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Cambridge Small Businesses Face Increasing Economic Pressures During Reopening

Businesses in Cambridge have changed course due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Businesses in Cambridge have changed course due to the coronavirus pandemic. By Naomi S. Castellon-Perez
By Julia A. Kendall and Charles Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

While many Massachusetts retailers, hair salons, and diners reopened Monday as part of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan, Cambridge business owners say the COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to reassess and reimagine how their businesses operate.

The reopening plan set forth by Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 entered its second phase Monday, permitting businesses like child care facilities, hotels, retailers, and other personal services to open with social distancing guidelines in place. Restaurants can now offer outdoors dining in addition to take out.

Yet for many small businesses in Cambridge, Baker’s reopening plan signals a slow economic recovery. With decreased foot traffic and social distancing guidelines still in place, business owners must weather heavy financial losses and navigate an uncertain future.

At Pyara Spa and Salon, owner Christine Perkins said her business reopened with the doors still locked. In accordance with social distancing protocols, Pyara Spa and Salon checks in customers with reservations and uses only half of its eight service stations.

“[Customers] are washing their hands right away or hand sanitizing before they even come into our space,” Perkins explained. “They then are guided kind of into a queue of social distancing spots in the front of the salon, and we don’t allow people to walk through the salon.”

Still, Perkins said she believes the reopening plan should offer business owners increased latitude.

“We have skin in the game basically to keep everyone safe,” she said. “If you have a business like mine that doesn’t do the right thing, we’re not going to have guests coming through our doors.”

With her business operating at half capacity, Perkins said she faces significant economic challenges. Her distributors estimate a third of salons will close permanently in the Commonwealth.

“Salons and restaurants are such small profit margins,” she said. “We do it because we love it, not because we want to make a ton of money.”

Businesses in Harvard Square are also struggling to stay afloat as students reside off campus and customers stay home. Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said many retailers and restaurants have been forced to do business online or have “morphed” into different side businesses.

At Grendel’s Den, owner Kari Kueltzer turned her restaurant and bar into a grocery outpost, offering curbside pickup for vegetable bundles and provision boxes stocked with rice, cheese, or produce.

Kueltzer estimates that, because of absent University affiliates and social distancing restrictions, Grendel’s Den will earn only 30 percent of its usual annual revenue.

She said she believes sit-down restaurants may lose “upwards of 85 chairs out of every hundred chairs,” which will increase the demand and price for table seating.

“I worry very much that it will become a very inequitable landscape for people who want to sit and eat, and [dining in] will become almost a luxury product,” she said. “That will be a very hard thing for me to watch happen, given that Grendel’s has always been committed to providing value and equity to people in the community who have varying degrees of means.”

Even restaurants whose takeout services are popular will likely face heavy financial losses.

Jon Eller — the general manager at El Jefe’s, a taqueria that usually serves as a late-night mainstay for undergraduates — said the restaurant's revenue has tumbled nearly 60 percent. Because it has limited outdoor seating available, his business will be largely unaffected during this stage of reopening.

“Partial opening, it doesn’t change much for us at all because we don’t have a patio, so Phase Two for us is still the same as what we were doing before, except that now it does affect us a little because now people have other options,” Eller said.

Adam DiCenso, the owner of Pinocchio’s Pizza, said that though his restaurant has been able to fulfill takeout orders without disruption, it has lost two of its main client bases: Harvard students and tourists. He estimates Pinocchio’s Pizza is off roughly 75 percent of its normal earnings.

“We’ve had to scale way, way back,” DiCenso said. “Under sort of normal times, a big bulk of our takeout and our online food orders are to students. So what we’re getting now is basically the Cambridge area residents.”

Phase 3 of the state’s reopening is scheduled to start as early as June 29. Gyms, select bars, casinos, museums, theaters, overnight camps, classes and select recreational businesses will be permitted to reopen.

The final phase of Baker’s plan, Phase 4, follows no regulated timeframe and is contingent on the development of an effective treatment or vaccine. Following the arrival of a highly effective treatment or vaccine, the Commonwealth will allow nightclubs and other large venue activities to reopen.

Originally, all bars were in the Phase 3 category; but on Monday, bars without food service were moved into Phase 4. In both phases, businesses will have to implement and enforce stringent crowd control and social distancing measures.

The pandemic has yet to permanently shutter any restaurants, retailers or other businesses in Harvard Square, according to Jillson. But she stressed that there remains a long path to economic recovery ahead.

“The economic ruination cannot be overstated,” Jillson said. “It's going to take 18 months… to two years, before they are back to where they were before the crisis began, and if they ever get back to the same level, I'm not sure.”

Business owners understand the need for a careful reopening, but are still eager to resume normal operations, Eller said.

“We’re just going with the flow basically, trying to keep up, trying to follow what needs to be done and all the protocols, and make sure everyone is safe,” Eller said. “Obviously, we want to be open and back to normal, but we understand that this can take some time.”

—Staff writer Julia A. Kendall can be reached at julia.kendall@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Charles Xu can be reached at charles.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @charles_xu_27.

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