Winter is coming: Small businesses brace for cold and COVID
Restaurants and gig workers have stayed afloat by moving business outdoors, but what happens as cold sets in?
Karyn Kuhl loves strumming her guitar and belting out the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine to an audience of excited toddlers. Kuhl, a professional musician and the owner of Little Rock n’ Rollers, teaches weekly children’s music classes in New Jersey. But her business, and her income, fell by roughly half earlier this year as the lockdown kept her young students at home and the pandemic’s economic fallout closed the music store where she held classes.
But the arrival of warmer weather gave her the option to hold classes outside – helping to revive her businesses.
Throughout the summer and early fall, Kuhl’s kids and their grown-up caregivers socially distanced themselves on picnic blankets, sang, danced and signed up for more of her classes. But Kuhl wonders what will happen when colder temperatures inevitably drive those families back indoors – and her income back down.
“Families have been thrilled to be together again in a safe setting. But it’s very stressful not knowing what I’ll be able to do or feel comfortable doing once it gets too cold to be outside,” Kuhl told Al Jazeera. “I have no idea what my income will be after another month or so, and that’s extremely anxiety-producing. My classes are for very young children, so it’s challenging to make it work online.”
Across the US, small business owners are wondering how they will stay afloat as colder temperatures make outdoor activities more difficult and Congress remains at loggerheads over the next round of coronavirus economic relief aid.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats have proposed $2.2 trillion in coronavirus aid, but the Trump administration has previously signalled it would be willing to approve just $1.3 trillion.
In the meantime, the livelihoods of American families hang in the balance – and a potential resurgence of COVID-19 infections in this part of the United States looms as cold and flu season dawns.
“Something that should be an urgent response to an unprecedented national crisis has become politicised,” Maria Figueroa, the director of labour and policy research at Cornell University’s Worker Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Some 22 million Americans lost their jobs in March and April. While roughly half of those jobs have come back, data suggests that the recovery is shifting into low gear as that last round of federal stimulus fades, including the additional $600 a week federal top to unemployment benefits that expired in July, and has not been renewed.
“As a society and as a country, we were not prepared for this, and our government doesn’t seem to care enough to make efforts to get us out of it,” Figueroa said.
To reboot their businesses during the US summer months, many restaurant owners invested in building patios and converting sidewalks and parking spaces into outdoor dining areas. Now, they wonder how a region that gets its fair share of snow from December to March will make it through a long and potentially unprofitable winter without government aid.
In New York and New Jersey, restaurants only got the green light to resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity in September.
Sisters Sarah Grace and Georgia Johnson manage two restaurants on opposite sides of the road from each other in Jersey City: a pub called the Fox and Crow, and a coffee house called Lil’ Dove. Both businesses were completely closed from mid-March until late June, and the sisters and their parents, Art and Sarah Johnson, lost 100 percent of their income. To help their struggling employees, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise donations for their busboys, cooks and servers.
Obviously, we wish we could move inside for everyone to continue eating and drinking together, but we are also still in the midst of a global pandemic, and entering a seasonal flu season.
When New Jersey permitted outdoor dining in June, the Johnsons had to shell out about $15,000 to be able to reopen: creating online ordering tools for their websites, buying paper goods for to-go orders and all of the supplies to create two sidewalk cafes from scratch, including tables, chairs, artificial grass, plants, umbrellas, tents and heaters.
Opening now requires “essentially ‘building’ the restaurant every day prior to customers’ arrival,” Georgia Johnson told Al Jazeera.
“There are a lot of ‘voluntary’ hours going in every day to keep the businesses afloat by all members of our family,” she added. “This time and energy is what allows us to continue serving the neighbourhood and employ our staff – but does not necessarily allow us to gain anything financially.”
Over the summer and early fall, both businesses were able to rehire some of their staff. But, Art Johnson said, they’ve been “operating at approximately 40 percent of what it did prior to the pandemic. It goes without saying that this is putting strain on our business and all hospitality-based businesses operating in this environment.”
