Small Business Owners React To Reopening On ‘Planet Money’

Georgia’s state of emergency was extended into June, and many businesses were bracing to stay closed until then or for even longer. To their surprise, Governor Brian Kemp announced that non-essential businesses like hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, bowling alleys, and gyms would be allowed to reopen by the end of April, and many of them chose to do so. Planet Money talks to several barber shop owners about their experiences with taking their business, which can’t be done from six feet away, and making it safe for workers and clients during the pandemic. Opinions vary widely, but one thing is agreed: Not enough is being done to help these small businesses weather this public health crisis.

While the coronavirus was making its way to the United States, Liberty Barber Shop in St. Mary’s, Georgia was doing over 100 haircuts a day, owner Lee DePew tells us. But by mid-March, they were down to 5 or 6 a day, and then were forced to close because of shelter-in-place orders. Lee tried to take advantage of all the stimulus help he could, but because he didn’t have direct deposit in place with the IRS, he has yet to receive his stimulus check, and though he applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, he only received a fraction of the funds he needed to stay afloat. So when Kemp announced they could reopen, “we were excited,” he says – their household needed the money, “no ifs, ands, or buts about it.” 

Using the guidelines created by cosmetologists, Lee and his family figured out the safest way to open: Every customer had to book an appointment online – no walk-ups allowed. Clients remain in their car until they’re collected by an employee. Only the person getting a haircut can be inside. Once the haircut is over, the shop is closed while they clean everything top to bottom before the next client. Before the virus, they could accomplish five haircuts in an hour; now, they’re down to two. And Lee isn’t sure how long they can keep it up: “We are absolutely exhausted,” he says. “It’s the hardest we’ve ever worked for two haircuts an hour.” And if other business leaders don’t take these same precautions, Lee wonders if a second wave will force them to operate this way for much longer than intended, or even shut down again. Listen to this episode of Planet Money for more insights on reopening from small business owners, and hear from scientists about what exactly we’re waiting for to be certain of a safe return to work.

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