On March 16, Hardbodyz Fitness–and most other New Jersey businesses–had to radically change its operations because of an executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy to limit the spread of COVID-19. At first, owner Stephanie Gencarelli offered fitness classes outside in her parking lot, but as the restrictions tightened, she stopped them. Then she changed to virtual at-home training. Now, as New Jersey begins to re-open its economy, Gencarelli must change again. She’s got to figure out safety for her customers and her business, mostly by herself.
“We have not been given guidelines to open,” she says. “So we have purchased tons of hand sanitizer and even more wipes. We have all new mats and we have shut down every other cardio machine. We’re upping our sanitizing procedures and processes to anticipate the virus and ensure that people feel safe to come back. Everything comes down to safety and health and wellness.”
When New Jersey declared a public health emergency on March 19, there were 11 presumed positive cases of COVID-19 in the state and 45 cases under investigation in 10 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Since then, New Jersey has tested 716,411 people for the virus, confirmed 158,844 cases and recorded 11,532 deaths, 13 of them in Verona. Statewide unemployment is over 15%, tax revenues plunged by nearly 60% in April 2020 from April 2019, and businesses in Verona are hurting even with the federal government’s relief programs.
Now, some businesses are being allowed to reopen. On May 18, Governor Murphy put in place a four-stage approach to re-opening the state slowly. Currently, we are in stage 1, where restrictions have been relaxed on low-risk activities.
While this is good news, the question remains, will consumers actually begin to go out? Through conversations with people around me and from threads on social media, it became evident that just because someone can go out again, it does not necessarily mean they will. If there is one thing we have seen over the last few months, it has been concern. The question is, what can businesses do to alleviate that concern among their customers?
Morning Consult is a global data intelligence company and on May 14, it published a report based on a survey of 2,200 U.S. adults about how certain safety measures would change their comfort going back out to businesses. They asked about 10 policies, from regularly sanitizing high-touch surfaces to requiring employees and customers to wear masks, and spacing seating arrangements six feet apart. The thing that increased consumer confidence the most, at 55%, was regularly sanitizing high-touch surfaces. Installing more hand sanitizer dispensers came in second, at 48%, and requiring all employees to wear masks was third, at 42%.
Though these four Verona businesses weren’t aware of Morning Consult’s survey, they are already implementing its key recommendations. At Amethyst Hair Studio, the styling chairs have always been six feet apart, and regular sanitizing was always part of the operations at Ariane Kitchen & Bar (AKB). “I have worn a mask since the beginning of the pandemic and will continue to do so,” says Main Street Cottage’s owner, Donna Ciccolini.
Other recommendations will be easy to add, these business owners say. Ciccolini, who has been able to operate through orders placed on Facebook, will place hand sanitizer close to the door for customers to use when she re-opens, though she doesn’t yet know when that will be. She’s also now selling hand sanitizer as part of her usual giftware and home decor inventory. At Hardbodyz Fitness, in addition to only using every other cardio machine, Gencarelli also anticipates a new entry/exit path for clients which would require them to go in one door and out another. Michael Duarte, the manager of AKB, foresees having empty tables in between occupied indoor tables to ensure social distancing measures. AKB attempted curbside pickup when the state first restricted operations, but decided instead to close a few days later. AKB re-opened on May 1, and now offers curbside pickup and delivery Friday through Monday. Duarte hopes he will be able to re-open AKB’s backyard patio soon.
Some measures will be far harder to implement, given the small space that most Verona businesses occupy. Ciccolini notes that the entire Main Street Cottage store is the size of 10 parking spaces at Walmart. “Twenty-five percent capacity at my store is one person,” she adds. So Ciccolini will continue Facebook orders and deliveries even when she re-opens.
But there is so much that Verona businesses can’t plan for because they don’t know what they will be asked to do. Heather, the owner of Amethyst Hair Studio, says she doesn’t yet have guidelines from the state or the The New Jersey State Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling. On May 20, she was one of approximately 200 hairdressers from around the state who peacefully gathered in Verona Park (socially distanced) to get the attention of the governor, who has largely been silent on the topic of reopening salons. Attendees said they would abide by policies, as long as they were able to reopen and operate.
“These are trying times for everyone and compassion goes a long way,” says Heather. While Amethyst has been able to sell some styling products since the shut-down began, Heather has refused to sell at-home color kits due to the liability they incur. And since her customers can’t get color or touch-ups, Heather has also stopped coloring her own hair. She says she will release her plans for reopening procedures and policies when she has official guidelines.
Hardbodyz’ Gencarelli says that, unless masks are required by the state, she will leave the decision to wear a mask up to her individual clients. She is concerned that adding a mask during strenuous workouts, such as those offered by Hardbodyz, might pose a safety concern and could possibly lead to people passing out. She had hoped to re-open June 1, which is looking unlikely.
In the Morning Consult report, a Johns Hopkins professor said that it will be easier for bigger businesses to adapt to the new rules and regulations. Duarte somewhat agrees, though he believes that the closing of small restaurants does affect everyone in the industry, from distributors and suppliers to staff. “As a small business you know how to operate within your four walls,” he says, “but do you have the HR, employee handbooks and dynamics of a bigger business?”
Whatever the future brings, these Verona businesses believe that the community will be part of their re-opening. “All small businesses are struggling,” says Gencarelli, “I hope that people will continue to support these businesses.”