By Rachel Phillips
Slowly but surely, New York is beginning to emerge from the months-long shutdown that resulted from the outbreak of COVID-19.
In Saratoga Springs, in particular, the lack of tourists and probable dearth of fans in the city for the Saratoga Race Course this summer pose yet another hurdle to overcome for small businesses. However, business owners and organizations are hopeful that people and entrepreneurs can work together to keep the area thriving.
There has been no official word that fans won’t be allowed at the track while horses race. But indications are that the situation will be like the current Belmont Park meet–racing and online betting, but no fans at the facility.
Deann Devitt, president of the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association, is optimistic about Saratoga’s ability to rebound.
“Saratoga Race Course is a huge draw to our little city, but it isn’t all we have to offer,” said Devitt. “I have faith in our community to master this challenge. We will need to think creatively and will need to work together. Residents will continue to show their support of our small businesses. This helps our businesses remain strong and feel appreciated.
“Our small businesses will continue to offer alternative options for those who may not be ready to venture out, and work to create new experiences for all to enjoy, while adapting to our new normal.”
According to Devitt, the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, Saratoga Economic Development Corp., Discover Saratoga and Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership have been participating in the efforts to keep small businesses running during these difficult times. In addition to offering sample reopening plans for businesses, they have created reopening starter kits that contain hand sanitizer, social distancing signs and face masks.
Heidi Owen West, owner of three downtown businesses—Lifestyles of Saratoga, Caroline and Main and Union Hall Supply Co.—has created a five-page “business precautions plan” to keep employees and clients safe for when they reopen.
According to West, it includes “new procedures for fitting rooms, sanitization stations, social distancing floor plans, masks will be required or one-on-one appointments for clients unable to cover their faces, pre-screening for employees and tracing of possible symptoms. It’s quite extensive and covers everything we do on a daily basis. I have it posted in the shop and creating social media posts so clients will know what to expect.”
When the quarantine hit in March, West was forced to close her businesses. She reported a 94 percent drop in sales for the month of April, and a drop of approximately 84 percent for May.
Though she initially could not continue to pay all of her workers, she was able to hire all 20 back after securing PPP funding. As soon as she was able, she offered local delivery, curbside pickup, free shipping and selling through social media. That has been holding her over for the time being.
While she is concerned about the predicted lack of tourism over the summer, West is still hopeful that the Saratoga area will rise to the challenge.
“Call me optimistic, but the new way of working and being may continue to keep us safe. Between social distancing, wearing of masks and continuous sanitizing, it is my hope that we will not need to Pause New York again. The data gleaned from the first wave should provide information on how to deal with it in the future. That being said, I am investing in the eCommerce portion of my business, changing up my product mix and buying less than I normally would for the fall season.”
“Saratoga is a very special city,” said Nancy Bambara, vice president and COO of DZ Restaurants, which owns which owns Chianti Il Ristorante, Forno Bistro, and Boca Bistro, all in Saratoga Springs. “I think that once we receive reopening plans, we will see that Saratoga residents want to support our local community. While it will be difficult not having NYRA and our arts centers like SPAC open, I believe that together we will be strong and will rebound from this pandemic.”
Prior to COVID-19, DZ Restaurants employed upward of 200 staff. When all three restaurants were shut down, they were forced to lay off 95 percent of the staff. In April, they were able to reopen Forno Bistro to offer a takeout menu inspired by all three restaurant’s chefs under one roof.
“While take out allows our business, from a marketing standpoint, to stay relevant in our community, it is very difficult to adapt to this situation we all find ourselves faced with,” said Bambara.
DZ Restaurants has a plan for reopening that they hope will allow them to bring in business while also keeping employees and diners safe.
“We are looking to increase outdoor seating capacity, which includes social distancing. We are also looking at a reopen plan with 50 percent capacity,” Bambara said. New procedures put in place will be similar to how the company will operates in the future. She anticipates rehiring all the employees as opening protocols allow.
“Entrepreneurs are built for challenges,” said West. “It’s what pushes us to think outside of the box, to make quick, creative, and sometimes difficult decisions. We generally have a high threshold for risk taking, so I’m fascinated to see what changes will come from the hardships we’ve all endured.
“There is always a silver lining, even if it’s hard to see initially. I’m not sure what the future of retail or small business will look like, but I do know it has changed in significant ways due to COVID-19. The businesses left standing will be the ones that are able to pivot and embrace those changes.”