Businesses that scaled back operations to help stop the spread of COVID-19 are reopening. The Globe is sharing the experiences of small-business owners, in their own words, as they get back to work.
| Heather White, chief executive |
Trillfit, Boston • In business since: 2015
Prior to the pandemic, fitness studio Trillfit had sold out its classes for more than 50 consecutive days. Heather White, a first-time entrepreneur, is now developing a different business model that will rely heavily on her studio’s newly created digital content, instead of its popular group dance classes.
Before COVID, we were projecting a 50 percent increase in memberships. Then COVID happened, and the momentum we had been building basically just stopped.
When we look at 2019 altogether, memberships were 40 percent of revenue. Our post-COVID projection: Group classes don’t exist, and memberships will be cut in half because folks won’t feel comfortable going into the studio anymore.
I built myself a very conservative business estimate. We need to carry the entire business, including the footprint at 1484 Tremont St., assuming we can’t open the studio for another year. We have to make that up, and we still have to grow, so what are the new ways we are going to do that?
For me, that is digital. It is monetizing the digital program. We were able to pivot our programming to digital pretty quickly, seemingly overnight. I redid our entire business plan, and we now have digital as 52 percent of our revenue.
We have been doing everything for free these last three months, and it has given us the ability to test a lot of out-of-the-box things. There will be a digital membership; we started outdoor classes in July, and we will do them until we feel it is safe to go back into the studio.
We have been offering three free classes daily on Zoom. Those are live classes taught from the instructors’ living rooms. Once we launch our digital membership, we will be building kits for instructors because we are looking to level up the experience and make it feel more premium. They will have specific branding that they can set up and take down.
We have seen well over 14,000 people come through our live classes. It’s not just folks from Boston — it’s 92 different cities, 22 different states, at least seven different countries.
Folks know this programming has been free since the studio closed. We started telling people that starting in July, we are offering a paid digital membership. We’ll still have some free opportunities for folks, because access is really important to us, and we will be working with sponsors to offer programming to different groups.
The earliest we would open the studio is in August. Frankly, a lot of our members have said to us, “We trust you; as soon as I can get back to the studio, I will.” Knowing how deeply they trust us, we are taking this super-seriously. We won’t be the first people to open our studio.
The studio is dark and it looks like a club, which people find fun. A lot of that is going to be changing. This is a completely different environment. We could fit 24 people in the studio. Post-COVID, we won’t have more than nine people in the studio, including the instructors.
It’s challenging, but it is practical. We are not going to lay off a single person; We are not going to do it. Period. We have a great brand, and we need to make a business plan and a marketing plan that is achievable.
There is no going back. Whether you are talking about the pandemic or racial injustice, the world is a very different place. A lot of people are waking up and feeling differently, and that is going to change their regular routines. As a Black, woman-owned business, as an organization that stands for health equity and the desegregation of the wellness industry, this is our time to remake it. Trillfit has been talking about diversity in wellness for five and a half years.
Since the murder of George Floyd, it seems like folks have woken up, and a lot of our peers in the industry, a lot of fellow studio owners, have reached out to me personally to either offer support, ask for help, or acknowledge they have not been doing the work and would like to now.
― ANISSA GARDIZY
| Ana Cojocaru, pulmonary and critical care specialist |
PrimaCare, Fall River • In business since: 1996
At PrimaCare, an outpatient clinic in Fall River, doctors have had to master a new kind of hands-off health care. After shutting down in March, the clinic began reopening in mid-May, using a combination of in-office visits and long-range telemedicine.
It was the end of March when the governor said, ‘You’re closing.’ We were not doing televisits at that time because they were not being reimbursed . . . We were technically supposed to see them in clinic. We were not paid for any telephone or even video-audio consultations with a patient. When the governor shut us down, he made the insurance companies reimburse us for any kind of treatment on the phone.
We asked each patient, if you don’t feel well or you wish to have a discussion with a doctor, a doctor will call you . . . Only 30 percent of patients decided that they wanted initially to speak to us. So basically our business was down significantly at that point. I would say about 75 percent of our employees were furloughed. But then, a few weeks later, we brought back a number because we couldn’t keep up with the phones. Later on, people had a lot of questions, especially with pulmonary complaints. We were receiving more than 300 calls per day from patients. We have up to 12 people back now, out of 20.
If I used to see 20 patients a day, now I’m seeing 15, 17, maybe sometimes 12. But these are not live visits. The majority of them are still televisits. A lot of patients are not comfortable to come back. I have to reassure them that we have undertaken all the steps to make sure we are not exposing them.
