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For Small Businesses, It’s All About the Pivot

To paraphrase a line from the real estate industry, small businesses, hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus, have had to pivot, pivot, pivot to survive.

Many have made adjustments to the way they conduct their businesses — or have shifted their approaches entirely. In the face of a truly catastrophic financial environment, they have used the creativity that spurred them forward as entrepreneurs to adapt to a business environment no one could have foreseen.

And they have done these things under the stress of laying off employees, shutting down offices or having to give up on their dream entirely. Financial ruin was a distinct possibility and may still be for many small businesses that are barely holding on.

But their goal is the same: to continue their dream, to do what they had been doing on their own terms before the world changed abruptly. They want to own their future as they had owned their past. What they have done — and how they are still doing it — is as varied as the businesses themselves. PAUL SULLIVAN


A San Francisco-based Malaysian chef is keeping busy during the pandemic with a diverse business model that has allowed her to improvise and generate revenue.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Azalina Eusope cries every day. “But the food comforts me,” said the 41-year-old chef and owner of Azalina’s, a Malaysian restaurant business in San Francisco.

“Ten years ago, my business started off in a survivor mode,” Ms. Eusope said. “I was selling food under a tent at the farmers’ market. As a newly single mother, I needed income. I prepared the food, and at 4 o’clock in the morning, with my kids sleeping in the car, brought it to the farmers’ market and set up.”

Fast-forward to March 15, when the coronavirus quarantines hit. “Now I’m back in survival mode,” she said.

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“While every recession is different, as in 2008, small businesses today must focus on adaptability and prepare for timid consumers.”

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Credit…Rich Tu

In late 2008, as unemployment soared and consumer spending plummeted, the restaurateur Karl Franz Williams opened a stylish, low-lit cocktail lounge on a gentrifying stretch of Frederick Douglass Boulevard in lower Harlem.

His timing, at the beginning of the global financial crisis, could not have been more inauspicious. With its pricey cocktails and global small-bites menu, 67 Orange Street was an ambitious prospect even during the most ideal economic conditions. And the Great Recession — in which nearly nine million jobs were lost from February 2008 to February 2010 — was hardly ideal.

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When its equipment sales to bars and restaurants plummeted during the pandemic, Cocktail Kingdom successfully turned to consumers.

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Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Greg Boehm recognized early how serious the coronavirus might be. He was flying from New York to Florida to visit family on March 5.

“I could see global travel was impacted,” he said. “It was the unknown, and the unknown is never good for bars and restaurants.”

And that meant it certainly would not be good for Mr. Boehm’s business, Cocktail Kingdom, which designs, manufactures and sells online professional barware to restaurants and bars globally.

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After the lockdown, the owner of Honey Space for Moms had such success going virtual that she is making bigger plans.

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Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

When people tell Brooke Miller they haven’t been sleeping since the coronavirus pandemic started, that they feel anxious and overwhelmed, she smiles and empathizes. To her, it sounds as if they’re experiencing what mothers go through.

“I’m like, ‘See, we told you being a mom is hard,’” said Ms. Miller, who has two young daughters. “You’re changing who you were before, changing who you were supposed to be, changing expectations. And you don’t get any sleep.”

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Iwi Fresh in Atlanta has survived with some creative thinking by its owner, Yolanda Owens.

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Credit…Ben Rollins for The New York Times

As a little girl, Yolanda Owens would soak in warm bathtubs filled with collard greens, garlic and onions to help soothe her skin. “I had eczema, and my grandmother would go out to her garden to find all kinds of vegetables and make up this remedy for me,” Ms. Owens said.

Today, Ms. Owens, 55, owner of the Atlanta-based Iwi Fresh, produces and sells a line of preservative-free skin-care products, including Squash-It-Out Cleanser and 14 Carrot Glow Moisturizer, which are created from her own recipes that blend fruit, vegetables, herbs and essential oils.

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Some of these devices have been around for years but are now being mustered to help keep us safe.

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Credit…Edgar Su/Reuters

Dr. Cristiano Huscher has long used robotics and artificial intelligence for surgical procedures at the Policlinico Abano chain of hospitals in Italy. So when six doctors contracted Covid-19 at his hospital in Sardinia two months ago, he once again turned to technology — in this case, UVD Robots — to disinfect the rooms.

The robot moves autonomously through a room, using ultraviolet-C light to destroy the RNA in a virus and DNA in bacteria, effectively gutting the virus’ ability to infect people and multiply.

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The pandemic has been brutal for owners, but there are many organizations offering loans and grants to help out.

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Credit…Rich Tu

The pain and insecurity of the shock of the coronavirus on small-business owners have been overwhelming. Entrepreneurs have taken extreme steps to stay operational, and many are deeply worried about their prospects in the coming months and beyond.

But help is out there. Federal, state and local governments, as well as communities, corporations and foundations have stepped up with financial resources.

For a small business trying to stay afloat during the shock of the coronavirus, every little bit of financial aid can have a bearing on their future.

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What to do with a business that involves close physical contact with clients? Innovate and, if you’re lucky, grow — but at a distance.

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Credit…Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

The routine has been the same for six years.

On Saturday mornings, Jason Atlas changes into a T-shirt, a pair of comfortable shorts and lightweight training shoes, then heads down to the basement gym of his home in Dix Hills, N.Y., on Long Island, where precisely at 10 a.m., he meets his personal trainer, Matt Sulam, for an hourlong, strength-training workout.

Mr. Sulam, 48, an independent contractor who until recently saw most of his clients in their homes, has become a familiar presence since he was first hired by Mr. Atlas, a lawyer, in January 2014.

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For some companies, like Mike’s Organic Delivery, embracing higher demand without changing their core strategy is the key to survival.

