Econ 919 — Out of COVID caution, businesses close, then reopen

Nov 6, 2020

Following a spring and summer of uncertainty, the last thing any business owner wants is to have to close up shop again due to a coronavirus exposure.

Willow King chose to make the best of it when she shuttered her catering business Where It’s At temporarily in October. The Soldotna-based chef also works at The Flats restaurant, which saw an employee test positive as a crush of COVID-19 cases started sweeping the Kenai Peninsula last month.

“I was torn, because I have a pretty low-contact business anyway, and I also deal in perishables," she said. "So my first day, I was pretty frustrated by the idea of shutting down for some period of quarantine, or until I got a negative test. But I guess on the second day, I decided to embrace it, I just kind of woke up feeling differently. And felt that I could use that time to my benefit and it was kind of like an unplanned staycation, which allowed me some time to work on stuff I really needed to do.”

With little top-down guidance from local, state and national governments, business owners are writing the rules as they go. Alyeska Krull, the assistant manager of Brew@602, said the coffee shop decided on a slew of factors that would necessitate a shutdown back in March.

One of those factors was an employee exposure to a case. In October, that happened.

“It didn’t really matter if you had direct contact with her or if you had contact with someone else who had contact," she said. "We kind of tested the entire staff up on Whistle Hill, so that included Addie Camp staff, Fresh 365, Frames and Things and Brew.”

Three days later, none of the employees were showing symptoms. But Whistle Hill stayed closed for two weeks anyway, and all employees were tested.

Krull said they got help from Justin Ruffridge at Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and from the state’s public health department for advice on next steps. Because of how minimal employee-customer contact was, she said they were told customers were not at risk.

Still, Brew@602 posted on its Facebook page that they were closing and cancelling any Halloween festivities out of an abundance of caution. 

“It’s kind of a scary thing to go ahead and say, ‘We’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive.’ But we felt the need to be open with the community," Krull said. "I know for me, that if I see that a business is all of a sudden closed, I wonder why. So we just wanted to be very upfront and honest with everyone about it.”

They’re not the only business that used Facebook to spread the word — The Yoga Yurt, The Flats and Where It’s At made posts about their brushes with the virus.

In her time off, King was able to check some items off her to-do list without the added pressure of marketing and selling food for her catering business. 

“The struggle is that my business deals, it’s a lot of perishables, and then most of my equity is tied up in perishables," she said. "It could be a very stressful place to be in if you’re watching your stuff rot in your refrigerator. But I am very grateful for my businesses being pretty much a microbusiness, so it allows it to be a lot more flexible. I don’t have any workers. All of it is scaled pretty much to me.”

Krull said Brew@602 didn’t lay anyone off, since they knew they would only be closed for two weeks. Had they been out of commission for longer, they might have had to do layoffs so workers could collect unemployment.

When it comes to resuming operations, businesses have been largely left to their own devices. King decided to wait on a negative test result before returning to the space at Cook Inletkeeper and The Flats.

“ I would say that my customer base generally leans toward the mask-wearing side of the debate. So I wanted to make sure that my general customer base, who feels that way, felt taken care of," she said.

Brew@602 has implemented mitigation measures so it can avoid another closure going forward.

“Small businesses, it’s really hard for them to close for that period of time, not only from the lack of income coming in the doors but also the amount of waste that came in," Krull said. "We had to throw away a lot of product, just ’cause we weren’t going to be able to use it. But the procedures we have in place now kind of protects our staff and our guests in that if one of our staff members does test positive, we can remove them from the environment and the rest of the staff will be safe.”

For example, they are implementing stricter mask mandates for staff to limit staff-to-staff transmission.

She said her advice to other businesses is you can never be too cautious.