We provide masks to each patient at the entrance of our building. The patient is being screened with questions, for temperature, and we keep checking on oxygen saturation . . . If they screen positive, they are not allowed to come in. They are asked to go back into their car and we do a televisit with them. If the patient needs to be seen, we don’t want to turn the patient away. Then we have a special area, a small space that is separate from our office, with a special entrance.
After each patient we see in a room, we clean the room completely. We disinfect everything. Now we actually clean and let the cleaner sit for at least 15 minutes in each room.
I hope that this will help us with a second wave that I think unfortunately is going to be here, and I think COVID is going to be with us for over a year from now, until we get a vaccine.
Financially we are in worse shape, but I think that we are much more prepared for anything at this point, because this is the worst virus that you can imagine.
-- HIAWATHA BRAY
| Mark Ferreira, captain, administrator for business |
Salvation Army thrift store, Brockton • In business since: 2009
Salvation Army Captain Mark Ferreira, who administers the church’s Brockton Adult Rehabilitation Center, also runs its Brockton thrift store and four others, in Bridgewater, Hanover, Taunton, and West Yarmouth. Ferreira wasted no time reopening in early June, because a lot of people depend on the stores, not just their employees.
We have a 50-bed drug and alcohol rehab here in Brockton. That’s a free program, no insurance required. They can be there for six to 12 months to work on their recovery and that’s entirely funded by the thrift stores in this region. That is an essential and vital service that we continue to provide throughout the pandemic shutdown. We had to kind of dive deep into our reserves, which came dangerously close to being depleted, and do everything that we could to save costs and just keep operating.
It was the middle of the week of [March] 16th when we closed our stores. It was an agonizing process. I know that some retailers determined for themselves that they were essential. We have a lot of things that are essential items and I suppose that there may have been a case for it. But we had to weigh that with the safety of our employees. We watched the cases rise with horror here in the city of Brockton, and knew that we had made the right call.
Massachusetts moved into Phase 2 of reopening on June 8th. We managed to open our doors to the public on the 9th. We felt strongly that we had to reopen the stores, both for our customers that depend on affordable goods and for the income to support our programs.
We have fitting rooms in all of our facilities that are now closed and so we’re constantly having to remind people that it’s not safe to be trying things on and putting them back on the rack. If somebody does try something on that they don’t purchase, we have to put that clothing aside in quarantine.
We are giving away pens when people sign for their credit card because it's easier than sanitizing the pen.
Certain items have always had to be sanitized. We’ve always had to do that for furniture, any upholstered items. Clothing is something that under normal circumstances we don’t sanitize. Most people do donate things clean. We allow all donations to rest for a period of at least 24 hours before processing. We know that on fabrics, a minimum of 24 hours is basically good enough for any contamination. The coronavirus should no longer be a risk.
We do want people to know that when they shop at the Salvation Army, it’s not just making somebody rich. It’s not just supporting a business. It’s not just supporting the employees that are here, but it’s supporting life-changing programs. We have people whose lives depend on the services that we provide.
-- HIAWATHA BRAY
| Julio Guerrero, Owner |
Temple of Groom in Cambridge • In business since: 2018
Temple of Groom, a four-chair barbershop in Cambridge, reopened about two weeks ago. Owner Julio Guerrero, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said he is paying rent for two spaces, because he was supposed to open a second location in March. The pandemic halted the expansion, and Guerrero doesn’t know when it might go forward.
“I had high expectations when coming back to work ― people being without a haircut for three months. My expectation was that my business was going to be slammed. Surprisingly, it’s not.
The first week was busy, but right after that, the business went down. Normally, we do around 45 to 50 customers a day, and now we might reach 15.
Right now it is only two barbers. We use them every other day. That way everyone can make a little bit. They are not even making half of what they did before. I’m pretty sure they are struggling with the money, because I know everyone has bills to pay.
We are located between Harvard and MIT — that means we depend a lot on the colleges. We are also near a lot of biotech companies, and most of the employees are back home. That is 70 percent of our clients.
I don’t think Harvard and MIT are going to come back in September, and even if they do, the international students are not going to be here. There are not going to be 100 percent of the classes on campus.
This year is over for us. I don’t see us performing for more than 35 or 40 percent of normal revenue. That is if we are lucky.
