Small businesses worldwide fight for survival amid pandemic

ADAM GELLER
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Small Business Struggles

Zakaria Masud, center, steps out his Queens travel agency after it reopened during the coronavirus pandemic, June 18, 2020, in New York's Jackson Heights neighborhood. Masud said, "I was excited after a long time that we were opening the store. At the same time, I had panic, a little scared that people are going to walk in, am I going to get sick?" (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Hour after hour in the dark, Chander Shekhar’s mind raced ahead to morning.

More than three months had dragged by since the coronavirus forced Shekhar to shut down his business — a narrow, second-floor shop racked with vibrantly colored saris, on a block in New York’s Jackson Heights neighborhood once thronged with South Asian immigrant shoppers. Today, finally, he and other merchants were allowed to reopen their doors.

But they were returning to an area where COVID-19 had killed hundreds, leaving sidewalks desolate and storefronts to gather dust. Now fears were fading. But no one knew what lay ahead on this late-June Monday as owners raised the gates at jewelry stores, tandoori restaurants and bridal shops clustered near Roosevelt Avenue’s elevated train line. Overnight, the stress had woken Shekhar nine times.

“You cannot tell everybody it’s safe to come and buy from us. This is an invisible enemy that nobody can see,” said Shekhar, a father of two anxious about the shop’s $6,000 monthly rent. “This is my baby,” he said, of the store, Shopno Fashion. “I have worked hard for this for more than 20 years, then I got my shop. It’s not easy to leave it.”

Amid the deaths of friends and customers, Shekhar is reluctant to complain. And he knows he is not alone. As economies around the world reopen, legions of small businesses that help define and sustain neighborhoods are struggling. The stakes for their survival are high: The U.N. estimates that businesses with fewer than 250 workers account for two-thirds of employment worldwide.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Small businesses around the world are fighting for survival amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Whether they make it will affect not just local economies but the fabric of communities. Associated Press journalists tell their stories in the series "Small Business Struggles.”

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In New Orleans, the owner of a gallery and lounge that launched just before the pandemic hit reopened it as a takeout eatery, with himself as the lone employee. In Tokyo, a florist grabbed a lifeline from shut-in customers who bought blossoms to keep their spirits up. In Minneapolis, a dentist who refitted his office to protect patients from infection is starting over after it was destroyed in riots.

All acknowledge that reopening is just the beginning. But it is a critical milestone, nonetheless, a testament to their grit, creativity and no small amount of desperation. It’s about finding whatever works, because for now, there is no such thing as business as usual.

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Over the years, Stephanie Skoglund invested countless hours of sweat equity renovating what was once Tenino, Washington’s general store -- replacing the floors, wiring chandeliers, adding a kitchen. Everything to upgrade the old sandstone building in this long-ago frontier town for use as a wedding hall.

With this year’s wedding season approaching, 40 celebrations were already on the calendar at The Vault and its sister facility. Then the coronavirus shut them down.

“We’re basically wiped out,” Skoglund said.

Skoglund turned off the electric circuits and water lines at both venues. She sold a dance floor for $1,000 and a large party tent for $2,600, to help cover her family’s bills. Her husband works for her business, so his income is gone, too.

Skoglund was approved for $3,200 of the nearly $25,000 she sought from the federal Payroll Protection Program before learning even that wouldn’t be coming. Then Washington state halted her unemployment payments as it scrambled to sort out hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims.

Reopening, if you can call it that, has proved just as tough.

In June, Skoglund started getting calls from people looking to rent tables, chairs and tents for outdoor events, her only revenue so far. She’ll host her first wedding in late July, one of three events that remain on the calendar. The hall can seat 299, so with 80 guests expected social distancing rules should not be an issue.

Of 20 couples who had booked weddings through October, eight rescheduled for next year and a dozen canceled. Skoglund wrote letters to say she hopes to refund them eventually; it wouldn’t feel right to keep deposits, regardless of language in the contracts.

Once events restart, Skoglund’s older children, aged 16 to 25, will pitch in as her staff. She’s hoping business solidifies by October. But she and her husband have talked about selling their home and businesses and starting over, if it doesn’t.

“I have to start thinking about how to save what I do have and not put myself in a financial position where I lose it,” she said. “Just making that decision: what’s my next step? That’s what keeps me up at night.”

--By Gene Johnson in Tenino, Washington

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After Beirut went into lockdown in March, Walid Ataya returned to his bakery, pizzeria and wine room each morning, perching on a stool at the sidewalk bar to maintain an outpost of commerce and consider his next moves.

Before the pandemic, Lebanon faced an economic crisis rooted in years of government mismanagement and corruption that had sparked nationwide protests. Ataya, who fled when Israel invaded in the mid-1980s, had no intention of leaving again.

