A look at COVID-19 Phase 2 business impact

Restaurant and gyms share pandemic experience
Published: Nov. 26, 2020 at 12:32 AM CST
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - For local businesses like gyms and restaurants, reverting to Phase 2 brings another COVID-19 challenge.

Governor Edwards said the restrictions are in response to rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state. Restrictions are set to expire on December 23 but could be extended. The governor also said Central Louisiana is seeing a very sharp increase in hospitalizations.

“It’s just been a rough year. We’re fortunate enough that we’re still open,” Embers restaurant owner Jennifer Atwood said.

According to Atwood, even though Embers is operating at 25 percent capacity, bills have not been docked to 25 percent of what they were before the pandemic.

“We’re still paying the full amount,” Atwood said.

According to Atwood, Embers has been in Phase 2 since the state moved to Phase 3.

“We just kind of knew everything would be up and down,” Atwood said.

She shared her message about being a business owner during a pandemic.

“If you have a friend or family member that owns not just a restaurant, but any single location, non-franchise type business check on them because even though they probably say they’re doing okay they’re probably not,” Atwood said. “Most business owners, even though they smile, they’re not okay. So just be polite to them, be friendly with everyone. It’s just a trying time. It’s just a time to kind of come together and be nice to people.”

Atwood was forced to lay off most of her staff. She said sales are down 65 percent, and bills are piling up. According to Atwood, some struggles include paying employees, building fees, licensing fees and property taxes. All of which she said are coming due very soon. Embers closed from March to August. She said that everyone should patronize local businesses in any way possible like gift cards, or ordering take-out.

She’s looking forward for the pandemic to be over, a return to normal and taking a vacation. Atwood’s son is a high school senior and she said he’s missing out on a lot of things that seniors normally experience. With the holidays, Atwood said before the pandemic Embers would be doing well, but not this year.

“Normally we would be totally booked for Christmas parties, and we have four different spaces that we have available for parties,” Atwood said.

While new customers have inquired to Embers for bookings, and even some regulars, Atwood said they’re just holding off until the last minute rather than booking the parties.

“So instead of knowing ahead of time, scheduling, staffing and food ordering, it’s basically last minute,” Atwood said. “Just because people aren’t sure if they’ll be able to have parties or kind of what the restrictions are going to be. So, everybody’s kind of holding off. That’s been pretty rough because this is our busy time of year where we do fairly well.”

The pandemic created a holiday season like no other.

“You’re not spending it with your entire family,” Atwood said. “It can be depressing if you will, but the one thing I’m glad for is I’m able to spend more time with my kids and my immediate family.”

Atwood said another shutdown would not be good for business.

“If that happened again, I’m not really sure if we would still be here. Unfortunately, I do owe a lot of money on my building so I’m not sure where we would go from there,” Atwood said. “But, that’s why it’s important to get out there because most businesses can’t afford to have another complete shutdown. I know we can’t.”

Atwood said what’s different in Central Louisiana from the rest of the country is this year we’ve been hit by two hurricanes.

“We have never been hit this hard,” Atwood said. “I know we didn’t have so much damage that we couldn’t reopen, but we had a lot of damage and like many people, you’re still trying to deal with insurance claims, and it’s just been a rough year.”

During the pandemic, the government issued stimulus checks to some people.

“A lot of people just don’t understand that even though you personally...everybody has gotten some stimulus from the government,” Atwood said. “Businesses really didn’t.”

She said only businesses that qualified for certain loans got government help.

“If you ask a business owner, most of them didn’t get that money,” Atwood said. “They’re living off their personal savings. They didn’t pay one bill so that they can pay another. So just get out and support your local business however you can.”

Gyms are also having a tough time. The Courtyard Health and Racquet Club is open for business. Owner Heidi McMickens said the Courtyard has faithful members and during the two months they shut down, they remodeled to give the gym a fresh look. According to McMickens, members would drive through the parking lot and said they have been attending the gym for 20 or 30 years so they missed being there.

