Mercer Island business owners discuss Phase 1.5 experiences

With Phase 1.5 in effect, COVID-19 guidelines have been relaxed in numerous industries.

Earlier this month, King County announced that it had been approved for the next part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased approach to state reopening in response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Well, not quite.

This new stage wouldn’t be Phase 2, as many other Washington counties have experienced. King County, for the time being, would be moving into a modified version of Phase 1 (known colloquially as Phase 1.5) since it had not yet met case-number requirements.

Phase 1.5 is essentially a more limited form of Phase 2. As is the case with 2, Phase 1.5 gives the green light to the reopening of hair salons, retail shopping, in-person dining and more.

Except in this modified step in the process, hair salons can only fill 25 percent of its capacity. Retail stores can only be shopped in for a half an hour (and at 15 percent capacity). Outdoor dining is capped at 50 percent capacity; indoor, in contrast, is limited to 25 percent. Fitness studios can look to Phase 2 guidance, which entails one-on-one training indoors and, when outdoors, socially distanced group instruction capped at five people.

Mercer Island business owners eligible for a modified reopening are working to acclimate to the temporary new normal; others that had been deemed essential are now, with the announcement, slowly moving toward operations closer to the way they were before the pandemic. But the process has hardly been a streamlined one.

When Barb Hovsepian, the owner of the Au Courant salon, first heard that Au Courant would be able to reopen, she was excited. In the three months that the salon had been closed, she and her team members had faced numerous challenges: standby pay for her stylists was delayed (which resulted in Hovsepian having to make an ultimately successful GoFundMe page) and only recently did the business procure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.

The salon Au Courant, like other beauty shops now able to reopen, has implemented a number of safety measures in accordance with state guidelines. Photo courtesy Barb Hovsepian

The salon Au Courant, like other beauty shops now able to reopen, has implemented a number of safety measures in accordance with state guidelines. Photo courtesy Barb Hovsepian

After receiving word that Au Courant could reopen, Hovsepian and her team underwent extensive cleanliness training. They also worked over three days to reach out to the 600 clients who had booked their appointments ahead of time during the three-month closure period, and released a flier sharing cleanliness measures.

“We’re really sensitive to the fact that while we have a lot of clients who are very eager to come in, we have some that aren’t because they’re still a little nervous, and they haven’t been out at all,” Hovsepian added.

One of the thorniest tasks faced by Hovsepian and other salon owners, who already follow strict cleanliness mandates, is acquiring material to meet personal protective equipment (PPE) and other cleanliness protocols.

Hovsepian said that she received six pages of industry-specific guidelines from the state. Some new practices of many include keeping a careful count of how many heads will be in a room on an hourly basis, and scheduling lunch breaks ahead of time for stylists in an offsite lunchroom.

Fulfilling cleanliness requirements has been expensive (as of June 9, such an endeavor has cost Au Courant some $5,000; $800 alone was spent on foot-pedal trash cans). And the process of buying the required materials requires far more scrappiness than usual. When Hovsepian’s trusted local supplier didn’t have Barbicide, she had to reach out to a contact in Atlanta, who had other items she needed. Things like masks and alcohol have had to be obtained through secondary industry sources. And the implementation of face shields and vinyl separators dividing socially distanced stations was greatly assisted by a friend of Hovsepian’s who is based in Kirkland.

Thankfully, Hovsepian said, she and her team were able to get everything ready before Au Courant’s June 10 reopening.

She said she’s been anxious about the possibility of a coronavirus resurgence in the fall and winter, concerned about Au Courant and other small businesses handling another extended period of closure and/or extensive operational readjustment.

But for now, Hovsepian is trying to be optimistic.

“It’s not fall and winter now, and we’re prepared, and we’re going to move forward, and we’re going to stay strong, and we’ll just see what happens,” she said.

Steven Meade and his wife, Nancy, own Terra Bella, a home-goods store. It’s primarily located in Mercer Island, with a second location in Issaquah. Before Terra Bella was deemed “essential” by the state, Meade said that from “day zero,” he and Nancy were adamant about accessibility to masks and sanitizing materials to ensure customers and employees didn’t get infected.

But declining business as an effect of cautious customers led to reduced hours, what amounted to a temporary shutdown of Issaquah’s brick-and-mortar location and just him and Nancy manning the Mercer Island shop. There has been an emphasis on curbside pickup and website-shopping; once the “essential” designation came about, the Meades kept the door at the Mercer Island location locked at all times, letting one to two people in at a time.

“There’s so many unknowns,” he said. “The business is off so dramatically.”

With the Phase 1.5 declaration, the Meades now keep Terra Bella’s doors unlocked, though make sure customers are socially distanced and that germ hotspots like doorknobs and counters are consistently wiped down. (Capacity is closely monitored, too.)

He added that Terra Bella has been resolute that customers comply with guidelines, too.

“We don’t let anybody in without a mask. Sadly, people get upset about that,” Meade said. “But, you know, we’re concerned for everybody’s health and well-being. And that’s a requirement coming in.”

When Mercer Island Athletic Club owner Ginny Pietila found out that she would be having to close the doors to her business on March 16, she thought it would last two weeks, three at maximum. Once it became clear to Pietila that the closure would extend beyond that, she said that in addition to the inevitable financial toll, it was emotionally hard on her.

“We’re in the business of people,” Pietila, who has had a fitness facility in Mercer Island for 26 years, said. “We see people every day; we help people every day. I realized that I’m very used to just being with other people and helping them.”

After shutting its doors, the business reoriented to posting fitness videos online and sharing vlogged updates. Significant financial help came from WeLoveMI, a newly formed organization whose website features a donation directory for Island businesses and nonprofits and who has helmed community-wide business-assistance fundraising campaigns.

WeLoveMI, Pietila said, has helped the Mercer Island athletic club pay the bills and its employees.

With Phase 1.5, the club can implement Phase 2 requirements. Pietila didn’t expect the announcement: she’d heard nothing about a modified Phase 1 beforehand.

Plus, she was planning for a soft reopening in Phase 2, then a fuller, Phase 3-supported one later in the summer. While Phase 1.5 has thrown another curveball — and is not bringing about a reopening per se — Pietila noted that “it does allow us to slowly start to dip our toes back in the water.”

First indoor appointments will begin Monday, June 15 — after the Reporter’s print deadline — with only three trainers and three clients at any one time in the gym. Clients will have to bring their own towels and water; no showers will be available. Everyone must wear masks.

There are other minutiae: a no-touch thermometer for employees, a coronavirus symptoms list posted on the door, the elimination of locker-room use.

Outdoor classes will take place in front of the club. While they’ll be able to move indoors during Phase 2, Pietila said she’s not sure if this will happen right away, given not all clients will be equally comfortable.

For now, Pietila doesn’t have any major anxieties, but is acutely aware that modified operations are not sustainable in the long run.

“I’m really, really trying to focus on what we’ve been given right now, which is the ability to slowly start,” she said.”I’m eternally grateful for that.”

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