Local business owners whose retail shops, salons and spas were forced to shut down in March as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation, were able to open their doors to customers and clients in Brookfield, North Riverside and Riverside as May ended.
But, with restrictions still in place on how many people can occupy a business at one time, it’s still slow-going at the small businesses that dot the area during Phase 3 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan.
“This has been a challenging time not only for business owners but for everyone financially and emotionally,” said Laura Atwood, owner of Laura Atwood Studios, 9142 Broadway Ave. in Brookfield. “Of course, I would like to jump right in and get back to normal, but I have to be realistic. We all do.”
With relatively small store and salon footprints, just a few people typically can be allowed inside at one time, making for a delicate dance between customers and employees.
In some cases, that’s meant that while the business is open to customers, you can’t just walk in unannounced.
At A Sound Education, the musical instrument retailer/music instruction business at 9433 Ogden Ave. in Brookfield, you need to call first if you want to come in and try out instruments or other equipment.
“We are keeping regular store hours with the door locked,” said co-owner Patrick Sheridan. “We will let people in one at a time but not in groups, and if they want to try any instruments it will be done by appointment.”
While the retail business is welcoming customers back inside, within limits, A Sound Education is still not able to hold in-person music lessons at the store.
Sheridan said that A Sound Education will continue its practice of offering virtual lessons only to its music students, for months to come.
“As far as lessons go, we will continue to do them virtually until at least September,” Sheridan said. “We are going to watch the schools and go from there. We can’t social distance or wear masks to do this work effectively.”
The pandemic and the shutdown in March has taken its toll on the music education side of the business.
Sheridan said A Sound Education’s music student enrollment is about half of what it was when the pandemic hit, although the students who have stayed with it are committed.
“The students who remain are almost at 100-percent attendance,” Sheridan said. “Summer is generally a slow period anyway, so I’m not sure what to expect. Enrolling new students is way down, for obvious reasons. All and all, things aren’t awful. Entry level instruments are in demand because people have time to learn them.”
Gary Blando, owner of G. Blando Jewelers, 9228 Broadway Ave. in Brookfield, said he closed the store down March 20 and even though he’s accepted repair jobs from his customers in the weeks since, business has slowed to a crawl.
“Those last two days [the store was open in March] I took care of more people than I have in the past eight weeks,” said Blando, whose business has called Brookfield home for four decades.
Since the shutdown, Blando has served a dozen to 15 customers with repairs, but has not done much in the way of sales.
“Being a jewelry store, it’s going to be very difficult to be open to the general public without an appointment,” Blando said. “That’s what I have to do.”
At salons and spas, where close contact with clients is unavoidable, precautions for ensuring safety of employees and clients has meant that reopening is taking place in a very deliberate way.
Abby Brennan, owner of Brennan Massage and Spa, 3700 Grand Blvd. in Brookfield, said that while her business could have opened full-speed within the state’s regulations on May 30, she delayed opening until June 2 and with a skeleton crew.
Brennan herself is working the reception desk and phones, booking appointments and welcoming back customers. She hadn’t worked the front desk for eight years, passing that torch when she started having kids.
And of her 16 employees, only two are being brought back right away and the spa will be open for half days on weekdays only through the end of June. Brennan said she hopes to have half of her staff back at work by the end of the month, and the spa back to full hours and staffing sometime after July 4.
“We decided to take things really slow,” Brennan said. “This whole month is a learning month.”
Adding to the stress is the fact that for the past couple of months, there’s been little revenue coming in, forcing owners to scramble to balance expenses and revenues.
“Just because of the coronavirus, the bills didn’t stop coming in,” Blando said.
Brennan said she took advantage of a provision in the federal CARES Act, signed into law in response to the pandemic, which allowed her to defer mortgage payments on both her business property and her home for 90 days.
“We felt that was the quickest, best solution for survival,” Brennan said.
She also canceled services provided to her business to save on expenses and qualified for a federal PPP loan, though she’s holding it in reserve, for now.
“We’ll probably activate it in a few weeks, when we have people back on the payroll,” Brennan said. “That was a whole other reason why I decided we needed to proceed slow. We’re learning as we go.”