gatherings would be limited to fewer than 50 people; bars and restaurants would be shutting down on-site service and moving to an all take-out and delivery model; and movie theaters, gyms, and casinos would be temporarily closing as well.

On March 18, it was announced that indoor portions of shopping malls, amusement parks, and bowling alleys would close by the following evening. 

The effects of the mid-March regulations were immediately felt.

One Stuyvesant Plaza retailer made the decision to temporarily close, telling The Enterprise at the time that she would reassess her situation in a week, while a local wedding venue was trying to reschedule a 150-guest ceremony that was set to take place just a month later. Others businesses took the new rules in stride — asserting a vigilance to above-and-beyond in-store hygiene and sanitization in addition to doing their part to help those affected by the virus.

All of the local businesses featured in the March 18 Enterprise story were able to stay afloat amid the shutdown — due in part to some combination of government loans, penny-pinching, innovation, and sheer force of will — and reopened when they were allowed to do so.

Danielle Walsh, executive director of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, told The Enterprise in March that she’d been hearing two major concerns from her membership: How are they going to support their employees, and ensure their workers remain on the job, paid, and safe. And second, how can they, as small businesses, ensure they remain successful and continue to generate revenue in such an uncertain time. 

Asked what her members’ concerns were five months into the pandemic, Walsh said, “Unfortunately, they are pretty much the same right now.”

Even though a lot of businesses have reopened and people are resuming some semblance of normal consumer activity, Walsh said, it’s at a slower rate and lower capacity than pre-pandemic levels. 

And while all 10 of the state’s regions have entered the fourth and final phase of reopening, Walsh said there are still entire industries on the sidelines waiting for guidance on when they can open again. If those industries — gyms, movie theaters, and amusement parks, for example — aren’t allowed to reopen, then Walsh said she thinks further assistance is needed.

When the state issued its shelter-in-place and work-from-home orders in March, Walsh said there was a lot of support for local small businesses at the time — people were being encouraged to buy local businesses’ gift cards, for example, while online, members of the Altamont Community Facebook Group crowdsourced a list of area restaurants offering curbside pickup. The Enterprise printed full-page guides, listing restaurants that were open for curbside pick-up.

Walsh is concerned that people have just adapted to going without those businesses still not allowed to reopen, and compounding that concern, she said, is that she thinks they could stay like that for some time. “We don’t want those businesses to get lost in the shuffle,” she said. 

 

Adapting

Sandra Dollard, owner of Evoke Style in Stuyvesant Plaza, told The Enterprise that, while her shop was closed to the public for about three months, she was able to transition some of her business to online, starting a new Evoke website.

While the store did a “good amount” of online business during the state-imposed shutdown, Dollard said that she’s still in business due in part to the generosity of her landlord, Stuyvesant Plaza. The plaza, she said, was “willing to work” with her on rent — and federal funding. 

In March, Stuyvesant Plaza announced it was waiving rent for two weeks for its 60 tenants. 

Dollard said she was able to obtain two different loans through the Small Business Administration, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which offers a low-interest rate and a 30-year payback period, and a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which allowed her to bring back most of her employees, while also helping her make a new hire, someone to get Evoke’s website up and running.

Although the store’s foot traffic is still down 40 to 50 percent compared to pre-shutdown levels, it’s still a marked improvement over the nearly three months Evoke was closed to the public. 

Dollard said that February, March, April, and May were complete losses for her — more specifically, Evoke lost its spring season, April and May. 

She had bought her spring-season clothing in advance of the pandemic shutdown, she said, and she was able to cancel some of the product order, but “unfortunately” she “got quite a bit” before being forced to close. 

About 80 percent of Dollard’s shoe stock had come in before the store closed to the public — Evoke’s entire shoe collection is currently on sale. 

All told, Dollard estimated that she lost $300,000 in revenue because of the pandemic. 

Asked what more needs to be done to help small businesses, Dollard didn’t say more federal stimulus money was the answer. Rather, she said that people need to understand that local businesses support local, county, and state governments through taxation. If people don’t shop locally, then their town, county, and state governments, which are already getting whacked on tax revenue, will continue to lose money.

And in no way is Dollard understating the gravity of the current situation.

“This is a true pandemic,” she said,  adding that there are people who are at genuine risk, and she and her fellow Stuyvesant Plaza tenants take the situation very seriously. 

In her own store, Dollard said, “We try to go the extra mile”: Each customer’s credit card is sanitized before it is handed back; there is an automatic dispenser at the front entrance and customers are asked to sanitize their hands when they come in, and recently she posted a short video to social media explaining the safety measures her shop has undertaken. 

