Throughout the state on Monday, small business owners waited with bated breath, like spring-seekers on Groundhog Day: Would their business get the nod to reopen, or would it mean six more weeks — or more — until they could begin getting back to normal?
After weeks of postponement and limited details, Governor Charlie Baker released a comprehensive timeline of his office’s plan to reopen the economy in Massachusetts, so long as coronavirus metrics continue to trend downward.
The news was welcomed by Lex Andre Daluz, whose two Marvelous Cuts barbershops have sat empty since mid-March. The barber was prepared to open this Thursday at his Brockton location, yet after months of uncertainty, he was content with just having a definite start date of May 25.
But at Simply Erinn’s Unisex Salon in Cambridge, owner Erinn Danielle said she would “absolutely not” reopen next Monday, in part because she couldn’t secure the medical-grade masks necessary to protect her stylists on such short notice. She placed an order with one supplier only to have it canceled and refunded days later.
Their shops are among the hundreds of hair salons and barbershops granted the green light to open by appointment-only come May 25 as part of phase one of Baker’s plan. Recreational marijuana shops and other retail businesses are also allowed to reopen that day but will be limited to remote fulfillment and curbside pickup only.
Each phase is expected to last a minimum of three weeks but could go longer, depending on trends in coronavirus cases and death counts. The state could also backpedal to an earlier phase if health metrics go south.
Those in the later phases, such as gym owners, restaurateurs, and innkeepers, are painfully aware that their reopening is contingent on the success of the businesses that come before them.
Pam Lemieux can tentatively reopen her A Beach Breeze Inn in West Harwich with restrictions and capacity limitations in early June under phase two of the current timeline. The innkeeper reported having issued over $12,000 in refunds since the pandemic hit. She worries that errant businesses and customers in the first phase could derail the rest of the plan.
“Let’s just hope we stay on track and everybody wears their masks and social distances so the rest of us can have a chance to open. That’s what’s been discouraging about other states is that there are people who just don’t obey the rules and ruin it for the rest of us," said Lemieux.
If the coronavirus cases in the state spike and the reopening plan regresses, many businesses, especially those that rely on perishable inventory, could take another financial blow.
Since Dorchester Brewing Co. has an on-site kitchen, it qualifies as a restaurant and will, therefore, be allowed to open with capacity limitations in phase two. Chief executive Matt Malloy said the company is already brewing beer for the kegs in its taproom. It’s a risky move, he said, since the possibility of the reopening timeline moving back further means he might have to dump over $50,000 worth of beer.
“It takes us three weeks to meet the needs of on-site consumption, so even if they had said we can definitely open June 15, it at least allows us to plan as a business,” he said.
On the other hand, Everett-based Night Shift Brewing is looking at split openings for its two locations, since one has an on-site kitchen and the other taproom relies on food trucks.
“It looks like the definition for a bar is a place that doesn’t prepare food on-site in a kitchen, which would put most taprooms outside of that definition,” said co-owner Rob Burns. “Is one location allowed to open in phase two, and the other not until phase three? That seems kind of random and arbitrary just because we don’t have a kitchen.”
At the Monday press conference, Baker emphasized the uncertainty and variability inherent in phase three and beyond. As a result, the future of bars, casinos, gyms, and museums in the state remains shaky and contingent on the execution of the phases before it.
Boston Ski & Sports Club arranges recreational sports leagues for over 50,000 adults each year, and this morning, chief executive Sharon Brigham was glued to her television screen for Baker’s reopening plans. While she was optimistic about being included in phase two, she thinks her system of leagues will have to wait until phase three.
“The plan doesn’t call out adult recreation, but there seems to be a distinction between contact and noncontact sports,” she said. “We might be able to get off the ground earlier with softball or kickball, but soccer and basketball seem to be more risky, and I totally understand that.”
Dan Yeager, executive director of the New England Museum Association, said he was not surprised that museums were included in phase three of reopening.
“Most museums have not been thinking about a May reopening — I’ve heard people thinking about mid-July or September,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants to do anything to jeopardize the safety of their employees and visitors.”
But for many, Baker’s plan falls short.
Diane Roseman, the owner of the FitLAB pilates studio in Inman Square, was hoping the governor’s reopening plan would allow her to begin taking clients again this week. “It feels a little wrong, just because we’re so tiny. We at most at any time have seven people in the space,” she said. “I feel like we’re less risky than a day spa.”
She said she’s been offering Zoom classes and paying her staff since the shutdown, and got PPP funds to keep them on the payroll. But she wants more specific guidelines about whether small studios can reopen. “Business might be slow for a long time, I don’t know how long my income is going to be down,” she said. “Who do I talk to about my tiny boutique gym? It isn’t the same classification of an Equinox or Planet Fitness.”
But the larger gyms argue that they have the space to reopen sooner.
“We’re a health club, I don’t know why I can’t be involved in getting people back to health,” said Timothy MacDonald, owner and president of Worcester Fitness and Plymouth Fitness. Each of his gyms is over 30,000 square feet, which can help workers enforce social distancing as well as any hardware or grocery store he’s been in over the last few weeks, he said.
“The biggest problem, and biggest source of anxiety is that the information that we’re being given, is always very last minute and it’s never complete,” said Joscelyn Chapman, vice president of the South End Business Alliance, and manager at the Endurance Pilates and Yoga studio. “We feel like it’s not defining each industry well enough, and they’re not really explaining the full purpose of the decision of the phase.”
For example, she said it was hard to distinguish why a hair salon should open in phase one, but not a nail salon or esthetician. And she argued that it was unfair to lump gyms with small boutique fitness studios like the South End studio she manages.
“In the South End we’re tiny, everything is boutique-sized,” she said. “You have a lot of smaller boutique [fitness] studios where they see one client at a time for private instruction. Those should be opening well ahead of places of worship.”
Ed Kane, principal and founder of Big Night Entertainment Group, commended Governor Baker’s advisory team, which “faced [a] Herculean task and delivered a very solid product,” he said in an e-mail. But his company is losing between $1 and $2 million a month during the shutdown, and the governor’s plan allowing nightclubs to open in phase four means those losses will continue for the foreseeable future.
“We think we can successfully and safely reopen in an earlier phase,” he said, using a roadmap which included detailed plans for sanitation, safety, and distancing. Each of his venues is different, he said, and may be able to make adjustments.
“There is no real ‘one size fits all’ approach to any of this,” he said.
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