Sam Elias has owned La Mia, located on Gratiot Avenue in Clinton Township, for the past three years. He has seen business drop in half since the beginning of the pandemic.

Sam Elias has owned La Mia, located on Gratiot Avenue in Clinton Township, for the past three years. He has seen business drop in half since the beginning of the pandemic.

Photo by Nick Mordowanec

Local small business owners reflect on effects of shutdown

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published June 4, 2020


MACOMB COUNTY — On June 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced moving Michigan into the fourth phase of the Michigan Safe Start Plan, permitting retailers to reopen June 4 and bars and restaurants June 8, but with social distancing guidelines and capacity limits.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel issued a statement in response.

“Collectively, we must continue to respond to the public health crisis we all face,” Hackel said June 1. “However, we must be mindful of the economic challenges that are ahead of us. I will continue to advocate for and support our business community, as I trust they will open responsibly when given the opportunity.”

Vicky Rad, director of Macomb County Planning and Economic Development, said June 1 that the county’s economic strategy at the beginning of the year “had to pivot to meet a health crisis, as well as an economic crisis.”

She said “the heart of Macomb County” is the small business community, which makes up about 95% of all county businesses — including manufacturers and mom-and-pop stores. Initial phases in response pertained to determining whether businesses would remain open, addressing the panic and fear of the unknowns in the business community, and then learning how to survive a shutdown.

Small business grants went to 148 businesses, she noted, with more allocation expected due to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, approved by Congress in late March. She said the monies are viewed as “relief dollars,” which won’t wipe away lost income but provide relief in aspects like paying rent or paying employees.

Macomb County received approximately $152 million from the CARES Act. About $10 million of that will go to local municipalities; about $16.5 million toward vulnerable populations; about $32 million toward public health programming, infrastructure and facilities; about $24 million for recouping costs related to labor and IT support, as well as building a stockpile of personal protective equipment; and about $70 million will go to small businesses, in phases throughout the year and done with oversight from the Macomb County Board of Commissioners and auditing firms.

Rad said the next six months involves a different outlook, such as looking at reinvestment options, creative ways to manage today’s realities, identifying safety and health practices to ease back into normalcy, and figuring out how autonomous technologies and remote connectivity can reduce human-to-human contact.

Whitmer’s announcement was “big” for the restaurant community, she said, due to them only functioning through carryout orders and relying on tips.

“Getting the restaurants back up is huge,” she said. “I think that is a really good indicator that we’re seeing the pendulum swing.”

On June 1, the Clinton Township Board of Trustees unanimously passed an ordinance that allows for the review and approval of temporary restaurant seating during a crisis. Clinton Township Supervisor Bob Cannon said it “will help boost the reopening” of such restaurants while still maintaining social distancing guidelines.

However, businesses like gyms, hair salons and indoor movie theaters remain closed indefinitely. Rad said owners who took out their first loans to make payroll, or businesses that for the first time are operating in the “red,” must think long term on how cash flow and income revenue will exceed expenses.

“For us, it’s what can we do to provide some relief for those who have to operate and not operate because the executive orders,” she said. “Will they survive another three months?”

Business comes ‘to a halt’
The last three or so months have been unlike anything ever experienced by small business owners.

Anthony Jekielek, owner of Vintage House Banquets & Catering in Fraser the past 13 years, said everything “kind of came to a halt” March 13. The Utica Road staple is synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day events and food catering for graduations, of which parties have been either postponed or canceled entirely.

The months of April, May and June were “pretty much” written off the books in terms of events, with a “few stragglers” in June. Events in July and August still remain with the hope that executive orders will be reduced or dropped altogether after July 4.

In the meantime, the business has offered curbside service, like its corned beef on Thursdays and fish fry meals on Fridays during the Lenten season. They also implemented Easter brunch, Mother’s Day brunch and have Father’s Day pick-up-and-go barbecue meals at the ready — which Jekielek said will be a “steal” for consumers due to the increased meat prices.

Over 70 of the business’ employees were originally laid off and later brought back after the business secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan. They’ve been working in different “outside the box” facets, such as implementing Plexiglas shields in the banquet hall and cleaning carpets.

His fear is whether he will have to lay off his employees again at some point.

“To have that helpless feeling like you lost something that was totally out of your control … it’s the worst feeling in the world as an owner,” Jekielek said. “Gov. Whitmer has controlled every small business owner’s destiny. … Let us business owners implement in our own manner. We’re not going to reopen without safety measures in place.”

Mark Berman has owned his dental office on Garfield Road, in Clinton Township, since 1983. Other than him and his office manager, the rest of the 14 employees had to seek unemployment. His office, like others, could only perform emergency procedures.

On June 1, a sense of normalcy returned, due to Whitmer earlier this month allowing nonessential dental services to resume May 29. On that day, Berman said, he had meetings with his staff on how to “reboot” the office and start seeing patients again.

Some patients who have already returned have included those who waited for crowns, as well as those with periodontal and gum disease.

“The biggest effect has been not only on my employees, but on my patients,” Berman said. “There were patients that were in treatment that had to be put on hold, and there were patients that were scheduled for routine dental visits, routine simple fillings that couldn’t be taken care of.

“In many of those cases, those appointments turned into emergencies because the decay was not removed from the teeth. Now, people who had to be treated with a simple filling had to have a root canal or extraction. And their bills in many cases tripled because of the shutdown.”

Berman said his patients are “well educated” and understand that dental care affects overall health, including higher risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and kidney disease. He said the governor, even though she said she was following the science, never looked at how oral health affects the rest of the human body.

“All of that was being ignored and deemed nonessential treatment,” he said. “The only word that comes to my mind is outrageous.”

Sam Elias, owner of La Mia on Gratiot Avenue in Clinton Township the past three years, said business has essentially been cut in half since his dining room had to be closed.

Summertime business normally goes down 15%-20%, and that is before accounting for COVID-19. Hours were cut in March, from closing at 9 p.m. to now 7 p.m.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the restaurant offered free sandwiches to doctors and nurses.

The Lebanese restaurant, which cooks food fresh daily, has also suffered from price increases in the meat market. He said costs are “just killing us,” and they can’t change the menu daily to reflect the fluctuation in prices. It’s about breaking even.

His 12 employees had their hours cut in half, now working part-time six days per week. Elias said that without the help of his wife, Dalia, and daughter, Elassia, there is no business.

“You have to be the boss, you have to do paperwork, and be the cook,” he said. “You have to do everything to keep your door open. We treat (customers) like I’m serving the food for myself. … I can work for $5 an hour. The employees, they can’t. Since I’m the boss, I have to sacrifice. My wife, the same thing. My kids, the same thing.”

Elias described himself as a “fighter” who will do what he has to do to survive. He hopes meat prices will decrease over time and that the dining room will be full again, like it once was.

“We have loyal customers,” he said. “Without them, we don’t survive.”