The Fox and Crow used to offer live music multiple nights a week, something the Johnsons haven’t been able to bring back yet. Several of the local musicians who used to have standing performance nights at the pub have moved out of the area because of the high cost of living near New York City and the lack of gigs.
“We miss our musicians and live music terribly, however, at the present time, there doesn’t seem to be any way to continue indoors as a music venue,” Sarah Johnson said. “Once we get on the other side of this, we hope to come back strong and welcome back the many talented musicians of Jersey City and beyond.”
As the weather gets colder, customers have asked the Johnsons what they plan to do. They’re considering delivery options and perhaps adding some reservation-based indoor seating, they said, but feel health and safety must trump profits, especially since their entire family works there.
“Obviously, we wish we could move inside for everyone to continue eating and drinking together, but we are also still in the midst of a global pandemic, and entering a seasonal flu season,” Sarah Grace Johnson said. “I think we are all really anxious to see what comes of the coming weeks. My vote is to bundle up and embrace the brisk weather – we’ve got outdoor heaters.”
Michelle Goitia teaches prenatal and postnatal yoga and hosts new mom support groups in New York and New Jersey. She spoke to Al Jazeera at the start of the pandemic about how it had virtually wiped out her income. Since then, she’s continued to teach some of her classes online and others in her local park.
“Since my clientele are pregnant women and moms with new babies, I waited to move my classes outdoors until the weather became cooler,” Goitia told Al Jazeera.
But as temperatures drop further, moving things back indoors isn’t easy. Some of the yoga studios where she taught before the pandemic have closed their brick-and-mortar spaces permanently. Others have drastically reduced the number of classes they offer to cope with fewer students, stricter cleaning requirements and reduced income.
“I also had my own space that closed completely, so I have had to teach online completely,” Goitia said. “Since it seems our lives are completely online with work and family meet-ups, people are less likely to take a class online as of late. My yoga class income decreased 34 percent and my support group income decreased 15 percent.”
When Goitia surveyed her clients this summer, most said they were not ready to take a class indoors. But some were, so Goitia decided to try offering one at 25 percent capacity. “I am almost sold out,” she said, even though all attendees must wear masks for the entire class and bring their own yoga mats and props.
Goitia and Kuhl both said they have seen “Zoom fatigue” in their students – and a decline in online class sign-ups months into the pandemic. Virtual classes also earn them less – Kuhl charges $15 for a Zoom music class versus $24 for an in-person one, for example, and Goitia said she upped her virtual fee to $20 to match her in-person one after her income took a hit last spring.
But restaurants can’t take things online in the same way when temperatures drop, and take-out food and drinks hurt tipped restaurant employees’ bottom line. That’s why government help will be crucial to families like the Johnsons.
“We want our businesses to survive the pandemic and remain open serving our loyal customers, but should we face lockdown or extreme restrictions this winter, financial support from the government will be required to allow small businesses to pay their basic monthly expenses,” Georgia Johnson said.
Something that should be an urgent response to an unprecedented national crisis has become politicised.
Figueroa said some of the temporary protections aimed at gig workers and the hospitality industry – including hazard pay, unemployment insurance, COVID relief cheques and rent relief – must be extended to help people survive.
“Families, small businesses and gig workers are paying for the human costs of this crisis, as they are getting evicted from their homes, having to shut down their businesses, and just becoming extremely more vulnerable to the health risks and economic consequences of the crisis,” Figueroa explained. “There is also a need to set up a permanent safety net and healthcare for gig workers.”
Goitia also wishes it wasn’t all on gig workers like her to figure out how to stay afloat. After receiving a $1,700 federal stimulus cheque last spring, Goitia has filed for unemployment benefits from her state with only limited success.
“The process and system is cumbersome and cannot handle the amount of people that need help. For example, I applied for unemployment in June and I have only received one payment,” she explained. “The system needs to be restructured for self-employed people, because our income is different than that of someone working for a company with multiple employees.”
Kuhl agrees. “I haven’t been eligible for a lot of assistance since I’m not a brick-and-mortar business,” she said. “The pandemic unemployment assistance needs to be reinstated ASAP. All types of small businesses and individuals need to be eligible for grants and loans from all levels of government.”