The trouble with reopening for business after coronavirus : The Indicator from Planet Money Small and medium size enterprises tend not to have much of a cash cushion, so most are desperate to get back to work. But many are finding that reopening after a pandemic is a messy business.

Getting Back To Business

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Today's indicator is 97%. Ninety-seven percent of the U.S. population has been under stay-at-home orders from their state. And, of course, many businesses in the U.S. have also been shut down.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

But this week, that is starting to change. A handful of states - including Alaska, Georgia, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Montana - have given some businesses the green light to start reopening.

VANEK SMITH: But it is not business as usual. Everyone is having to navigate a new world; a world with social distancing, frightened employees, masks, disinfectant. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show - reopening. We speak with two business owners who are trying to get, well, back to business.

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GARCIA: Last week, the governor of Georgia announced that lockdown restrictions would be lifted for certain businesses in the state.

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BRIAN KEMP: Given the favorable data, enhanced testing and approval of our health care professionals, we will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body arts...

LESTER CROWELL: We were getting emails when he was speaking about it.

VANEK SMITH: That's Lester Crowell. He is the owner of Three-13, a salon and spa in Marietta, Ga. He says his phone has been ringing off the hook with people trying to book appointments. Three-13 is a big place - 13,000 square feet. And on a typical Saturday, they will give more than 300 haircuts, highlights, manicures, facials, detoxifying seaweed mud wraps.

GARCIA: But ever since Georgia's governor ordered nearly all businesses to close, nothing has been typical.

CROWELL: We were closed for 33 days.

VANEK SMITH: The reason that Lester knows the exact number of days is that every one of those days, bills were coming due - laundry, electricity, payroll, hair products.

GARCIA: Two hundred thousand dollars' worth of bills. Lester paid it all from his own money.

CROWELL: I mean, I could've not paid the bills, but I wanted to try to keep our - I'm 63 years old, and, you know, I've never had a 30-day-late in my life. And I wanted to pay all my bills and be in good standing with all of our - you know, people we do business with. We've been in business for 46 years.

VANEK SMITH: But Lester did not have another $200,000 to go another 33 days. So when the governor announced that his business could reopen, it felt like a lifeline. Lester called a meeting with his employees.

CROWELL: We met with them in the parking lot. We asked them for ideas. What should we do to come back? How are we going to handle the salon? What are we going to do?

GARCIA: And everybody started chiming in with ideas, so they developed an elaborate new protocol that they thought would help customers and employees to feel safe but also to start bringing in some money.

VANEK SMITH: Step one - greeter at the door asks you if you had a fever or a cough or if anyone you live with has been ill. Step two...

CROWELL: We take their temperature.

GARCIA: Lester has a thermometer that you can just point at somebody's forehead. And if their temperature is normal, then they go to step three.

CROWELL: We give them this little check sticker to go on their shirt that has, like, a red check. That means that their temperature has been taken. That's what we give to all of our employees, too, that little check.

VANEK SMITH: Step four - into the salon. Three-13 uses every other salon chair now so that everyone is 12 feet apart. The stylists wear masks and gloves, and the appointments are booked an hour apart, leaving a lot of extra time.

CROWELL: So it decreases the amount of people that are in the salon.

VANEK SMITH: That's, like, the opposite of what one normally does running a business.

CROWELL: Right. I know.

GARCIA: Lester says that they're doing about half the amount of business that they normally do. And they've added some expenses, like paying a team in hazmat suits to spray the place down with disinfectant once a week.

VANEK SMITH: Luckily, Lester says the salon did qualify for government aid to help with payroll. And he says with that, they are just able to break even.

GARCIA: But that is if the customers keep coming in.

VANEK SMITH: Did you hesitate at all to reopen? Like...

CROWELL: When we had that parking lot meeting and 60% of my staff wanted to work, I thought, OK. Let's open. So, you know, as you're doing things, well, you've made a decision. You're doubting yourself, yes. But, you know, we moved forward with that. So that's what we're doing. We're taking it one day at a time and trying to do everything we can to be safe.

GARCIA: Lester says that Three-13 has gotten some negative comments and pushback in response to the reopening. But, mostly, he says people have been supportive.

VANEK SMITH: And he says customers have been really grateful.

CROWELL: And when they were coming in here in the last few days, they're perking back up. It gives them a new - a fresh look, fresh feeling. So that's important, you know? It's helping people feel good.

VANEK SMITH: But not all business owners are excited to reopen. Amy Barrett owns Lasso The Moon Wonderful Toys in Helena, Mont.

GARCIA: Amy has had her business for 25 years. She says that her shop is normally bustling.

AMY BARRETT: People were used to coming, sometimes, just to let their kids play on the train table or play with the Calico Critters or play mobile or whatever. Our purpose is play, you know? And, sometimes, they buy things, and, sometimes, they don't. And that's OK with us. We prefer it when they do, of course.

VANEK SMITH: Amy shut her doors on March 23, but her business kept going. She says right away, she started getting phone calls and Facebook messages from nervous parents.

BARRETT: You know, especially when schools were closed, people were panicked about - what are they going to do with their children? They needed activities. They needed stuff. And so we said, OK, you can't come in the store anymore. But we are here to serve you, and we worked our tails off.

GARCIA: And, specifically, they started taking orders via phone and text and Facebook Messenger. And then Amy would deliver everything to people's homes - lots of art supplies, puzzles, stuffed animals, bunnies for Easter.

BARRETT: It was interesting especially when a snow storm - when the roads were kind of bad.

VANEK SMITH: You guys had a March snowstorm?

BARRETT: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: What kind of car do you have?

BARRETT: I have a Subaru, so it's fine.

GARCIA: Amy says she actually had a great month. Sales were actually a little higher than normal. That's probably a lot of the reason why she wasn't champing at the bit to reopen the store.

VANEK SMITH: Were you - like, how did you feel when the governor announced that you'd be reopening?

BARRETT: A little hesitant - even though Montana has very few cases, it's still not quite certain that it's time yet. But I - you know, it's funny because I just don't know. Are we safe? Or are we not?

VANEK SMITH: Amy reopened her store this week, and she put some new rules in place, hoping to make herself and her staff feel safe. She will only let four customers in at a time, and she's posted a sign on the door asking people to wear masks.

BARRETT: Our first customer was an older woman and a little girl, her granddaughter, not wearing masks. We said, you know, we're allowing people in now, but we're asking that you wear a mask. Her attitude - the grandmother's attitude was kind of, what? Why should we have a mask?

GARCIA: Amy says she just wasn't sure what to do. In her 25 years of business, she'd never been in that situation before. Should she kick them out? She wasn't sure. She ended up letting them shop. They bought a few things and then checked out.

VANEK SMITH: Still, Amy says the whole thing made her feel pretty unsafe. And she felt even more unsure about reopening.

GARCIA: Most people still want delivery, and there's almost no foot traffic in the store. Amy says it's an ongoing conversation between her and her employees.

BARRETT: So we're just taking it day by day. And if people coming in doesn't feel comfortable, then we'll reassess. And we'll go back to what we were doing before.

GARCIA: Amy says a lot of other stores in Helena have not yet reopened either. And she says things just feel very unsure. This week, coronavirus deaths in the U.S. topped 60,000.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan, edited by Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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