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Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Mike Geller spent the better part of a decade tweaking the focus of Mike’s Organic Delivery, which he founded in 2009. Early on, the model was similar to a community-supported agriculture program, or C.S.A., where customers agreed to receive whatever food was in season.

By the third year, the company was up to about 200 deliveries a week: in Fairfield County in Connecticut and Westchester County in New York. Access to organic produce was more widespread and customers wanted options other than a preselected basket. So he created an online organic market, to allow people to pick the fruit, vegetables and meat that they wanted in advance.

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Seating Moves Outdoors as Restaurants Reopen During Pandemic

As restaurants around the country look to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor seating is becoming a survival option, and local governments are helping by cutting red tape.

If a restaurant in Louisville, Ky., for instance, had wanted to offer dining service on a patio before the pandemic, it would have had to apply for a permit, pay fees of $1,150 — and then wait, for up to six months.

Not so today.

To help restaurants get back on their feet after the coronavirus-induced shutdown, the city has waived its fee for outdoor dining and substantially shortened the processing time for applications. The approval for outdoor seating, which involves neighborhood review of a restaurant’s plans, used to take three to six months. Now, the wait is a couple of days.

“We’re loosening up a bit,” said Louisville’s mayor, Greg Fischer.

This scenario is being repeated across the country as local governments rapidly rewrite the rules about how restaurants can operate when they reopen after quarantine shutdowns battered their businesses. And the cost for restaurants to open outdoor seating can be as low as a few thousand dollars.

The leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants, suffered severe losses in April, shedding more than seven million jobs, but bounced back in May as furloughed employees returned to work.

With the spread of the coronavirus still a danger, many states are requiring that restaurants reduce their capacity to 25 to 50 percent of normal operations to ensure there is at least six feet between tables, in keeping with social-distancing practices. Some, like New Jersey, are prohibiting indoor dining altogether for the time being.

However, even as states take away capacity in the name of public safety, local officials are trying to give at least some of it back by allowing eating establishments to expand onto patios and parking lots, and even city sidewalks and streets. But the moves are disrupting neighborhoods and costing cities much-needed tax revenue.

The effort appears to be paying off. OpenTable, a provider of online restaurant reservations, has counted a tenfold increase in outdoor seating this spring compared with a year ago.

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Credit…John G Mabanglo/EPA

The restaurant industry supports the new flexibility on outdoor seating as a way to help restaurants regain their footing. Restaurants lost more than $120 billion in sales during March, April and May, according to the National Restaurant Association. The trade group also said that 3 percent of restaurants that responded to its surveys had already closed permanently because of the pandemic, and an estimated eight million restaurant employees are still out of work.

But the risk of contracting the coronavirus remains for patrons and employees. As of Saturday, coronavirus cases were climbing in 22 states amid reopening plans. Several Florida bars voluntarily closed their dining rooms recently after workers tested positive for the virus.

And some are wondering what it says about local regulations concerning outdoor seating if they are so easily swept away.

Pre-pandemic rules sought to ensure that restaurants adhere to health and fire safety codes, provide equal access to those with disabilities and protect neighbors from noise and disruption. The new practices raise equity issues, with some critics arguing that allowing restaurants to expand outdoors effectively favors customers over everyone else in a neighborhood.

Some cities could lose revenue, too. Procedures vary by municipality, but in many places, government agencies that review applications for outdoor dining solicit community feedback. Application and annual renewal fees in some places can add up to several thousand dollars a year. Some cities charge fees based on the amount of outdoor space used.

But with restaurants in dire straits and the clock ticking before some go under, governments are reducing or waiving fees and quickly approving plans they previously may have taken months to process.

“What you’re seeing now is the expediency of helping people instead of spending the time asking everyone if it’s OK,” said Matthew Kwatinetz, director of the Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University’s School of Professional Studies.

The new open-air seating arrangements not only help the restaurant industry recapture lost business, they also appeal to customers who want a restaurant meal but are wary of venturing inside, where the virus can spread more easily, as studies have shown. In a recent survey by the online publication Slate, 36 percent of respondents said they would eat at a restaurant outdoors, while only 15 percent said they would eat at a restaurant indoors with reduced seating.

Restaurants in suburban and rural areas may be able to add tables on their own property.

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Credit…Niyaz Pirani

When Craft House in Dana Point, Calif., reopened after a two-month quarantine, it had to reduce seating indoors. But the restaurant also got the green light to turn 11 of the 20 spots in its parking lot into an impromptu dining area, strung with lights. Total cost: around $5,000.

“Luckily, there have been no issues from the neighbors,” said Blake Mellgren, the proprietor and executive chef.

In urban areas where restaurants may not have private outdoor space, governments are letting them set up tables on sidewalks, streets and public plazas. Even on-street parking spots are being used for impromptu seating areas known as parklets or streateries.

When Florida allowed restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity in early May, Tampa experimented with some of these approaches in a two-week pilot program. It suspended permit requirements for sidewalk seating, and it allowed restaurants to use adjacent on-street parking spaces for dining spots set off by planters, fences and traffic cones. Fire safety and accessibility requirements remained in effect.

The city also closed several streets to vehicle traffic, creating “cafe and retail zones” that were monitored by the police and code enforcement officers. To prevent people from milling around while waiting for tables, the city established a “no seat, no service” policy and asked people to make reservations.

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Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

In Tampa, some restaurants pushed back, arguing that road closures hindered businesses because they eliminated through traffic and made it more difficult for customers to pick up takeout orders. But city officials deemed the pilot an overall success and have allowed some streets to remain closed and the sidewalk seating to continue, said Carole Post, administrator for development and economic opportunity.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 12, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.