SOLID FITNESS OWNER
Photo | Shane Rice
Local gym owner Christian Simmons has gone weeks without customers entering his facility on Dawes Road. Like many other “non-essential” businesses, the small gym called Solid Fitness was ordered closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but when Gov. Kay Ivey lifted some of the restrictions in her new “Safer at Home” order May 1, gyms, beauty salons, restaurants and other “close-contact services” were left out, with many of the owners wondering when they might be able to start running their businesses again.
While the closure has hit his pocketbook, Simmons said the health advice he was providing through personal training and nutrition planning has also hurt his customers.
“One of the things that’s frustrating for me is I’m a locally owned gym, not a corporate gym,” he said. “We do a lot of personal training and one-on-one training and nutrition.”
Simmons said his training has helped customers fighting high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other ailments. He argued his gym should have been considered “essential” and been allowed to remain open, instead of being one of the last businesses to be allowed to reopen.
Additionally, Simmons argued the gym is small and he can easily monitor and enforce social distancing guidelines, where other businesses, which stayed open from the beginning or have been allowed to reopen, have not.
“One-third of [the business] we do is members of a club,” he said. “Two-thirds is one-on-one private stuff. We have 200 members total and there are no more than 10 to 12 members in the gym at any one time.
“We’re small,” Simmons added. “So, there’s a smaller risk.”
Hair stylists like Bailey Alford have made the same argument. Alford rents space from Sola Salon on Airport Boulevard. The suite Alford rents is small enough that if allowed to reopen, she says, she could make sure everything is sanitized between customer visits and could control who enters and how they enter the studio.
“I could require masks,” she said. “I could require [that my customers] have not been around anyone who is symptomatic, but also I have the control of being able to sanitize the whole place. I feel like that’s more of a controlled environment where I could be comfortable working and making money, because right now I have nothing. I have no money.”
Alford has been a stylist for seven years and just recently began renting a suite for herself. Even before Ivey ordered salons to close, Alford saw a dip in business. Typically an average busy day for the stylist would be four customers; however, Alford was beginning to see as few as four customers per week at the start of March.
She has been unable to receive unemployment benefits or any of the federal loans offered from the Small Business Administration (SBA), she said.
“I also haven’t received my stimulus check,” she said. “I did go in and make sure they have my information. They have my information, I just haven’t gotten my check yet.”
Like Alford, Simmons has been unable to receive unemployment benefits. However, he did receive one loan for about $1,000.
To get by, Alford has been selling art online and has discovered video games, she said.
Right now, Simmons said, he is still able to pay his bills and is “blessed” he doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck. He has asked customers who can to keep paying for memberships even though the gym is closed.
“A high percentage have been fine with that,” he said of his clients. “There’s only so long I can get people to pay for nothing before even my personal bills begin to suffer.”
In the 30 years Dana Hearn has been doing hair, many of her clients have become like family. So, when Royal Nail and Day Spa in West Mobile was forced to close due to Ivey’s first order, Hearn went into the homes of some of her best clients to continue working on their hair. She calls it “black-market hair.”
“I’m very close to my clients,” she said. “I’m going to take care of my family.”
Like Simmons and Alford, Hearn has also been unable to secure any federal loans or unemployment benefits. While she is doing some work from clients’ homes, she is still reporting the loss of “quite a bit” of income.
Although she has been hurt by Ivey’s orders, she doesn’t blame the governor for doing her “job.”
“I don’t understand why people are so up in arms,” Hearn said. “I really don’t understand it. I really don’t want to because I would be on their level of crazy.”
The first weekend after the beaches were reopened, Kay Maghan of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism reported vacation management companies are beginning to accept hotel and condo bookings again.
“Most of the month of April we were hovering around 4 percent or 5 percent occupancy on vacation rentals,” she said Friday. “For this weekend, we are at 18 or 20 percent and a lot of those bookings happened after the governor’s press conference [last week].”
But with entertainment venues and dining in at restaurants still restricted, Maghan admitted “it may be a while” before the economy returns to pre-pandemic levels.
“What we’re hearing so far is people are really focused on the beach,” she said. “They want to get down here and put their toes in the sand and swim in the water, and I think everyone understands that it’s not going to be normal when they come here. But once the governor allows [everything] to open we hope this all returns to more of a new normal. The current guidelines are in effect until May 15. I know the state restaurant association is really pushing hard to do something with the restaurants and let them get some type of indoor business, we just don’t know when.”
Municipalities look to help
The Mobile City Council has approved funding for a grant program to help businesses that are still shut down due Ivey’s new order.
At a special, called meeting on Friday, the council delayed a vote to amend the 2021 budget to allow for the appropriation of $500,000 from the city’s reserve funds that would go toward the program. Councilors wanted the resolution reworked to specify the grants were to be used for payroll.
The grant program, introduced by Mayor Sandy Stimpson, sets aside a total of $500,000 for businesses impacted by Ivey’s latest health order, which allowed retail businesses and beaches across the state to reopen, but did not lift previous limitations preventing close-contact services like barbershops, nail salons and tattoo parlors from reopening.
