How rough has shutdown been on small businesses? Insights from a dentist, barber, and car salesman

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

With consumers ordered to stay and home and with all but “essential” businesses ordered to close temporarily to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a lot of Kalamazoo's small businesses are -- or soon may be -- running in the red.

How rough has it been?

Here are reactions from a few --  a dentist, a barber, and an independent auto dealer.

Dentist Dr. David T. Crandell

“We are currently not seeing patients on a daily basis,” says Dr. David T. Crandell, who has been practicing dentistry in Portage for about 42 years. “We stopped doing all cleanings with our hygienists and have stopped all routine treatment. Currently, only emergency patients are being seen.”

He says dentistry has for years been a leading industry in terms of maintaining a safe and sterile work environment. Its in-office sterilization procedures, including the use of personal protection equipment, have long been in place to keep its staff from being too vulnerable to infections that people my carry, Crandell says.

But the business is not deemed to be essential for life during this COVID-19 shutdown, except for emergency dental cases.

Crandell says closing his office has created a significant challenge for his staff. “Most have filed for short-term unemployment,” he says. “But my office manager continues to work part-time to attend to the phones and mail. Our hygiene schedule is completely backed up with nowhere to schedule our patients going forward. And although our patients are extremely understanding of the situation, I expect that we will work extra hours for a while to get these patients seen.”

He says that is quite a change from 12 months ago when he and his staff were working a full schedule “with not much concern about where we were going as a business.”

A fair amount of thought is on the horizon now.

“The hope is that people will want to try to continue where they left off,” Crandell says. “The concern is how many of our patients have lost their jobs, and if they will see dentistry as a priority as their discretionary spending may be compromised. If we can get our economy back up and running in May, I believe the damage will be lessened.”

Asked what people can do to help, he says, “In consideration of our staff, we have been asking our emergency patients to NOT come in if they have a fever, cough, or any respiratory problems. I am sure we will continue this approach for the foreseeable future.”

Master barber Paul Frazier

For master barber Paul Frazier, every part of his regular work runs counter to maintaining social distancing. Haircutting, beard-trimming, shape-ups and nearly any other work performed in his shop, aside from sweeping the floor, involves in-your-face contact.

“I have one-on-one interaction with people,” says Frazier, the owner of International Profyle Barbershop at 3101 W. Main St. “Social distancing is a great challenge. I have to be up close and personal to groom patrons.”

So he says the coronavirus outbreak has completely shut down his 24-year-old business. He says he is using this time to do repair work around the shop and some remodeling. He is also working to develop of new business model and is trying to better identify his client base.

What was he doing a year ago at this time?

“I was scheduling for proms, graduations, fraternity and sorority balls on campus, weddings and family reunions,” he says, “as well as we just missed the Easter Sunday rush.”

A fresh haircut is a tradition for a lot of people who are headed to church and/or family gatherings on Easter Sunday. Without those events, that was lost business, he says.

What does he anticipate a year from now? Frazier says he expects his business to be stronger than ever.

“I plan to be doing more in the community,” he says. “And I expect to be more involved with local government, whatever that looks like.”

Asked what can people do to help? He says, “People can try to understand that business will be different, adjustments have to be made in day-to-day operations. And to keep supporting small business.”

Car dealer Doug Walters

Car dealer Doug Walters says that over the years, there have been many ups and downs in the economy, unexpected challenges to tackle, and untimely issues to resolve. He started working as an independent auto dealer with his father, Bud, 44 years ago. The elder Walters retired in 1988 and died in 1995.

Doug says he has managed the ups and downs with the help of great workers and he is happy to continue Bud & Doug Walters Auto Sales Inc. with one of his four adult daughters, Abby, working as his sales manager.

“Presently, the COVID-19 outbreak has temporarily closed our business -- the first time I have ever closed my doors,” he says of his 1600 S. Drake Road business. “I also have a newer service business, Walters Auto Service (at 5617 W. Michigan Ave.) that is an extension of the dealership. Even though it is considered (in terms of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders) an essential business, I decided to temporarily close it as well.”

But, like a lot of businesses that are temporarily closed, he has had to decide if he can, or will, continue to pay his employees during the shutdown.

“I have 12 very important, valued employees that I have kept on the payroll to retain their employment,” Walters says. “I want to keep them and their families safe and to do so, I made that decision.”

He says he is not sure how long he can continue to pay them while he has very little day-to-day sales, but he is confident about managing it.

“We are now putting together a plan to reopen the service department in a safe way for both customers and employees,” he says. “I want everyone comfortable before we begin.”

He says that will hopefully be by May 1.

“I am so thankful for the support of our loyal customers that understand my thoughts on this and have called me to let me know they are well,” Walters says.

He says that a year ago he was enjoying the hustle and bustle of the business, competing for sales, and buying and selling cars. He says success in car sales involves buying the inventory that fits the dealership, creating good relationships with customers and other dealers, and maintaining a good reputation.

In recent days, he says, he looks out of his office, sees a quiet sales lot and empty sales offices and realizes, “It’s very sad to see. But I feel it’s necessary to be safe with this. We will overcome this and, as many have said, this too shall pass.”

Walters says, “I look forward to this time next year and we are very optimistic in saying this industry will adjust and come back to a new normal.”

The business shutdown has to be noticeable for the many community organizations that approach small businesses for donations to help fund everything from Little League Baseball to class trips. Frazier, who developed and is also the chief executive officer of a nonprofit organization that helps teach young city boys about responsibility as it teaches them how to fish, says the COVID-19 outbreak has also shut down that volunteer effort.

“In the case of the nonprofit, the shut down in the school system occurred before we could identify the young men who would be participating in this year’s programming,” Frazier says.

So the nonprofit, called 49AZO Inc., is sharpening its programing, doing some fund-raising and trying to reconnect with past participants.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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