In Georgia, 6 Owners of Small Businesses Eye Coming Back From COVID-19

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp reopened much of his state’s economy a month ago, making Georgia one of the first states to begin to do so during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Peach State’s stay-at-home order expired April 30 and now only a few kinds of businesses, such as amusement parks, are closed through the end of May.

“Given the favorable data, enhanced testing, and approval of our health care professionals, we will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools, and massage therapists to reopen their doors this Friday [April 24],” Kemp, a Republican, said during an April 20 press conference.

>>> What’s the best way for America to reopen and return to business? The National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, a project of The Heritage Foundation, assembled America’s top thinkers to figure that out. So far, it has made more than 260 recommendations. Learn more here.

Kemp has received harsh criticism for reopening Georgia as early as he did, despite no clear data to show a correlation between an increase of COVID-19 cases and open businesses.

Georgia has had 44,421 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,907 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The number of new cases has varied dramatically from day to day; April 6 saw 900 cases, which dropped to 402 six days later, which jumped to 866 the next day.

On April 24, when many Georgia businesses were allowed to reopen, the state logged 807 new coronavirus cases. The number of cases continued to rise and fall, with cases reported May 10 dropping to 276, for example.

At over 4,200 cases, Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and other cities just north, has had the most cases per county in the state.

Many small businesses across America have borne a heavy financial burden during the pandemic. Georgia’s shelter-in-place order took effect April 3 and was lifted May 1, meaning many businesses had to close their doors or alter practices dramatically for at least five weeks.

The Daily Signal spoke with six owners of small businesses in Fulton County to learn how the lockdown affected their business and how they rate state leadership’s handling of the pandemic.

1. Avery Emerson Salon

(Photos: Virginia Allen/The Daily Signal)

Owner: Katie Michalski, 33

Katie Michalski made the decision to be her own boss and start her own salon in 2015. As a wife and mom of two young kids, she says the best thing about owning her own business is the flexibility, what she calls having “more control over my life.”

Michalski, who has been cutting hair since she was 19, says she is grateful to have discovered a career she loves so early in life. Sitting in her stylist chair and wearing a mask, she explains that COVID-19 has been a trying season.

“I made no money for five weeks,” Michalski says. “I knew we would reopen. I was just concerned about how long I would have no income.”

“When I came back,” she adds, “it was pretty much like starting my business again financially. Because while we were gone I had to use the money that I had saved.”

The stylist said she and her husband depend on two incomes, so when Kemp allowed salons to reopen April 24, she was ready.

Although some customers are concerned about coming in for a haircut, business has been good and she personally is “not living in fear about the virus,” Michalski says.

Despite the criticism Kemp has received for allowing businesses to open across the state when he did, Michalski says, “I think he made the best choices he could make with the information that he had.”

“It’s impossible to please everybody,” she says. “But I think for all of us self-employed people, we had to come back to pay our bills.”

2. Bayou Q

Owner: Marcus Dickman, 49

Marcus Dickman took a bold step toward fulfilling a lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant Jan. 31 by closing on an old brick house in downtown Roswell.

“We were originally planning on opening April 15,” Dickman recalls. The stay-at-home order and health precautions meant slowing both construction work and the proper permits needed to open:

We would only allow one tradesperson in at a time. … Normally, you would have five or six different crews in pounding stuff out. … No one is cross-working, so that has really slowed us down. Plus, with everything shutting down, that slowed down the permitting process, health department, all that stuff.

Dickman says he is thankful that he was still in the construction phase when COVID-19 hit, but acknowledges it’s been challenging financially because he wasn’t eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program loan because he had not hired employees yet. Nor did he get any money from the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program because his business wasn’t yet open.

It’s impossible to know how much money was lost due to the delayed opening, the restaurant owner says, but he hopes to be ready to serve customers within two weeks. Dickman says he plans to take health precautions, such as setting up hand-sanitizing stations, to make sure employees and customers are safe at Bayou Q.

With Georgia’s being “the first to kind of get back on track,” he says, Kemp “got criticized for it, but I think he did the right thing.”

“Because you give people the option,” Dickman adds. “People can stay in if they are comfortable, they can stay home; but if people want to get out, they can get out.”

3. Deep Roots Wine Market & Tasting Room

Owner: Dana Gurela, 51

Dana Gurela describes the first two years of running her own wine market and tasting room as “absolutely amazing.”

“Every month was better than the month before,” Gurela says.

She says she was anticipating a 30% increase in revenue in 2020 before March 16, when the coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed the way she was conducting business.

“Because wine and alcohol is essential, we got to stay open a little bit,” Gurela says. “But we went from on that Sunday [March 15] having 11 people on our payroll, to the very next day [when] we had one person on our payroll.”

Up until COVID-19 hit, Deep Roots Wine Market & Tasting Room was a place of community, offering comfortable chairs and a stylist bar where patrons could sit at as they sipped glasses of wine.

A large part of Gurela’s business is events. The first week that businesses began to rapidly close across the country was supposed to be a major events week for the small wine venue.

“That week was what is called the High Museum [Atlanta] Wine Auction week,” Gurela says, adding:

Huge week for the wine industry. We literally had two events every single night that week planned, ticketed events. … I sat down on that Monday, March 16, I will never forget it, and issued refunds for all the tickets. It was about $10,000. And so for a really tiny business like mine, that $10,000 was enormous.

Sitting in a corner of her market sipping a glass of sparkling wine, the small business owner says she spent the next three weeks depressed before deciding she had to do something.