My landlord has been very nice to me, but now we are up and running. The reality is that we are performing about 15 to 20 percent of what we usually do. So it is going to be really tough to pay rent.
We rent space in Kenmore Square, where the second location is supposed to be. We invested our savings to build a new Temple of Groom over there. We were supposed to open in the beginning of March. We have a place ready to go, but we can’t open. There are no clients right now. Nobody expected what is going on — we have two rents, only one place up and running, and we are performing like 20 percent.
I have to tell you something, we were doing great. This business has been open for two years, and we connected with the neighborhood right away. We have customers that are comfortable to come back to the barbershop, but a lot of them are still scared. We raised prices [by] $5. People are happy to pay for it.
But we are happy to be alive. That is the more important thing.
My employees are glad to be back to work. To be sitting at home is not mentally healthy. For a barber, we spend 10 hours a day at the shop, and after three months at home, we really wanted to be back.
I have a lot of support from my family. In the beginning they were kind of scared, because in this business, there is no way to be six feet away from the customer. We take a big risk every single day.
| Tatyana Souza, Owner |
Coolidge Yoga in Brookline and the South End • In business since: 2013
While Souza’s yoga studio is closed until Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, she is offering classes online. But they hardly make up for the lost revenue. About a fifth of the studio’s members are engaging online at discounted rates, and Souza doesn’t know how soon clients will feel comfortable returning in person.
I did not imagine that we would be opening in May or even June. So opening as early as July, if everything goes well, sounds realistic. I knew our business would not be in Phase 1.
I have been thinking about it a lot, and my feeling is that it may be safest to start running outdoor yoga in the summer months. To me, that feels like a viable option. We would rely on the Brookline parks and Brookline allowing us access to them.
Indoor classes would have to be limited in size — my guess is about a 30 percent capacity, so that we can maintain distance. No prop sharing, everyone brings their own mats, and of course lots of sanitization in between classes.
We have an online program, so we would keep that going, as well. I am sure that some people are not going to feel comfortable until there are treatment options or a vaccine.
I hope we have enough support so that we can stay afloat. Right now we are at a place where we need to grow some revenue. I think it will depend on how many clients are willing to stay with us as members, either online or in smaller class sizes, and if that is enough to maintain our bills.
We will just lay low and know this is going to be a really bad year.
| Stacey Kraft, Owner |
Flair Boston bridal boutique • In business since: 2012
Kraft had to close her bridal boutique during her peak season of sales, and now, because Massachusetts’ Phase 2 guidelines restrict the use of fitting rooms, she feels like she’s still sitting on the sidelines. As events have been canceled through the end of the year, she’s trying to find a way forward.
I’ve always thought of us as the everygirl’s bridal shop. It’s like walking into your friend’s house that happens to have 250 bridal gowns. We have a staff of eight women, four who are part-time, and four who are full-time, including myself.
We had two of our best years ever these past two years and, from the standpoint of COVID, we saw it coming. We obviously deal with international designers. We knew in January around Chinese New Year that something bad was happening. We didn’t expect it to be this bad.
We weren’t that nervous until March and the alarm bells started going off — then we shut down immediately. We went from 100 percent capacity of sales down to 5 percent. Last month I sold one bridal gown, going down from 70 or 80 normally. I’m missing out on the full second quarter of the year, which is usually our busiest. It’s really difficult.
A bridal gown is a specialty purchase — it’s one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, article of clothing you’re going to buy, and you want the experience to be special. It’s an amazing experience to sit there with your mom and grandmother or brother or cousin. It’s a seminal moment, and to say let’s do it virtually and via Zoom? That’s not fun for me.
You want to touch, you want to feel it. My entire family was like ‘Just start selling online,’ and I was like, ‘I can’t do this virtually. We need to be there and look at their body and say here’s what’s amazing about you. You can’t see people’s bodies and who they are and how they move.’ The in-person experience is just so much better.
We tried it and did sell one or two to people. We did some accessory appointments and hair and veil consults. That’s where the trickle of 5 percent came in.
We were one of the lucky ones in getting a PPP loan. We kept everyone on the whole time and have been able to give them stuff to do at home: checking in with brides, helping with shipping and receiving of gowns. Let me tell you, it’s super fun to have your guest room filled with bridal gowns and have a four-year-old at home.
Some of our poor designers are sewing dresses at home, dying to get their dresses on time for these teeny tiny weddings. But the majority of people are canceling and rescheduling, and we’ve been consoling them.