“Over here in Lebanon, we can deal with crises,” said Ataya, whose Bread Republic presides over a busy intersection fronting the swanky Furn al-Hayek neighborhood. “We have been through wars and turmoil. ... So the pandemic came and for us it is just another crisis to overcome.”

Bakeries were exempted from closure, so Ataya’s expanded beyond bread to sell fresh pasta. He also kept up a limited flower business, only delivering orders and selling bouquets at the bakery.

Ataya kept on 10 of his 40 employees, sending others home at half-pay. Eventually, he let 10 go, recalling the rest at full wages. He negotiated a rent reduction and cut ties with some suppliers when an 85 percent drop in the nation’s currency left many accepting only dollars.

When rules were eased in May, he reopened the wine bar and pizzeria, albeit at 30 percent of capacity. At first, no one sat indoors and staff circulated among the tables, spraying disinfectant. Police still fined Ataya for overcrowding at his outdoor tables. He is contesting it in court.

Finally, in early June, restrictions were reduced enough for Ataya to reopen his restaurant across the street from the bakery and pizzeria. Protests had resumed and he had his hands full dealing with government paperwork. Then masked men broke into his office and carried out a safe holding thousands of dollars.

In recent days, though, customers filled the tables outside his businesses.

“We are in the stage of surviving day to day now,” Ataya said. “You cannot sit and do nothing. You have to take your chances.”

--By Sarah El Deeb in Beirut

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When Japanese officials asked people to stay home in March, Shinichiro Hirano cut the hours at Sun Flower Shop, but stayed open.

The blossom-filled store, in a central Tokyo neighborhood bordered by the Sumida River, quickly lost its business making arrangements for restaurant openings and job promotions. Tourists disappeared. The area, adjacent to the Athletes Village built for the Tokyo Olympics, had been expecting a boom, only to see it fizzle when the games were postponed.

Hirano placed colored tape on the floor to encourage social distancing. As pandemic fears soared, he found an audience.

“People were working from home and wanted to cheer themselves up,” said Hirano, who estimates 100 customers a day came to the shop. “Some people said they can forget the coronavirus when they come in our store. Flowers can give energy to people.”

On June 19, Hirano pulled the tape from the shop’s floor, while leaving warning signs up. Officially, the emergency was over, but the challenges continue.

One of the first bouquets he sold in the days afterward was to a customer marking the closing of a nearby restaurant. As other businesses reopen, some have ordered flowers to celebrate. Still, total sales have dropped by up to 20 percent.

Hirano, though, is consistent, returning to the store each day, bowing to customers, donning his favorite New York Yankees cap. Flowers are what he loves, he said.

“As long as you have a store, you have to keep it open,” he said. “I never for a moment thought of closing it.”

--By Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo

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The velvet chairs in DJ Johnson’s new NOLA Art Bar were filled with customers sipping cocktails on a mid-March evening when the announcement came: the city had ordered all bars to close. Johnson, who had moved home to New Orleans and invested his savings, turned up the lights, asked everyone to leave and boarded the door.

Six weeks later, though, he adapted to rules that allowed food service businesses to stay open for takeout. His bar hadn’t done food. But he started making New Orleans staples like boiled shrimp and oysters, taking orders at a table set up in the gallery’s door on St. Claude Avenue. The first day he made $35.

By late June, he was still not making enough to cover his costs. But he tapped income from rental units he owns to cover bills and to show residents of the Marigny neighborhood that he was there to stay.

“The more I can get the word out, the better it will be for me when things are able to reopen, post-COVID,” he said. “So just weather the storm. Stay open. Let as many people as possible see that you’re open.”

On June 13, Johnson started seating diners inside the gallery at half capacity. A week later, he restarted construction on a bookstore and coffee shop next door. He’s still trying to figure out how to respond to a recent decision by Louisiana’s governor to close bars for on-site service, after coronavirus cases spiked. But he’s determined to keep going, even if it means going back to selling to passersby at his gallery’s door. For motivation, he thinks back to biographies of people like Nelson Mandela, as models for overcoming adversity.

“It’s discouraging. But the only thing that kept me going is, there is no quit,” he said. “You go until you can’t go anymore.”

--By Rebecca Santana in New Orleans

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For the first few weeks, the hush that settled over Paris as restrictions known as “The Confinement” took hold, provided Shao Lin Tia with some much-prized rest.

Up until then, Tia had been working feverishly at Ginza, the pan-Asian restaurant she and her husband run, filling in for a chef who had left a few months earlier. That came not long after the couple opened a Thai restaurant next door on Rue Daguerre, a street near the city’s famed catacombs that hosts a classic Paris market district of cheese shops, florists and cafes.

With both restaurants closed, the Tias had unexpected time to spend with their three children. The family worked their way through the restaurants’ food stocks to limit household spending. And the couple took the government at its word that commercial rents would be frozen and stopped payments.