Eligible businesses would have to have a current license with the city of Mobile and couldn’t have more than 25 employees, Stimpson said.
“Not sure why we said 25 employees, because there are very few of these businesses that have 25 employees,” Stimpson said in a Zoom call with reporters after the meeting. “When you start looking at the businesses we’ve listed in the resolution, very few of them are going to have 25 employees.”
Businesses that have received federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) money or independent contractors who have received unemployment benefits would also not be eligible, according to Stimpson.
“We went through looking at licenses with qualifying factors to start projecting how much money the city would need to expend,” Stimpson said. “We decided $500,000 would be set aside for distribution to those who qualify.”
There is the possibility that businesses who’ve applied for PPP but have not yet received the funds could get the city’s grant and then receive the federal money, according to city attorney Ricardo Woods. However, he said those instances “would be few and far between.”
The grants would be awarded in amounts from $1,500 to $2,500, depending on the number of employees at the business.
“If this was not an urgent situation, we would not have asked for this special meeting,” Stimpson said. “There are some who have not had a paycheck in seven weeks and are desperate.”
Stimpson said restaurants were excluded because they have not been forced to close. Close-contact businesses that still remain closed under Ivey’s order — including barbershops, salons, bowling alleys, entertainment venues, nightclubs, tourist attractions, indoor children’s play areas, venues operated by social clubs, gyms, spas, commercial swimming pools, yoga studios, dance facilities, tattoo parlors, tanning salons, waxing salons and massage parlors — would be eligible for the grant assistance.
Among the concerns for councilors was the lack of language specifying that owners would have to use the funds for payroll. Stimpson and Woods said they did not have a problem with adding that language into the proposal.
“This is meant to go to people who have not gotten a paycheck,” Stimpson said. “Not to pay utilities.”
Stimpson said the administration thought that pressure alone would force employers to pay employees with the funds.
While it’s unclear what the wording of the new resolution will be, Councilman John Williams suggested requiring owners to provide paperwork after the fact to prove they spent the money on payroll, similar to what the federal government has done with the PPP.
“I like the program, but it does need some kind of safeguard,” Williams said.
When asked by Councilman Fred Richardson how the city would contact eligible businesses, Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch said business license applications list current contact information. That information would be used to contact the businesses.
While the city hasn’t yet asked for an official opinion from Attorney General Steve Marshall on whether it has the authority to award the grants, Stimpson said his administration has been in contact with Marshall’s office. Previously, Marshall told Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson a similar plan to help county businesses would not be allowed under state law.
Council attorney Chris Arledge told councilors they have the authority to award the grants because of a clause in the Alabama Constitution that allows for grants that serve the “public good.”
Across the bay, the Fairhope City Council cited “numerous emails and phone calls from concerned business owners who have not yet been allowed to open” to pass a resolution April 30 urging Gov. Ivey to adopt recommendations set forth in a proposal by Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth’s Small Business Commission Emergency Task Force.
The 157-page report suggested close-contact services like restaurants could reopen immediately, provided employees use personal protective equipment, customers are limited in number and appropriately distanced, appointments are made mandatory, and no one lingers in waiting areas.
“The City Council feels that all businesses can maintain social distancing protocols, while limited to 50 percent capacity in retail businesses,” Council President Jack Burrell wrote the governor in an accompanying letter.
While restaurants have not had to close down completely due to either of Ivey’s COVID-19 health orders, eateries have been forced to offer only take-out, delivery or curbside service to customers. David Rasp, owner of Heroes Sports Bar & Grille and The Royal Scam in Mobile, tried it for about a week before closing up shop completely.
Rasp would have liked for the state to give him some idea when restaurants will be able to start serving indoors again. He said Ivey’s order had few details for owners, except that something might change on May 15.
“The frustration lies with me personally, and with others, that it was vague and there was no criteria established,” he said. “Any path forward would’ve been huge now.”
Rasp also noted that restaurants are highly regulated on the basis of safety and yet those establishments will be some of the last to fully reopen.
Frankie Little, owner of Roosters in downtown Mobile, said he thinks it’s necessary to take “baby steps” when discussing reopening back up during the pandemic.
“We don’t want to have a resurgence of this,” he said. “I’d rather rip the Band-Aid off and do it right.”
However, unlike Rasp, Little has reopened Roosters for take-out and delivery. Little also received PPP funds from the SBA. Little said for restaurants, especially those unable to receive federal funds, the orders are a “kick in the teeth.”
Marshall Barstow, owner of Mama’s on Dauphin, said Ivey’s orders have left restaurant owners feeling like they’re not playing on the same field as others. For instance, Barstow said fast-food restaurants offer drive-thru service, but many do not practice social distancing. Whereas a week before in-house dining was shut down, Barstow said Mama’s switched to all plastic plates and cutlery to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
In general, Barstow is concerned about what will happen to the economy whenever everything does open up and those who are still operating can fully reopen.
“What’s going to be left for those still around?” he asked. “At some point the medicine is worse than the disease.”
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.
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