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Local businesses facing challenges with recent COVID-19 surge

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Many local businesses are facing challenges with the recent COVID-19 surge. Some are juggling schedules or are forced to shut down temporarily as staff members get sick, and are seeing a drop in sales as more customers stay home because they are sick or are concerned about the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Others say they are continuing to stay busy despite the challenges.

Kyla Adams, owner of Home Salon and Spa in Groton, said it's getting harder and harder for small businesses each day. Clients are "holding off" on visiting until the case numbers drop, and on average about four to eight clients cancel each day due to being ill, she said. After Christmas, four staff members were out at once with COVID-19.

"Staffing issues continue to impact the amount of hours we can be open for business," Adams said. The business requires all staff to be vaccinated, and also began requiring masks for all staff in early December, ahead of the town mandate.

Adams said last year the business received government assistance with Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, loans. She said those loans are now gone, but the economic impact isn't.

Some business owners said they are waiting for sales to get busy again once COVID-19 cases go down.

Owner Paula Peltier said A Cut Above Hair Design in Waterford and That Look Salon in East Lyme started receiving more cancellations right before Christmas, with the uptick in COVID-19 cases in the community.

She said she appreciates that clients have been very respectful and are not coming to the salons when they might be sick. But when clients get sick, the cancellations take a toll on the stylists who work on commission. Each salon is averaging between five and eight cancellations a day.

When staff members have to be out at times, such as when their child has been exposed to COVID-19, management then has to rearrange everybody's schedule and employees step up to cover for their colleagues, she said.

"It's a little bit of a struggle at times but we try to do the best we can," Peltier said. "We’re keeping the salon as safe as we can. Everybody’s masked. We ask everybody that comes in to be masked."

"We’re taking every precaution that we can to keep them safe and us safe," she added.

Uncle D's Blazin' BBQ in Norwich posted on Facebook on Dec. 28 that it was temporarily closing and would reopen on Jan. 7. Owner Angelina Gardner said the small, locally owned business, which reopened Friday, decided to temporarily close the week before because so many employees were out sick and also to prevent a cycle in which people would come to work and later find out they were sick, exposing others to the virus.

"It's been really hard as far as just having the right amount of employees to work and then we still have the supply chain issues that are going on," Gardner added. Sometimes the restaurant can't get cups, she said. Sometimes it can't find bags. Other times, meat is in short supply.

"The one thing that we have learned to do is pivot," she said. For example, the business starting using four different delivery companies, rather than one, during the pandemic to try to make up for sales. She also said customers have been very understanding and have bought gift cards to help with future sales.

Rhonda Dempsey, co-owner of Sneekers Cafe in Groton, said the eatery and live music venue has faced similar challenges, and posted on Facebook on Jan. 2 that it had to temporarily close that day at 5 p.m. due to staffing issues. 

She said Sneekers Cafe had started booking live music again, and she was excited for a strong month of music planned for January. But with the uptick in COVID-19 cases, many people are afraid to go out, and two bands have canceled. She said many restaurants are in the same situation.

"New Year's Eve was probably the quietest New Year's we've had in 38 years," she said. She added that Sneekers Cafe has a loyal following and is doing OK but business is way down, which was expected the minute cases started going up.

Catherine Shafer, owner of Tailored To You in Mystic, said people haven't been going out as much recently, and her store is very quiet. She said January is usually a quiet month but not this quiet. She has a box outside her business so people can drop off and pick up items if they don't want to go into the shop.

But she noted that she is starting to get calls for bridal dress alterations for weddings happening in May or later, and she thinks her business will pick up again when COVID-19 cases start to go down. 

Kathryn Salvio, coordinator at Waterhouse Salon in New London, said the business recently had about eight to 10 cancellations, including people awaiting COVID-19 testing results that are taking longer to come in.

But she said the salon, which merged with the staff of Nancy's Salon, has remained very busy. She said staff members have been very careful with COVID-19 protocols, from sterilizing tools to wearing masks. "We don't let people come through the door without masks," she said.

Harrison Faison, owner of Platinum Cuts barbershop in Norwich, said that when his barber shop first reopened, business picked up again. But with the recent COVID-19 surge, people are concerned and are staying home.

He said he is continuing to follow all the guidelines, including mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitizing. When he goes out to places like the store or casino, he said he sees people who don't have their masks on and aren't 6 feet apart. He said he wears a mask all the time and is fully vaccinated and has received a booster, and he talks to his clients all the time about that. "As an individual, that's all I can really do," he said.

Some businesses are taking this time of the year to make upgrades, as they have in past years.

Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme announced on Facebook that it would be closed for "a staff + building refresh" between Jan. 3 and 12, and would reopen 4 p.m. Jan. 13. It is still accepting online shipping orders during the time.

Director of Operations Ali Formica Coleman said the fish market closes every year after Christmas, but this year it came at a particularly good time to give staff a mental health break and make sure everyone is fully tested before reopening.

She said the pandemic's recent surge is having a host of impacts, including affecting the supply chain and staff members' lives, making gathering over the holidays difficult to contend with, and causing people to be on high alert, with cold and flu season contributing to the stress and anxiety.

"You just kind of have to roll with the punches and keep everybody as safe as you can," she said.

Cheryl Robdau of Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream said the shop closed Jan. 2 for a few weeks to upgrade with new equipment. The business typically closes and refreshes the store this time of the year, but this year the shop has purchased a new ice cream machine. The shop had taken supply chain issues into consideration and ordered the machine last summer for a scheduled arrival this month, she said.

Overall, she said the shop did not experience anything different in business during the holiday season: "Mystic seemed as busy as usual," she said.

Some shops are finding business is holding steady.

Owner Lisa Lord said Twist Yarn Shoppe in Niantic has been busier recently as people stay home more and look for projects to do, with many learning how to knit and crochet. The winter is typically a busier season for the shop.

But the pandemic overall has been very challenging, she said, as she's had to change so much, including building a website, installing protective barriers by the register and adding more sanitizer dispensers, and limiting knitting classes to smaller groups when the shop is closed.

Mike Shapiro, vice president of Connecticut operations for Planet Fitness, said in a statement that the gym chain's locations are using protocols such as "touchless check-in, a Crowd Meter that allows members to check club capacity in real-time, increased sanitization of equipment, and cleaning stations for member use." He said Planet Fitness recently achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating by the International WELL Building Institute.

"We will continue to follow state and local mandates regarding mask, capacity, and social distancing policies for gyms and fitness centers," he added. "We encourage our members to take the precautions necessary for their peace of mind to continue their fitness routines safely and comfortably."

Deborah Kollmeyer of Adore in Mystic, which sells global gifts, furniture and apparel, said it's hard to know if the COVID-19 uptick is affecting sales because January through March are typically slow months in Mystic and the store has abbreviated hours this time of year — 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.

She said Adore has been very lucky, as no employees have caught COVID-19. She added that customers have been great about wearing their masks — and she thinks people don't mind wearing masks as much in the winter, since it keeps their faces warm.

"I am hoping we will be all done with COVID by spring," she said, "and life can get by back to normal."

k.drelich@theday.com

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