If The COVID-19 Shutdown Didn’t Kill Your Business, Trying To Reopen Might

One of the biggest fears for Walcott and Fox at Rhein Haus is racing back to normal business hours and persuading lots of former staff to come back, only to see a surge in COVID cases force another shutdown.

"We really did not want to go too far down the road," Fox says.

Just last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee warned that the state could reimpose restrictions on bars, restaurants and recreational activities, and declined to rule out "the potential of another stay-home order this year."

In the meantime, even hypervigilant businesses must be prepared in case a much smaller outbreak forces them to close down and start over.

At the factory of Outdoor Research, a Seattle-based maker of outdoor and tactical gear, the company spent weeks re-engineering nearly every work space and process for COVID-19.

Arriving workers go through an elaborate hygiene protocol of temperature checks and sanitizing. Sewing machines and other work stations that were once lined up for assembly-line efficiency are now separated for social distancing. Even hiring happens at a distance: To fill positions for a recent expansion into manufacturing face masks, Outdoor Research held a "drive-up" job fair in the parking lot in May, says Brent Zwiers, who oversees its production, manufacturing and engineering.

Despite such extensive precautions, a worker at the Seattle operation tested positive several weeks ago. Outdoor Research sent workers home for 14 days to self-isolate and required them to test negative before returning, Zwiers says.

Although the company believes the actual risk of on-site transmission was "extremely low" due to all the precautions, "the potential consequences are extremely high," Zwiers says. "So you have to react accordingly."

For many businesses, the many uncertainties of the reopening economy present an agonizing dilemma: They must stay super-cautious without losing the optimism or appetite for risk that is fundamental to success.

To the contrary, even as they wrestle with costs and sanitary protocols, most have no choice but to experiment with ways to replace lost business.

At Ramos Landscape & Gardens in Maple Valley, COVID-19 meant 25% less residential business, in part because office employees now working from home began cutting their own lawns, says co-owner Andres Romero.

But the company compensated by expanding a side business: building patios and other concrete work. Demand has grown so fast during the pandemic that Ramos has added four employees.

Among them were three "concrete guys" who had been laid off by construction companies, and who otherwise would have been nearly impossible to hire. "Before the pandemic, I posted on every (help wanted) page and I couldn't find any," says Romero.

At Martini Cleaners, Tom Fox has also found some sidelines to help tide him over.

If workers aren't yet going back to the office, they are using the pandemic to clean out their homes. Fox is seeing lots of comforters and bedspreads and a fair number of older garments that customers want to wear again but need to have altered and cleaned first.

It doesn't replace all Fox's lost business. But it has added a little back to the bottom line and let Fox give a few more hours to staff while also providing some semblance of forward momentum.

"So we're going to still be a little bit hopeful," he says. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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