“That’s when we created our online store,” Gurela says. “We started doing these virtual wine tastings that people absolutely loved.”

Patrons come to the wine shop to pick up a tasting kit, then join an online tasting, during which the winemaker explains each wine. With many customers still hesitant to join public gatherings, the market plans to continue virtual events through June.

Despite holding digital events, selling wines online, and receiving the Paycheck Protection Program loan, Gurela says, her business “absolutely will not” be able to make up the lost income.

“I think people don’t understand that small businesses operate on such a slim margin. Literally one week can make your life and the next week can ruin your life–the life of the business, I mean.”

Despite the financial challenges presented by COVID-19, though, Gurela says she is concerned about how soon Georgia’s governor decided to allow businesses to reopen:

I was shocked at how soon [Kemp] did reopen things. I think it’s been OK, and I think the only reason it’s been OK is that a lot of small business owners have said we are not going to do it yet. So we are sort of policing ourselves and going slower than just ‘We are open for business.’ We are taking it in phases.

4. L Squared Enterprises

Owner: Michael Lynch, 30

Starting his own construction business was a long-held dream for Michael Lynch, this reporter’s brother-in-law, and it became a reality in April 2016.

Lynch and his crew of four specialize in building playgrounds and laying turf in the Atlanta area, and Georgia allowed construction workers to continue doing their jobs during COVID-19. So Lynch was able to keep paying his employees and contract with others to help on larger jobs.

The greatest challenge, he says, was receiving payment from jobs he already had completed.

“I had a job, [but] they paid me three months behind schedule because of COVID,” Lynch says.

Unlike so many other small businesses, he says, he has been fortunate not to have lost work during the pandemic.

“I specifically chose to be in playground [construction] … because it is more recession-resistant, and that has proven to be true,” he says.

Although “time will tell” whether Kemp moved too quickly in reopening Georgia, Lynch says, “I don’t think he opened too early.”

5. Plum Tree Salon and Spa

Owner: Barbara Sangenito, 62

She has co-owned Plum Tree Salon and Spa for 19 years, Barbara Sangenito says while sitting on the back porch of the salon, which is in what was originally a brick house.

But no former experience could have prepared Sangenito for the challenges presented by COVID-19.

Closing the doors of her salon for weeks to abide by Georgia’s stay-at-home order ultimately led to an income loss that she says will take “quite a while” to recover.

“We were unable to pay our rent,” Sangenito says. “The utilities still were the same prices, so we have to kind of catch up.”

The salon provides space for 10 self-employed hair stylists to work, but to keep staff and customers safe, only five cosmetologists were working at a time as of the end of April.

A large sign outside the entrance asks customers to use hand sanitizer from a large container before going in. If a customer doesn’t bring a mask to wear, the salon supplies one.

“We are disinfecting between each client big time,” Sangenito says.

Despite the salon’s efforts to make them feel safe, she says, clients have been slow to return.

“I thought it was too early,” Sangenito says of the governor’s timing in reopening the state’s economy. “I think it was just to get everybody off unemployment.”

“So we are glad to be open because we are making money,” she adds, “but I know [reopening] was definitely a financial decision.”

The situation is “very stressful at times,” she acknowledges, commenting twice that it’s a “very odd feeling.”

Although she says she hopes things will return to normal soon, she doubts that will be the case, noting her concern that some fellow Georgians aren’t taking more precautions to practice social distancing or wear masks.

“But my girls need to work because they are self-employed,” Sangenito says of the stylists.

6. From the Earth Brewing Co.

Owner: Tim Stevens, 46

“We went from being very busy, very active, to really kind of juggling to keep the doors open and keep people employed,” Tim Stevens tells The Daily Signal.

Stevens’ restaurant, From the Earth Brewing Co., was awarded the title of “Best Brewpub 2020” by USA Today in early March. Since he opened it in October 2017, the brewery and pub had become a popular gathering place featuring live music. But since the pandemic, Stevens says, his restaurant has operated more like a general store.

To keep his business afloat and pay his employees, Stevens has done what he could: selling bottled beer and wine to go, providing curbside pickup for food orders, making lunches for children who were out of school, feeding front-line workers, selling fresh produce boxes from local farmers, and even making hand sanitizer in the distillery.

Even so, “we were still off probably 75%, probably closer to 70%,” he says.

Events usually are a key part of the business and with so many canceled events, he says, it’s highly unlikely the brewpub will be able to make up the lost revenue.

“I don’t see any way to recoup that,” Stevens says, although he has had to furlough only one employee.

If he had been forced to close his doors completely, he says, it would have meant bankruptcy and the loss of his house:

We would lose everything, my home, everything. We opened this with an SBA [Small Business Administration] loan and obviously they want that collateralized, and we had to put our house on the line and that would have been taken.

It is still “a scary time,” he says, even though Georgia largely is reopened.

“It’s not all about COVID. It’s about gaining the trust of the community and getting them back out spending money,” Stevens says. “That is not going to be as easy.”

Apart from employees and one or two customers, the restaurant’s tables are empty on a spring Thursday afternoon, and Stevens says Friday and Saturday nights, normally the busiest times, have been very slow.

“My personal view is, I think it [Georgia] was opened too early,” he says. “With that being said, there luckily has not been a spike [in COVID-19 cases], so I am glad. I think we are a couple weeks ahead now, especially [since] there was not a spike … of regaining our normal traffic.”

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