Small businesses struck by Omicron face hard choices before holidays

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Summary

Covid-19 surge comes as many owners of firms across country try to make up for setbacks encountered this year

Small Businesses Struck by Omicron Face Hard Choices Before Holidays

BY JOE BARRETT | UPDATED DEC 23, 2021 07:00 AM EST

Covid-19 surge comes as many owners of firms across country try to make up for setbacks encountered this year

After nearly two years of dealing with worker shortages, pandemic restrictions and rising prices, many small businesses are suddenly facing a surge of employee illnesses from the Omicron variant that is leading to some hard choices.

Steingold’s of Chicago, a deli in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood, had weathered the pandemic without a single case of Covid-19 until last week, when one of 10 employees tested positive. Co-owner Aaron Steingold followed with a positive result a few days later.

Mr. Steingold decided to close the shop, which is known for its bagels, lox and corned beef, on Saturday and reopened Wednesday, after the remaining staffers tested negative on both rapid and PCR tests. He and the other staffer who tested positive will continue to isolate, and the shop for now will be taking orders with no indoor dining, he said.

Everyone on the staff is fully vaccinated and boosted, he said, but that doesn’t seem to matter with this strain of the virus.

“Every few hours I hear of a new friend or acquaintance who is getting it," Mr. Steingold said in a text exchange because his voice is mostly gone. He said he is starting to feel better, though he still has no sense of smell or taste and becomes dizzy when he stands up.

As the Omicron variant has led to another surge of infections around the country, some cities are beginning to crank up restrictions. On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that starting Jan. 3, Chicagoans will have to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues that serve food or drink. Boston and Philadelphia have announced similar plans.

For small-business owners, the current surge of the virus is coming at what feels like the worst possible time. They have endured previous shutdowns, and a tight labor market has made it harder to return to capacity once they reopened. Supply-chain disruptions have also hurt business.

Brandon Hodge, who owns two stores on South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, and is president of the South Congress Merchants Association, said the pre-Christmas rush is usually when small businesses make enough money to survive lean winter months.

“Those of us who have survived at all now have an opportunity to put a little money in the cash register during the holiday season, only to have the rug pulled out from under us," he said.

Store owners have seen a drop in sales as news of the Omicron variant’s spread has kept some customers home, Mr. Hodge said. His toy store, Monkey See Monkey Do, went from having sales a few weeks ago that surpassed pre-pandemic levels to falling abruptly to about 20% below normal as Covid-19 cases spread, he said. Meanwhile, he and other store owners are hoping their employees stay healthy.

“We’re holding our breath, just trying to make it through the next week," he said.

Julie Mabry, owner of the Houston LGBT nightspot Pearl Bar, made the decision last week to close until after Christmas as five staff members, including herself, tested positive for Covid-19. The week before Christmas is typically a lucrative one, Ms. Mabry said. She included her staff members’ Venmo accounts in her closing announcement so that loyal customers could still send holiday tips.

Ms. Mabry, who said she has “a little bit of PTSD" from the six-month closure the bar endured in 2020, said she has been mentally preparing for another hit to the business. This time, she said, she just wants to make sure her employees don’t take the virus back to their families for Christmas.

“I don’t think most businesses are going to make the choice to close, and I don’t judge anyone for their choices—we all have bills," she said. “I’m not going to stay closed like before, but I am going to make sure people are able to be healthy for the holidays."

At Wren House Brewing Co. in Phoenix, co-owner Drew Pool said he isn’t making any changes in the taproom for now. Staffers have worn masks since reopening in March, and customers are encouraged to wear them.

“I think people are just ready to get back to their lives," Mr. Pool said. “Yeah, Omicron is scary, but I think people are just almost willing to take the risk to get on with their lives."

Kevin Cary, co-founder of Begyle Brewing in Chicago, said he had to close the brewery’s taproom Saturday after a staff member tested positive and others had been exposed to that person, leaving just two servers available to work through the holidays. A second staff member later tested positive, and some others are still waiting on tests.

He said he is hoping for a soft reopening after Christmas and a full reopening after New Year’s, but the situation remains fluid.

“We do have some folks who are healthy now," but at the rate the virus is spreading, it is hard to know who will be available next week, he said. “Basically, it seems like if you’re going out in public there’s some level of risk you’re putting on yourself regardless of the booster."

 

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