France exempted small businesses in the restaurant, tourism, sports and culture sectors from social security contributions and reimbursed employers about 84% of net salaries. But with no money coming in and expenses looming, the time off began to weigh on the couple’s peace of mind.

“The government doesn’t give anything for free,” Tia said.

Finally, in late April, the rules relaxed enough for the Tias to set up a takeout window. But with Parisians limited to a single outing a day, each requiring a timestamped authorization form, Daguerre emptied early, limiting the dinner trade to just two hours.

In recent weeks, Tia has added a few outdoor tables. But sales remain 30 percent lower than at this time last year, despite unusually beautiful weather. Many neighborhood residents left the city for second homes when the lockdown began and likely will not return until September.

Tia worries that as the government stops covering salaries in coming months, a wave of layoffs could increase pressure on businesses like hers.

“We’ll never catch up, never in our lives,” she said. “And the hardest is yet to come.”

--By Lori Hinnant in Paris

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Almost as soon as the pandemic forced Ali Barbarawi to close his Minneapolis dental practice, he began laying a path to reopening.

Experts deemed dental offices as high risks for transmitting infection. So Barbarawi went online to speak with patients of his Chicago Lake Family Dental practice, limiting in-person visits to those with emergencies.

In the meantime, he installed plexiglass shields to limit the potential for airborne spread. He replaced the office carpet with hard flooring to make it easier to sanitize. And he ordered masks, face shields and gowns for staff at the office a block north of Lake Street, a commercial corridor spanning south Minneapolis that has long been home to scores of immigrant- and minority-owned businesses.

When Minnesota officials announced the lifting of some restrictions, Barbarawi made plans for a June 1 reopening. Then, with just a few days to go, protests over the killing of George Floyd spread through the neighborhood.

Sitting at home, eyeing the office security camera on his cellphone, he watched as people broke into the practice and destroyed his equipment. Soon after police told him they would be unable to respond to the scene, he saw the building go up in flames.

“Why a dental office?” he thought. “Why us?”

Barbarawi said, at most, insurance will cover half of what he’ll need to rebuild. On the advice of colleagues, he started a GoFundMe campaign, to help bridge the gap.

The destruction is a loss not just for him, but for his staff and patients, he said. But he’s determined to rebuild, along with the larger community. Reopening, though, is four to six months away.

--By Mohamed Ibrahim in Minneapolis

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In 15 years as a bookseller in east London, Jane Howe never saw the need for a website.

On weekends, shoppers packed the tidy Broadway Bookshop with more often waiting outside, drawn by the store’s personalized service.

“I love talking to people (about) what they read and what I read, and swap ideas,” Howe said. “I think of it as a dinner table and I lay everything out, these delicious dishes for people to take and try ... It’s going to be very difficult to replace online.”

The coronavirus didn’t leave her much choice.

With foot traffic on the Broadway Market way down and distancing rules in place, Howe decided it made little sense to reopen to customers. She let go of three part-time staffers, tried to negotiate a rent reduction, and borrowed 50,000 pounds from the government.

“If the business fails, how am I going to pay it back? It’s a dicey situation,” she said.

In mid-June, she launched a website, trying to replicate the interaction that made the brick-and-mortar store special. Loyal customers have been placing orders. Still, in the first week, the site took in just 28 percent of what the store netted before the pandemic.

Howe, who had been planning to retire in a few years, reminds herself that she’s a newbie at online commerce. In early July, she began selling books from the store’s doorstep, without letting customers inside.

“I’m going to give it my best shot for the next 18 months and then I don’t know what will happen after that if we don’t break even,” she said. “I’m hoping we come out of this in a year’s time…all I can do is hope we will.”

--By Sylvia Hui in London

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Two days before Zakaria Masud reopened his travel agency and money transfer shop in New York’s Jackson Heights, he turned on the lights to spend a few hours cleaning. Passersby knocked on the window, asking if he was ready for customers.

The store, Digital One, used to sell 40 air tickets a day, but hadn’t sold one in months. Masud’s other business, a Bengali newspaper called Weekly Ajkal, had been forced from its office by fire. He worried about getting sick, but reopening could not come soon enough.

By the fourth night back, a half dozen customers lined up at the counter, separated from Masud and his staff by new plastic shields, to wire money to relatives in Bangladesh. Others filed into a makeshift newspaper office in the basement to buy classified ads, hours before Masud printed for the first time since March.

“I think we’re losing 50 percent of the revenue,” Masud said. “But I think we can survive.”

A few days later and one block over, Chander Shekhar tallied his clothing shop's first day back -- four customers and $200 in sales. He needed $700 to cover costs and turn a small profit.

But that would take time, Shekhar reasoned. With people staying home and special events on hold, few needed new saris or jewelry repair. It might take the reassurance of a vaccine to bring shoppers back in full, he said.

Still, it was “not a bad beginning.” And for the first night in far too long, that was enough to allow his mind some rest.

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