My husband and I canceled our wedding and rescheduled. When we were engaged, my husband got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’s fine now, but I realized, in sharing my firsthand experience, that I had to do it by myself. Brides have a community now and they can talk about it. Most of them mourn for a couple days and then move on. And so overall, brides in general have been amazing, very resilient. And obviously, being a Boston-based business, a lot of my brides are doctors and nurses and in the health care community and get that there are more important things to worry about.
But as far as getting back to business, we were pleased with how reopening was starting to go. I’m obviously all for keeping people safe, but what is wacky to me is the rule about no fitting rooms or trying on garments. They’re nervous that people trying on one garment after the other will spread the virus.
We can control the environment. I can control if I have one person or three people in the store. We were disappointed that there weren’t guidelines put out allowing businesses to be creative, to allow them to use their space.
We know how to keep the garments safe: quarantining the garment for 48 hours or steaming it at a high temperature. Even if you let me do that I could sell seven dresses a week and that could cover the cost of my rent and paying my people and keeping the lights on.
It feels like winners and losers are being picked. I know we can be creative, and I know in other states that it’s working. Plenty of girls are going to be like, ‘I’ll go to Connecticut or Rhode Island to get my dress.’ And there goes all that tax revenue I could be paying the state.
So right now, I know they want to come in, and we want to service them. We’re ready, we’ve been ready, and we’re sitting around waiting to make things as least-awkward as possible, considering you’ll be looking at yourself in a mirror in a mask.
-- JANELLE NANOS
| Kelly Hoeg, Co-owner |
Heritage Books • In business since: 2019
Hoeg and her husband bought the 56-year-old bookstore last year. At first, she responded to the COVID-19 shutdown by offering curbside pickup. But after Memorial Day, when churches were allowed to reopen, Hoeg decided to unlock her doors.
If someone called and said, ‘Can I come in?’ I said yes, yes. Have your mask on. I have hand sanitizer. When Governor Baker gave the churches the go-ahead, because 50 percent of my business is church supplies, I was a little more lenient on being open to the public. Most of it was based on the decision that churches had the green light. We are a necessity to that, as Home Depot is to the construction worker.
So they needed stuff. I was here for them. But I didn’t feel like I could have a technical, full-on, ‘Hey, I’m open.’ I’m not announcing it on Facebook. I’m not doing any social media that says we’re open. It’s basically word-of-mouth.
My sales have been pretty good right now. People are chomping at the bit to come in . . . And I’m not advertising that we’re open, so I can’t imagine what’s going to happen once we say, hey, Heritage House is fully open. Come on back in. We’re kind of in the hopes that our doors will be breaking down.
We wash our doors constantly. As people come and go, I’m wiping down with disinfectants. I have hand sanitizer available in the bathrooms and on the front counter, so after every transaction we’re using that for ourselves, as well. Before the pandemic we made sure our shelves were very clean. For a bookstore to be dusty, that doesn’t feel good to me or the previous owner . . . I’m just maintaining that same thing. I do have signs on very specific things. We have anointing oils that people tend to want to open and smell. We have a sign on that: ‘Please do not open bottles.’
In a perfect world, we’re going to have our income increase and we’re going to be able to restock when needed. So we’re riding a fine line . . . a little bit of sleepless nights, but trusting in God.
-- HIAWATHA BRAY
| Bessie King, Co-owner |
Villa Mexico Cafe • In business since: 2000
Bessie King and her mother, Julie, have run Villa Mexico Cafe in downtown Boston for 20 years. They have stayed open throughout the shutdown, bolstered by donations of food to front-line workers. But as those donations have died down, the Kings worry about what the future holds, as they are located in a warren of largely empty office towers.
We have not closed a day. Back when we began hearing that things were shutting down, my mom said, ‘We can’t close; how are our employees going to eat and get money?’ We’re independent, women-owned, and we’re penny-pinchers. It’s my mom’s way of doing business. Pay everybody first, and you figure out what you have. We used our savings just to stay open.
On our website, we asked people to adopt one of our employees, donate to us, or buy a virtual burrito or our salsa (which we ship), and between those four things we were able to survive the month of April. We did take-out and do our own deliveries; we don’t use a third-party service. And I started doing them in my car. A former customer who lives in Baltimore wanted to give a donation, and we said, how about we donate the food? We used to be in front of MGH and we know everybody there, let’s bring it to the doctors. It took off.
