Local Businesses Hit Hard by COVID-19

by Julian Fefer & Carrie Ryter, Editors in Chief
graphic by Amandu Fu

Following the rapid and unexpected spread of COVID-19, many businesses have struggled to maintain revenues and retain workers. Small businesses have been hit particularly hard, Karen Masterson, owner of Johnny’s Luncheonette, said.

After Governor Charlie Baker’s March 23 closure of nonessential businesses, which left only gas-stations, medical marijuana dispensaries, grocery stores and other “essential” businesses to open, nonessential businesses across Massachusetts were required to close until April 7. On March 26, Baker extended the closure date to May 4. 

From an economic point of view, Loren Sklar, co-founder of Felix Doolittle, a stationary company based in West Newton, said that other countries are dealing with COVID-19 differently, and potentially more effectively, than the United States.

“Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were somehow able to manage this [pandemic] without the entire economic structure collapsing in on itself,” she said.

Although Sklar said she didn’t initially anticipate the U.S. struggling as greatly as China did, she said that in hindsight she sees that her business prepared for the hardships brought by the coronavirus. 

“Even if we didn’t totally acknowledge it, I would say that we were working at breakneck speed beforehand. Without consciously saying it, we were just working so hard so fast to get as much business at that time before the unknown,” she said. 

Essential stores that have remained open have also modified their practices to ensure safety, Teresa Wood-Kett, a Newton Public Health Program Specialist, said.

“Many are providing extra hand sanitizer, installing plexiglass between the customer and the employee, and many are seeking advice from us about how to maintain safety for all,” she said.

Operational changes have caused businesses to suffer economically, forcing some to let go of employees.

Sklar said that she and her husband, co-founder and artist Felix Fu, were forced to lay off their entire team of seven employees. 

“We either had to file a chapter 11 and there’s no business at all for them to come back to, … or we lay them off,” she said. “We talked about it with everyone; we told them of course everyone has a job once we can come back. There’s not anyone we don’t want back. … Every person is so valuable for what they know and the part they play in the whole creation process.”

Victor Lee, owner of the Paper Mouse Shop and Atelier, a calligraphy and stationary store in West Newton, however, has opted to keep his employees on payroll for as long as possible.

“Economically, it’s been difficult, but I’ve done my best, and I’ve kept my team with me. They’re still on payroll, and I’d like to keep that as long as possible,” he said. “It’s a small group, and they depend on the job to pay their rent and their own livelihood. I don’t have the heart to [lay them off].”

Senior Amit Fudim said that Baker’s decision represented a scenario in which a perfect outcome was impossible.

“He was in a Catch-22 because he has to keep people safe, and the only way to do that is by isolating them,” he said. “But then you also need to make sure that people have a living, and the only way to do that is by not isolating them and bringing them together so they can buy stuff.”

Lee said that the financial effects of the coronavirus are uniquely destructive to small businesses. 

“Larger corporations will have maybe higher credit lines or perhaps more operating money put aside. When you’re a small business, you have less working capital, and it’s difficult to manage. As I’ve seen with large corporations, it seems like it’s very easy for them to just lay off entire departments or groups and just continue to function that way. When you’re already a small team, I really need everyone I got,” he said.
Eri Kola, the owner of Stone L’Oven’s Waban location, said that many small businesses may be permanently put out of business.

“[Stone L’Oven] will survive this period because we can do pickups and deliveries, but for most small businesses it’s going to be devastating,” he said.

Though the coronavirus is currently devastating businesses, Fudim said he believes that mandated store closures and requests that people stay home will prove effective in the long run.

“This is the best method in terms of removing the virus completely,” he said. “Our economy will only suffer the longer the virus goes on. Getting rid of the virus is the biggest economic boon that you can give to any company right now.”

Masterson said that to effectively maintain businesses throughout the pandemic, everybody in the community has to contribute. She said that to support businesses, landlords should extend debt repayment deadlines for small-businesses, local community members should purchase from businesses and media outlets should adequately cover how the crisis is affecting businesses.

“If everybody gives something, we’ll get through this,” she said. “But everybody has got to share the pain to some degree, or we will lose a significant number of businesses.”