With the Omicron variant rearing its head nationwide, Massachusetts small business owners are more worried than their counterparts in other states about its economic impacts, according to a new survey.
This past week, Alignable Research Center found that 64 percent of owners across Massachusetts fear that the emerging coronavirus variant will hurt their financial recovery, compared to 44 percent nationally. A quarter of the 712 small business owners surveyed in the state said they are “highly concerned.” (New York is a close second, with 60 percent of participants worried.)
Beth Gilligan, deputy director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, said the Brookline cinema saw a slight slowdown when the variant first prompted travel bans and questions about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Business has ticked back up since — the Coolidge just sold 400 tickets to a premiere in under an hour.
“But worry comes with uncertainty,” Gilligan said. “Every time people hear about a new variant, the first impulse is to be concerned, because there’s a dip in audience that usually comes with that.”
Those anxieties are backed by little research so far on how dangerous Omicron will turn out to be. Scientists continue to investigate its transmissibility and ability to evade the body’s immune system, while case numbers have soared in South Africa. As one of the most vaccinated states in the US, Massachusetts may be better equipped to handle its arrival.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail that businesses’ Omicron fears have “little to do with the health aspects.”
Instead, it’s pandemic-era restrictions and the growth of online shopping that pose a threat to independent stores, he said. “Two years of continued COVID messaging and moving government goal posts, even now, one year past the vaccine rollout, has meant lower sales and higher costs — a trend that puts the future of countless small businesses in jeopardy.”
Nationally, Omicron caused concern in lodging and restaurant owners in the greatest numbers, at 70 and 69 percent respectively, the survey found. Retail trailed behind at 58 percent.
Around Greater Boston, the variant has spurred a mix of reactions in small business owners.
When the Omicron surfaced around Thanksgiving, Mockingbird Baby and Kids owner Lauren Thompson felt the consequences almost immediately. The Charlestown children’s store saw a drop in foot traffic. “Small business Saturday” brought in 20 percent less revenue this year than in 2020, she said.
Thompson thinks families with small children — many of whom remain ineligible to be vaccinated — are once again uneasy about indoor spaces. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has repeatedly hinted that she may soon require proof of vaccination in high-risk indoor settings to mitigate that concern.
Coronavirus cases in Massachusetts public schools have risen, too, reaching record highs in November.
“Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles — they’re still coming into the store,” Thompson said. “But they’re coming without their kids.”
The summer arrival of the Delta variant did not have the same effect, she said, since Mockingbird could prop the door open and keep fresh air flowing.
Zach Baum, co-owner of Bow Market in Somerville, said Massachusetts businesses — and their customers — are following a conservative precedent set earlier in the pandemic. Somerville upheld capacity restrictions and mask mandates for a longer period than nearby towns.
“And that sentiment has spilled out into the community,” Baum said.
Foot traffic into the market, a collection of over 30 food, art, and retail vendors in Union Square, has been steady, though the future depends on visitors’ comfort levels. “COVID is ongoing, but it’s also a little more abstract,” Baum said. “There seems to be more room for individuals to make decisions about around the effectiveness of the vaccines and boosters, compared to before those were real options.”
A sliver, or 7 percent, of Massachusetts small business owners said they need more information to assess the impact of Omicron. Another 27 percent said they had little to no concern, citing repeated waves of cases and variants as an inevitability.
That’s what James Hill, co-owner of Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill, thinks. Employees at the home decor shop have doubled down on masking to protect themselves and “the hundreds of strangers we see every day,” he said. Blackstone’s accommodates a host of curbside pickup requests, which make up a tenth of its total transactions today.
But “this is just another round of another variant,” Hill said. “And there will be others.”