“It was hard, but you just have to keep going,” McMickens said. “I had to give it to God and that’s honestly how I felt for us to get through it. I knew that we would open back up, and it was scary honestly because I didn’t know what opening back up was going to bring.”

According to McMickens, people may be scared to go to the gym because they don’t know what’s happening.

“We’re very clean, there are rules to follow now, and what’s great is our members are just appreciative, excited to be back, and they’ll do whatever rule I’ll ask them to,” she said.

McMickens and her husband own The Courtyard.

“When we closed down for those few months it hurt us financially,” McMickens said. “My husband and I made sure that we didn’t charge anybody while we were down. As much as we needed to stay up on everything, this is our family and we couldn’t make them pay for something that wasn’t open. So, it was hard on the financial part being closed.”

If you’re worried about going to the gym, McMickens’ advice is to check out your gym first, find out what they are implicating and what their measures are.

“Regardless if you go to the gym or not, this is the time more than ever that you need to move. You need to exercise,” McMickens said. “I make everything very comfortable, but even if not, move your body. You can still walk outside, you can still move because at this time we need to be physically in better shape, but also mentally. And exercising makes you feel better mentally and that’s the most important is to keep moving. We are safe. We make sure that all our measures are followed and everybody that comes is very respectful of it.

Phase 2 does not affect the Courtyard because, according to McMickens, they’ve always stuck to Phase 1 for everyone’s safety.

“Thankfully being over 20,000 square feet, we’re big enough and two-story where people can be throughout,” McMickens said.

She also modified her classrooms during the pandemic to meet social distancing guidelines and accommodated 60-year-old guests or those with underlying conditions with their own room. The Courtyard has sanitizing stations, requires a guest questionnaire and temperature checks. They also have a clean pen cup, require masks and sanitize frequently. The gym makes sure everyone stays in their own space. McMickens placed plexiglass to protect employees.

Louisiana Athletic Club Manager Ronnie Schwartz explained how the pandemic has impacted their open gym.

“The challenges have been getting people back to the gym, seeing that we’re doing everything we can to make it safe for them,” Schwartz said. “I understand it’s a scary time of the year for them and people are worried about this, but we’re open.”

The Louisiana Athletic Club has a full staff of people cleaning equipment all the time, everyone practices daily social distancing, guests fill out questionnaires, masks are required and temperature is checked.

“It’s a proven fact that exercise can keep you from catching it, and we just make sure that these people understand that we’re here for them and we want them to be here,” Schwartz said.

Because of the gym’s size, the LAC never really hit 75 percent capacity.

“The fact that we can go pretty much anywhere in the gym and you’re not going to be crowded with a lot of people in both locations is the same way,” Schwartz said.

The LAC is making sure people are in tune with the protocols. Schwartz is looking forward to the day the pandemic is over.

“We have a gracious God. He is there for us. We just need to remember what’s important. How to take care of people,” Schwartz said.

He said that the LAC isn’t being rude by asking people to wear masks but doing what’s right, and whatever it takes to curb the virus.

“Our members are the most important thing for us. If we lost a member because of COVID, it just didn’t hurt one person it hurts everybody because we’re a very close-knit family, “Schwartz said.

The Courtyard shares a gym-family bond too.

“Not seeing our members and being with our members on a daily basis,” McMickens said. “I think challenges are we like to hug each other. We all know each other and to now come in and everybody stay six feet away and there are no hugs. Some of the personalness is gone on that part.”

Atwood wants to remind everyone it’s more important than ever to support small businesses.

“Local places don’t really have big corporations behind them, paying for advertising, being there to catch them if they fall,” Atwood said. “So, go out and just support them.”

The Courtyard Health and Racquet Club and Louisiana Athletic Club did not charge their members while they were closed. LAC is open daily and has specials, and Atwood said Embers has four positions open.

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