Tiffany Turner had dinner recently in a restaurant — the first time in nearly three months. She was greeted by employees in cotton face masks and seated at a table that was a socially distanced 6 feet from any other. Her return-to-society meal? Caesar salad, mussels and clam chowder.
"The thing I was surprised by as a guest is that it was less awkward than I expected and more human energy than I expected," Turner said.
It was a reassuring experience. Turner was preparing to reopen Adrift Hospitality, her group of five boutique hotels, a restaurant and a distillery on the Oregon and Washington coasts. She wondered if people would return to public life and if there would be any sense of human connection.
That's the same question other small-business owners are asking themselves as more states allow restaurants, offices and retail businesses to reopen after being closed, some for as long as three months, to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
The percentage of small businesses that were open in early June was nearly 16 points higher than it was in mid-April, according to Opportunity Insights, an economic tracker developed by researchers at Harvard.
But with a patchwork of rules and guidelines being issued at the city, county, state and federal levels, many employers find themselves wondering when it will be safe to open and how to make that choice — especially as some states are seeing an uptick in new cases of COVID-19.
Some businesses are taking a slow approach. At first, Chris Lynch and Michael Samer weren't sure what to do about their ocean adventure-tours business, Everyday California, when they got the go-ahead in late April.
"In the beginning, it was scary," Samer said. "We wondered, 'Do we even want to reopen?' "
But the two friends, who started the company in San Diego 10 years ago with just an iPad, an old truck and some kayaks, decided to reopen with curbside kayak and surf rentals only, keeping their retail shop and tour business closed. Then, as they felt more comfortable, they reintroduced tours at a 50% capacity with everyone wearing a mask. They also invested in their neglected online shop.
The bet paid off: They increased what had been a very small number of online merchandise sales by 710% in May, allowing them to bring back about 20 employees.
A slow rollout isn't happening only in places, like California, that have been COVID-19 hot spots. In Montana, which has the fewest cases in the nation, some owners are also taking a wait-and-see approach.
The cost of reopening is another challenge: With no revenue for months, small businesses must find ways to pay for the new sanitation regimens, thermometers, plexiglass, masks and other items necessary to open.
"None of the relief packages have included specific funding for safety retrofitting," said Amanda Ballantyne, executive director of the Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for small business. "The lack of those things creates a disparate recovery kind of landscape."
With capacity limited and demand uncertain, small-business owners, even those whose operations are larger, said it's hard to know whether to spend the money to reopen now or to wait.
Elliot Nelson, who owns McNellie's Group, with 20 restaurants in Arkansas and Oklahoma, is sifting through his spreadsheets daily to see what it's going to take to keep going. "It's been a long time since I've gone through the financials like this," he said.
Nelson started bringing his empire back online gradually in May, beginning with outdoor dining. But six weeks later, his sushi restaurants are doing well, but the breakfast joints are suffering.
"Our best-case scenario, maybe we're 60 to 70% revenue by the end of the year," Nelson said. "And that's just a break-even — and only that if I'm not paying my debt service."