SALEM — The head of the state retailers association sounded the alarm Wednesday about the need for Main Street to reopen soon or else a significant portion of small businesses in the state would not survive.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, was part of a panel of business leaders speaking with members of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce that morning via video conference about rebooting the Bay State’s economy while balancing economic and public health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hurst, who lives in Beverly, said his group had surveyed its 4,000 members, 40% of whom were essential and stayed open, and 60% that had to close, following the governor’s executive order in late March.
“What they really need to understand about these small businesses on Main Street,” Hurst said to Chamber members whose companies may still be operating remotely “is that they are literally at the end of the rope. We surveyed our members and literally 30% of them came back and said if they are not open and servicing their customers in the month of May, they were either somewhat or extremely likely to fail.”
This includes companies that were deemed essential.
“If we only surveyed the nonessentials, that number would have been more dramatic,” Hurst said.
He said retailers have learned a lot over the past two months from essential businesses on how they can protect employees and customers.
“We have to start allowing, step-by-step, these businesses to serve the customers and to have a chance at a future,” Hurst said.
Retailers “kept their bargain,” he said, and helped flatten the curve of new coronavirus cases, and now it is time to have safe openings and to “protect the vulnerable.” Members are hoping to be able to reopen next week in time for Memorial Day. May 18 is when Gov. Charlie Baker may offer plans for a slow reopening.
Wednesday’s Zoom panel discussion was moderated by the Chamber’s chairman, Darren Ambler, managing principal of OneDigital Health and Benefits. The panel included George Carey, owner of Finz Seafood and Grill on Pickering Wharf in Salem and Sea Level Oyster Bar in Salem and Newburyport; attorney John Colucci of the McLane Middleton law firm; Brian Cranney, president of Cranney Companies; David Gravel, president and CEO of GraVoc of Peabody; and Joe Riley, executive vice president at Salem Five Bank.
Carey gave his take on the pivot to takeout.
For instance, a zip line bucket he set up at Sea Level Oyster Bar on Pickering Wharf in Salem for Taco Tuesdays now allows patrons a contact-free way to pickup their taco orders and have a little fun.
“It’s making lemonade out of lemons,” he said.
Carey, who employs about 200 people among his three restaurants, and who has been able to call 75 of them back for takeout, said a lot will depend on timing and guidelines from the state.
“We are not going to be able to turn the switch on overnight,” he said.
Since he has been doing takeout for the past two months, he’s not starting from a dead stop. However, his staff will need four to five days for training.
While Carey does not know what the next phase will bring, he has reconfigured dining rooms to provide 6-foot spacing between tables. He plans to use food-grade butcher paper on tables to provide a fresh surface, and they will clean between each patron. Outdoor dining will be expanded. They have created a new traffic pattern in the restaurants as to how to walk around. That means using a side entrance as the exit.
There will be eight to 10 hand sanitizer stations, and windows and doors will be kept open to provide fresh air. Carey plans to use single-use menus and silverware, and a QR code will allow patrons to bring up the menu on their cell phones, if they wish. Patrons will also be able to dine at the bar, spaced 6 feet apart.
Carey also plans to continue curbside takeout, operating the zip line from the second floor of Sea Level to a park bench outside the restaurant. He also plans to do this in Newburyport.
“It’s worked out quite well,” he said.