'For survival, we had to open up': Columbia businesses grapple with health, finances as they reopen
Robbie Greenwald / The Daily Gamecock
Being labeled a non-essential business was a tough pill to swallow for Loose Lucy’s co-owner James D. McCallister. “No one likes to be told they’re inessential,” he said, but he nonetheless closed down his mom and pop hippie shop when he was ordered to March 28.
And he reopened on April 20, the first day South Carolina allowed non-essential businesses to resume. He wasn’t especially afraid of the coronavirus.
“I'd be much more concerned that I'm going to have to dry this place out again. We've been flooded a dozen times through the years,” McCallister said. “We've been through so much. Disease pandemic? Forget it. That's fine. We'll ride the wave of that too, right here at Loose Lucy's, those crazy old hippies.”
Columbia's local businesses have debated how and when to reopen during the pandemic. While some were quick to return, others have waited, weighing the decision between personal and financial health.
Shafen Khan, owner and operator of The Corner Blend, reopened May 22 after almost two months out of business. His accountant told him that financially, it was now or never.
“I’m somewhat in the middle right now because I’m like, I think we’re doing the right thing. For survival, we had to open up to bring the employees back, help my family, just all those things,” Khan said. “I think I’m doing the right thing.”
Before their first day back, Khan had a meeting with his team to discuss how they would handle operations. Together, they decided to only offer takeout. Closing the dining room would limit the potential spread of COVID-19 indoors, and Khan said he wasn’t sure if he could afford the labor associated with opening the dining room even if he wanted to.
Cool Beans Coffee Company owner Kitty Mirosavich grappled with similar expense concerns before reopening on May 4.
“Every moment that you’re open, there is a cost. Every moment you’re closed, there is a cost,” Mirosavich said.
According to McCallister, risk is in the very nature of his business. As a reseller, he makes decisions on what to order based on the possibility that people might like a particular article of clothing.
“Life is about risk. Life is a gamble every time you leave the house,” McCallister said. “I have a lot of new-agey woo-woo about me too, and I think we come here to have risk and to feel feelings and to get in trouble and to transcend our difficulties, and so on and so forth. And I said, well, we’re just going to see if we can get back to business as usual because I don’t know what else to do.”
McCallister said business has been “as normal as can be” since reopening, his risk having paid off thus far.
It isn’t business as usual for all, however. Cool Beans has had to make a number of operational changes both from a financial and a safety standpoint.
The coffee shop's downstairs counter is remaining closed for the time being because it would result in additional costs for staffing and products, but select downstairs items are available as a part of the shop's rotating weekly upstairs menu. Cool Beans also has reduced hours, though Mirosavich hopes this will change as the summer goes on and business picks back up.
“This is part of thinking through processes of hey, how can we last? How is it possible that we can cover our bills?” Mirosavoch said. “Partially the reason why so many margins are split, of course, we have a great location. We have high rent. We have high, I mean, our electricity bills are high. There’s a lot of just kind of cost you can’t avoid. So that's, we've got to cover that.”
Cool Beans' customers can expect to find social distancing tape on the floor and the usual self-serve coffee and water now stored behind the counter. Since restaurants are still required to be at 50% capacity, certain tables are marked for sitting, and customers can flip a sign when they leave so the staff knows to re-sanitize their table and chairs before the next customers sit down.
Like Cool Beans, employees at The Corner Blend are required to wear face masks. Khan said they've been going through gloves quicker than ever now that they are replacing them after opening doors and handling bags, which was never protocol before.
At Loose Lucy's, the social distancing tape has been removed. McCallister said customers are welcome to wear face masks if they like, but it's not a requirement. He won't be.
“I don't want to make rules for you. I want you to be fully mature and wise enough to know what rules we ought to be following together as a group without having a government entity have to tell you how you should be living,” McCallister said. “The answer to everything lies within already, OK? That's where the truth is.”