There are safe places to shop, Dollard said, and, even if people still don’t feel safe going out, they can still shop locally because the businesses in Stuyvesant Plaza offer curbside service. And she will drop off products bought in her store. 

“I have a very positive attitude that we are going to make it through this,” she said, “I wouldn’t continue if I didn’t.”

 

Two businesses, two headaches

Laurie Beckmann, owner of the Appel Inn wedding venue and Enchanting Escapes travel agency, both in Guilderland, has been dealing with coronavirus-based problems that have hamstrung both of her businesses.

The Appel Inn typically hosts between 30 and 40 weddings a year, according to Beckmann, with fall being its busiest season — in normal times, the inn holds about 20 fall weddings; currently, two autumn weddings are booked.

This past weekend, the Appel Inn hosted just its second wedding of 2020.

The travel business is also very slow, Beckmann said, but there are people who have started to book trips for 2021 and 2022.

Beckmann estimates that her wedding business will take in about 10 to 15 percent of what it grossed last year, while Enchanting Escapes will generate between 2 and 4 percent of its 2019 revenue.

The hardest part for the wedding industry right now is that there is a lack of communication with regard to complete reopening guidelines, Beckman said; there have been a lot of mixed messages.

State guidelines still don’t allow for social gatherings of more than 50, she said, while other state restrictions being imposed on wedding parties included a no-dance policy and strict mask protocols. 

Just last week, a federal judge in Syracuse overturned the governor’s 50-guest limit for weddings in restaurants, a move that could have larger venues seeking to end their own 50-guest limit.

“We have to go in so many different directions to find the real rules that it is making it very confusing for venues and for couples,” Beckmann said. 

Some local venues that are just ignoring some of the guidelines, Beckmann said, choosing instead to follow a 50-percent occupancy capacity, for example, the restaurant occupancy rate. There are area venues, she said, telling couples that they can have 50 guests inside their barn and another 50 guests outside in a giant tent. 

“And that’s not what it is; social gathering is 50 people — end of the story,” she  said. “It’s the lack of clear and concise social-gathering rules that is allowing these gray areas.”

“One of the other ramifications of any venue not following protocol — we now have other professionals backing out of contracts because they do not wish to be involved in working an event that is not legal as well as not feeling safe,” Beckmann told The Enterprise in a follow-up email. “Such a dilemma — and so much truly would be simplified by NYS stating the guidelines clearly for social gatherings.”

Beckmann feels bad for the couples who can’t have the weddings they want, and laments that the rest of the country isn’t “getting its act together.” Because one of the biggest reasons that the state’s nuptials industry continues to be closed down, Beckmann surmises, is that social gatherings like weddings encourage people to cross state lines. 

Asked how much longer she thought her businesses could continue to operate under their current pandemic-imposed restrictions, Beckmann said that she’s fortunate to have been around long enough that she will make it through 2020.

As a seasonal owner, she said, she’s always had to run her businesses a little differently from other year-round operations — having to be meticulous with her spending and saving — which is why Beckmann thinks she may be better protected coming out of this year than some other businesses. “But a second year,” of trying to operate under pandemic-imposed business restrictions, she said, “that would be really, really hard.”

Beckmann received a Payment Protection Payment loan during the second round of Small Business Administration funding, she said, but the “tricky piece” to her loan is that, as someone who is self-employed, she’s more limited with how the money can be used.

And Ms. Beckmann isn’t the only person in her household dealing with pandemic-imposed restrictions on their work. Gerhard Beckmann, her husband, is a materials engineer with his own consulting business. 

One big problem for Mr. Beckmann is that many of his clients are located outside New York State, so he can’t travel to Georgia and Indiana to do his work, which can’t be done over Skype or Zoom. 

And, even if he were able to do on-site visits, he runs into another set of issues.

When he got home, he would have to self-quarantine for two weeks. 

Which brings up the issue of paying him to quarantine since Beckmann can’t come home, self-quarantine for two weeks, and expect the clients with whom he has long-standing relationships to pay for his time — nor is the state going to take on that expense. 

The self-quarantine would also have a cascading effect on the Appel Inn, he said, because two weeks of isolation would mean he couldn’t help his wife run her wedding business. 

 

A bit better than most

Drue Sanders, owner of Drue Sanders Custom Jewelers in Guilderland, and Jonathan Phillips, president of Phillips Hardware, came out of the shutdown in better positions than some other small businesses. 

Phillips Hardware was deemed an essential business during the pandemic, avoiding a state-mandated closure.

And, although Sanders was closed to the public for two months, she continued to show up to work seven days a week during that time, she said, taking pictures of jewelry for online shopping and preparing shipments for customers, among other tasks.

