ALBANY — When Hassan Elminyawi opened his downtown book shop five years ago, he envisioned it as a community hub where people could form face-to-face relationships in an increasingly online and isolated world.
After two months of a coronavirus-induced lockdown, he’s not sure how much longer that model will last.
“We are sadly considering closing the shop because these last two months have affected us so greatly, that I don’t know if it’s financially feasible to continue,” said Elminyawi, owner of Urban Aftermath Books on Hamilton Street.
The Capital Region is soon expected to meet all benchmarks required to begin the first phase of an economic reopening. Companies in the construction, manufacturing and wholesale trade fields will be permitted to reopen, as will retail businesses, but for curbside or delivery service only. The region has met six of the seven public-health metrics required by the state, and can begin the phased reopening once more contact tracers are available, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said during a press conference Sunday.
On Monday, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said the region is working to train more than 120 contact tracers. He did not set a firm date for the first phase of the reopening.
“They will be getting trained today, and I’m hoping [Tuesday] we can announce we’re open,” McCoy said. “I figure by Wednesday, the latest.”
When considering when and how to re-open, business owners will have to weigh their financial needs with the public-health risk that may be associated with partially opening their doors again. Elminyawi said many of his regulars have a higher risk of complications if they contract COVID-19. For now, his business will remain online.
“I take the safety and health of my customers as paramount,” he said. “I’m not entirely sure it’s wise to open without a good plan. We’re coming up with a game plan, but I don’t know if we can maintain the same level of success that we’ve had in the past.”
Some business owners say they’ve found the messaging surrounding the timeline of the reopening inconsistent and confusing.
“One minute, they say they’re not opening us up, then a few days before Memorial Day, they say they are,” said George Vasilakos, owner of the Zombie Planet comics and games shop. The first phase of the reopening won’t be much of a change of pace, Vasilakos said, because his shop had been offering curbside service since the pandemic prevented customers from inside his Central Avenue shop.
Curbside isn’t the same experience for customers who miss visiting the shop in person.
Still, Vasilakos said, “It’s evolve or die.” Many of his customers have told Vasilakos that it will be a long time before they feel comfortable visiting the store in person, and he anticipates a second wave of the virus in the fall will keep his business online-only for the foreseeable future.
“The reality is, this is going to happen again, and we want to prepare for that when it does,” he said.
If a business wants to survive the pandemic, it will have to adapt in three different areas, said Jayson Kratoville, the interim director of the National Center for Security & Preparedness at the University at Albany: its people, its processes and its culture. Even after the government allows a business to partially re-open, entrepreneurs will have to contend with their customers’ heightened perception of sanitation and public-health measures.
“I think that, unfortunately, you’re going to see a lot of turnover in who has dominance over the local marketplaces,” Kratoville said. “Places that are creative and can adapt will do so, and will thrive relative to other companies.”