That’s why April and May felt bearable — we were doing everything and anything to survive, and people were showing up. I was making more funds out of the donated meals than if I had relied on take-out and delivery. We were able to pay our rent and still pay for our employees. Our rent is a little over $7,000, and it takes us close to $45,000 to operate just in a month. Our PPP came through in May, but it was only $10,000. We’ve raised an additional $5,000 on GoFundMe.
Beginning in May our neighborhood reopened, and we said, OK, this looks promising. But there were very few people doing donated meals; it’s dead. It’s not catchy anymore. May 5th happened, and we had hoped to have a good day — it’s one of our biggest days — but nothing spectacular happened. This is what we have left: We’re still missing money, we just finished May, we still haven’t paid rent for June, and we still haven’t paid one of our loans.
Slowly, offices are trickling in. But there’s also more competition. You can see that the customers are wary; they wear the masks but they don’t want to come very close. They give us the credit card and immediately grab the sanitizer, and they don’t take the receipt.
We’re at that point now where we haven’t paid the rent for June — we don’t know what to ask for or what to do. We are just waiting to see if people want to buy again. We’re all really hurting right now.
-- JANELLE NANOS
| Gena Mavuli, Owner |
Create: Art in Community • In business since: February 2020
Mavuli was in business only a few weeks when the shutdown happened. She quickly shifted gears from offering community art classes to creating take-home art kits for kids and hosting classes — and birthday parties — over Zoom.
I don’t qualify for any loans. I’m new, and between the size of my business and my number of employees, if I were to qualify it’d only be for a couple hundred dollars. My landlords were gracious and forgave a month, and I did receive a small-business relief grant from the City of Boston for $2,500, which is helpful. Where the rubber is going to hit the road is when we open up; there’s not going to be any money left. Are people going to be coming out? A lot of us can get to opening, but once we’re open, what does the community have the appetite for?
I did section off my studio space, I’ve measured out seven workstations that are six feet apart. I’ve reduced my class size, but if I fill classes to seven people I’m a happy person. The bathroom is a challenge for a lot of people. I have one bathroom, but classes are only two hours long. We’ll see what happens.
Otherwise, I’m set up to open. I have retail — this time has given me time to add retail — and my classes will be outside as much as possible. I can walk a class over to the park across the street. As much as our stuff is transportable, we’ll be going outside. For me it’s a very last-minute game. For a business like mine that is built around people coming together, I have to laugh. At this point, I’ve been closed longer than I’ve been open.
| Mark Snider, owner |
| Matt Moore, general manager |
Winnetu Oceanside Resort, Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard • In business since: 2000
The Winnetu, a 41-acre luxury resort with 58 hotel suites and 65 private homes and cottages at South Beach, normally opens for the season in mid-April. This year, Snider is shooting for June 12, and he said reservations have started to pick up in the last few weeks. Winnetu means “beautiful” in Wampanoag.
The first thing we’re trying to do is give people confidence and clarity about what they can expect when they visit. We are updating the website constantly with information about cleaning and other safety measures. There’s no textbook for this. Normally, we employ about 100 people in the summer, but this year we will probably have fewer. We’re being nimble. It’s remarkable how we’re evaluating these things on a day-to-day basis. We’re seeing older guests postponing their reservations, while a lot of new bookings are coming from families with young children who are desperate to get out of the house.
For guests arriving on the ferry without cars, we’ll reduce the number of people in our private shuttles and disinfect them between trips. The check-in process will be expedited, with only one family member allowed, and identifying markers on the floor to put space between guests. Full orientations will be done afterward, over the phone.
All of our accommodations have private kitchens, and guests can buy groceries in our onsite general store and cook meals at home if they want. The indoor restaurant will be reconfigured to space tables farther apart, or guests can order food to go and sit outside at picnic tables, in the courtyard, or at the poolside grill.
We have two heated outdoor swimming pools. The chaise lounges will be arranged more than six feet away from one another. In the gym, treadmills and ellipticals will also be spaced out, and there will be a bigger emphasis on outdoor yoga and boot-camp workouts on the lawn.
Housekeepers will use electrostatic sprayers to mist disinfectant on every surface, and remove notepads and other things that can’t be easily cleaned. Instead of cleaning and performing turn-down service every day, rooms will be cleaned every other day and private homes cleaned weekly to limit the number of people in and out.
With so many changes this year, it’s like operating a brand-new property, though many traditions remain, including open-air rides in the back of our antique fire truck. Being flexible and nimble — those are the two words we’ve been really living by.
-- KATIE JOHNSTON