With her shop now reopened to the public, Sanders said that she and her staff are being very careful with their health-and-safety measures, instituting a number of protocols to keep both employees and customers safe. 

“We did spend a lot on PPE,” she said of personal protective equipment, noting that her shop now has ultraviolet lighting, which has been used for decades to inactivate airborne pathogens. “I’ve made it so that anyone coming here will be in the absolute cleanest environment possible.”

People are understandably still nervous about getting back into a “business as usual” shopping routine, Sanders said, but she is heartened when she has nurses telling her that they feel comfortable coming to her shop. But she also said that it’s unlikely there will be a return to “business as usual” until there’s a vaccine. 

Revenue has been down about 30 percent over the course of the pandemic compared to the same period in 2019, Sanders said, “Which, from what I’m hearing, is a lucky number.”

Phillips said the revenue taken in by his company over the course of the pandemic “probably wasn’t down” compared with the same period in 2019, noting that his hardware stores’ commercial accounts were down, but consumer business had been “up a hair.”

He also received Payment Protection Program money, which was used as hazard pay. Phillips’ workers are paid between $13 and $17 an hour. As the deemed-essential employees came into work every day amid a pandemic, he said, they watched friends collect more in unemployment benefits to stay safe at home.

Since the company was able to generate its own revenue to pay workers at a time when many businesses were using PPP funds just to stay afloat, the decision was made to pass the federal dollars along to the company’s employees.

Asked what he learned from the pandemic, Phillips said his company, like probably a lot others business, had to quickly adapt to unprecedented times, leading to another takeaway: Be open to constant change — something that Phillips pointed out he’s had to do for years in his industry. 

His company began with seven stores, went down to five, and now there are currently three, and, in between, Phillips said, he’s switched suppliers; changed banks; and, when the big-box stores showed up, he found other ways to make a buck. 

When Home Depot and Lowe’s moved in and took a chunk of the hardware stores’ traditional business, Phillips said that his company began to generate more revenue from sources like screen repairs, propane-tank refills, and its repair shop. More recently, the store has expanded into apparel sales with Carhartt, he said, and now has full-line offering of gas-powered handheld power equipment from Stihl.

Phillips said he’s in the business of changing to meet the needs of the market around him. So, when the virus hit in March, he said, offering an example of the business adapting on-the-fly, he began to form new partnerships and pivoted toward supplying personal protective equipment, a move Phillips said he thought was able to bring in additional revenue.

His hardware stores never sold much toilet paper, Phillips said, but he saw that the area’s supply wasn’t keeping up with demand of his own customers, “so we went out in search of the supplies,” he said, creating another revenue source for the company. 

But soon there began to be industry-wide problems, he said, with fill-rate issues, how well a company is able to meet commercial demand at any moment. 

The coronavirus closed down entire factories, Phillips said; for example, Rust-Oleum had to halt production at one of its facilities because of an outbreak. This was extremely poor timing for the paint and coatings maker, with millions of homeowners not allowed by law to go anywhere, likely leaving them with time for home projects. Phillips said his hardware stores continue to be out of some Rust-Oleum products.

And, what began as a run on certain PPE products, wipes and gloves, for example, Phillips said, eventually moved to other products. The only type of PPE that is likely being overproduced right now is masks, Phillips said, which isn’t a bad thing because it makes their cost more reasonable.

But because of production issues in China and Malaysia, he said, the cost of nitrile gloves has increased between 50 and 60 percent, while demand continues to be high. Phillips said his hardware stores are probably still out of 35 to 40 percent of their normal cleaning supplies. Paper-towel production has yet to come completely back yet, he said, while there are also shortages on watering cans and Mason jars.

Phillips said he is being told by his industry contacts that the product fill-rates will likely start to go back up in September. He estimated that a number of major hardware stores and home centers — Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and True Value — are still looking at product fill-rates of about 65 percent to 70 percent.

Tags:

More Regional News

  • Vaccination is the only acceptable form of herd immunity, according to the head of the World Health Organization.

  • Michelle Hinchey

    His 8,171-vote lead over Michelle Hinchey suggests that GOP-backed Richard Amedure had a modicum of broader appeal with voters in the 46th State Senate District than the Democrat. And now that a Montgomery County court judge has ruled on lawsuits filed by each candidate over absentee ballots, the nearly 26,000 votes can be counted. Over half of the mail-in ballots were returned by people who will almost assuredly vote for Hinchey — but that still might not be enough to pull out a win.

  • ALBANY COUNTY — Because of a spike in COVID-19 cases, the University at Albany shifted on Tuesday

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.