Olive’s Bloombox manager Jenifer Kueber arranges some flowers that will be  delivered to customers and local restaurants.

Olive’s Bloombox manager Jenifer Kueber arranges some flowers that will be delivered to customers and local restaurants.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Local business owners discuss challenges in reopening during COVID-19 pandemic

By: Mike Koury | C&G Newspapers | Published June 23, 2020

OAKLAND COUNTY — For more than two months, many businesses around Michigan have remained closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer loosened restrictions on what businesses could be open. This opened the door for many small shops in the area to allow customers into their stores once again.

Kristian Slywka, co-owner of 9 Lives Tattoo & Piercings in Ferndale, opened his business for the first time June 15 after it closed almost three months prior.

In preparation for its reopening, Slywka said they’ve done a deep cleaning of the business, though he stated tattoo shops already are clean and sterile environments. They’ll also be practicing social distancing inside the building.

“At least for the first bit of time reopening, we’ll be appointment only,” he said. “Nobody can bring friends or people just to hang out, which is usually what happens when you get tattooed. People bring a friend, someone to talk to. Now we have to keep everyone separate … My shop luckily is not a big, open format. It’s all divided into separate rooms so each artist has their own room. So that helps. We can have an artist plus one person in each room.”

Berkley business owner April McCrumb had not one, but two businesses to worry about during the closures; the Yellow Door Art Market and Catching Fireflies.

Both closed around March 16 and remained so until after Memorial Day, when McCrumb was able to offer in-store appointments at limited hours. On that first day, she said, it was very busy and people were excited, though afterward the business started to get slow.

“I think people are still cautious,” McCrumb said. “We’ve been trapped in our homes for two and a half months or so. We definitely had people coming in, but the numbers would serve like a cold January day.”

In addition to the limited store hours, Catching Fireflies already had a website up with all of its products when the pandemic started to hit. That business, McCrumb said, helped sustain them throughout the shutdown.

“A lot of people went ahead and ordered through that, and we offered free local delivery, and when it became available, we offered curbside pickup,” she said. “That really kept us busy and gave people an opportunity to purchase through the website. Yellow Doors did not have that setup. It’s artist items are all sort of one of a kind. We did set it up later on in the time. … Catching Fireflies went in there ready to roll to make that transition, and it definitely helped things along.”

The florist shop Olive’s Bloombox in Ferndale closed along with everyone else in mid-March, but was able to open back up May 4 because it also is a garden center. That meant it could open as an essential business, said owner Laurie Bolach.

Though with close to two months off because of the coronavirus, Bolach said it was a lot for them to miss, since it was the beginning of their busiest time of the year.

“It definitely affected us, but it was nice once we were able to open because then everybody had been inside for so long, we found that so many people wanted to get out, they wanted to do some beautification to their homes and also to become gardeners because they had so much time to spend,” Bolach said.

9 Lives has six total employees, including its two co-owners and four independent contractor artists. Slywka said they all were on unemployment during the time off, and they also received a small grant from the Small Business Administration to help stay afloat.

They got word in early June they could reopen June 15. While happy they could reopen, Slywka wished they had gotten word ahead of time from the state rather than the two weeks they got.

“What has been difficult is we really haven’t known very much (from the state),” he said. “It would’ve been nice to have known, ‘You have 30 days and everyone’s gonna open on this day.’ And I do understand that they just don’t necessarily know everything going on with COVID, but having a little more notice would’ve been nicer.”

Slywka said support from their clientele has been strong, and coming out of the gate he thinks they’ll be busier than they thought they would be as far as appointments.

“Initially, (we’re) getting all of the appointments that we already had booked for the time that we had to close,” he said. “Everyone’s getting those rescheduled and then eventually we’ll be able to take some more.”

For McCrumb, she said she was able to maintain the average payroll hours of the managers and employees at both businesses the entire time, and as restrictions started to loosen up, they were able to bring back a few employees to keep up with the online orders.

“Once the governor reduced the appointment requirement … people felt freer to come in,” she said. “Business has definitely increased in the last week or so, plus we have a lot of gifts that are focused for teachers and graduation and Father’s Day, so those holidays definitely drive people’s desire to come in the shop as well.”

Bolach was able to take advantage of some aid programs to help her business during the closure, including the Paycheck Protection Program to pay her employees.

“We still are suffering and trying and trying to make good for the year, but with the surge of interest in gardening, it’s definitely helped,” she said. “I kept on paying my employees while they were gone because this is what they do, so I didn’t want to lose those employees, because I need them and it’s a seasonal business. So I definitely had to continue to pay them because I knew that once this was done, it was gonna be hit the ground running.”

Bolach said the hardest part about coming back has been making sure everybody, including staff, is safe when inside the store.

“We’re trying to adhere to all the guidelines, which is not as easy as you would think, but just make sure that everybody wears face masks and social distancing,” she said. “We’re offering curbside and just making sure that everybody is adhering to all the rules.

Bolach said all of the local business owners have been trying to learn from and help each other during this time.

“I think we’re all trying to learn from each other,” she said. “We had been one of the few outside of restaurants and stuff that were open, being that we were deemed essential because of our garden center, but as things start to slowly open, I think we kind of all look to each other for encouragement and trying to work through these new safety rules.”