McALLEN — There’s a counter at de Sanchez Salon and Day Spa covered in stacks of index cards.
The cards go back years, detailing what sort of product and coloring customers received, when they dropped in and how long it took to color and fix their hair.
David and Dora Sanchez, the owners, have been busy organizing these cards so they can use them to put together coloring kits for their customers, with product and shampoo and instructions on how to use them.
As the Sanchezes found out last month, the government might consider salons and barbers to be non-essential, but their customers do not— especially when their roots start to show.
The Sanchezes’ salon is one of many retailers allowed to reopen Friday in a curbside capacity. They brought employees back to the store for the first time in weeks to begin doing inventory, filling orders and preparing themselves for the day they’re finally allowed to open again.
McAllen Chamber President Steve Ahlenius said steps like those are some of the first stages of turning the economy on again. While curbside services won’t make up for a lack of customers physically entering businesses, he called the step a “psychological boost.”
“I think it’s a good first step towards rolling out and restarting the economy. I think the important thing is how we measure making sure that there’s not a spike or a hotspot as far as COVID-19, I think the cities and the county will watch that closely to make sure that nothing’s happening,” he said.
To avoid that, municipalities and the county have rolled out a host of worksafe plans and regulations intended to keep employees and customers safe while throwing the business community a lifeline. Businesses that want to operate curbside or on a delivery basis are being instructed to sanitize meticulously, use personal protective equipment and socially distance themselves.
Some cities are requiring employers to screen their employees for symptoms of COVID-19; others are requiring businesses to avoid cash payments.
“There’s going to be certain things that businesses have to agree to do, not only to keep their employees safe but to keep their customers safe,” Ahlenius said.
Ahlenius believes that in the near future businesses will be allowed to switch to a more traditional model and let customers into their buildings.
“I think what most businesses want to see is for customers to be able to come back into their store; obviously social distancing is going to be critical. Those are the types of things that local small businesses really want to see happen, and hopefully they’ll happen in the next week or two weeks,” he said. “Obviously there are certain industries — barbershops, dentists, salons, where you’re in contact with your customers. I’m curious to see how the governor is going to allow that … how do you bring back those types of services where it’s close proximity. … Once we get to that phase of the reopening, then we’re back to whatever the new normal’s going to be.”
For business owners like the Sanchezes, there’s a good deal of ambiguity about precisely how that new normal will look. David said that while he intends to make health and safety a paramount concern during the process, he’s not sure what those regulations will mean for business.
“We’re concerned about how this is going to come out. Will they allow us to work with a 6-foot separation? Or will it be on how many are allowed in at a time,” David said.
To adapt to those policies, the Sanchezes expect to adjust their hours, possibly trying split shifts to reduce the amount of people in the building at the same time.
“It’s going to handicap our business, but we’ll make it happen, whether it’s split shifts or separate shifts,” he said.
Another point of ambiguity faced by the local business community is exactly when the economy will reopen again in a traditional sense and customers will be allowed to enter the building. As David points out, it’s difficult to begin filling a calendar with appointments if he doesn’t know what the start date will be.
“We’re all waiting, we’re all waiting,” David added anxiously. “All the staff is creating their list of clients.”
That ambiguity is compounded by the level of demand when businesses do fully open again. The Sanchezes expect to be a deluge of people in desperate need of a hairdresser when their business is allowed to let customers through the door again.
“Wahl’s is a good example,” David said. “They sold a lot of clippers the past four or five weeks and people are actually cutting up their hair at home. And that’s perfect, they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do, but if and when this is all over, they’ll come back so we can fix what they did at home.”
That demand could put stress on the vendors who supply local businesses as well.
“They too will be in the situation that we’re in, that they’re probably going to sell out all their color products and then they’re going to have a backlog,” he said.
One thing that David said has helped the salon navigate the economic crisis has been aid from the federal government. Through the Paycheck Protection Program, de Sanchez was able to put employees back on payroll and put them back to work. Other businesses weren’t as lucky. Carats, a jewelry and luxury goods store in McAllen, applied for assistance and was denied. They’ve since reapplied.
“Hopefully this one is coming through,” Carlos Melguizo, store owner, said.
To fill the void in revenue, Carats stepped up its online presence, which wasn’t a focus previously. The business began posting videos and pictures of jewelry and gifts.
“We’re trying to be as creative as possible. The saviour here was really the presence of social media, how we engage with a lot of our customers,” Melguizo said.
So far, Melguizo says, the community has responded and helped fill the gap in income created by closing the showroom and not getting federal assistance. One man ordered several candles. When asked what flavor he’d like the man said he didn’t care, he just wanted to support the business. Another woman bought a thousand dollar gift card; it was her anniversary, she said, and she hadn’t picked out any jewelry yet but she wanted to help.
“Most of our customers are friends, or friends of our customers,” Melguizo said. “Those little details, they’re kind of heart-wrenching, because this is when we needed them and they were there. So I’m feeling a little more optimistic.”
Ultimately, however, there’s no substitute for letting customers in the front door.
“Even when they see the jewelry online, it’s not the same. Once they put it on it may be too heavy, it may not be as flattering as it looks online. They want to smell our fragrances,” Melguizo said. “It’s a priority. They need to go into our store.”