With Mandates Lifted, Small Businesses Face New Challenges | Economy | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Throughout the pandemic, local businesses have had to ensure their protocols align with masking and vaccination requirements. But since the peak of the Omicron surge in New York earlier this winter, new cases have steadily tapered off, hovering around 1,700 positive cases per day in mid March—a fraction of the 57,000 cases reported at the one-day peak in early January. This prompted Governor Kathy Hochul to lift the masking and vaccination mandates for all indoor businesses last month.

Kira Goldfarb, owner of Cat on the Corner, a colorful cat-centric gift store in Catskill, says she struggled early on to navigate masking in her small space. “It’s generally been a little tricky to figure out how to word my signage, gentle requests to wear a mask, etcetera, since I’m the only one running the show.” But having no employees has made it simpler for Goldfarb to take a customer-comfort approach with masking since the mandate was lifted. Since the mandate was dropped, she has left the choice up to her customers.

But masking seems to be the tip of the iceberg for small business owners when it comes to ongoing challenges at this point in the pandemic. Corey Statton, owner of Red Hook Diner, has less to say about masking and more about finding and keeping workers. “It feels like masking isn’t even a big issue anymore. It’s the constant struggle to find people to work.” The diner has a few long-standing employees, but Statton says it's been near impossible to fill cook and porter roles in the last few months. “It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. I just can’t find any help.”

George Mansfield, owner of Dogwood, a local bar and music venue in Beacon, agrees. “Restaurants are typically divided into the front of house [bartenders and waiters] and back of house [cooks and porters]. Every restaurant is struggling to find those back-house workers, specifically. I’ve had an ad posted for a cook for a month now and no responses.” But Mansfield explains that these roles are highly stressful and historically underpaid. “I think people who were in that line of work have had a rare opportunity to explore other options during the pandemic.”

Amanda and Anthony Stomoski, owners of Rough Draft, a lively bar-bookstore, and Kingston Bread + Bar, which they co-own with business partner Aaron Quint, have had a bit more luck than most when it comes to their staff. “We’ve been able to bring back most of our pre-pandemic employees at both businesses, and have also made a few new hires,” they said via email

This applies to most of their front-house staff and retail workers. But, like Red Hook Diner and Dogwood, hiring for back-of-house roles like senior baker and dishwasher continue to be more difficult. “This year we are getting more applicants for positions, but it still feels like there are fewer people interested in working in the food service industry than there were pre-pandemic.”

The Stomoskis also say that keeping team morale high has been a challenge. “We haven’t been able to do many of the fun and social things that help people bond with their coworkers and enjoy their jobs.” So the duo has made an effort to support their staff in other ways: promoting from within, giving raises when possible, and adding new benefits like paid time off and 401K matching at both businesses. The couple never hesitates to jump in and fill a role as needed, keeping labor costs down and modeling a teamwork mindset for their staff.

At Dogwood, Mansfield is finding his own solutions to the hiring shortage too. “We have to rethink our commitment to our workers, particularly those back of house, and that means reevaluating compensation structures.” Mansfield has become more candid about raising prices to offset costs and ensure staff is compensated fairly. 

Small business owners have also found ways to get creative with their business models. In some cases, their methods have improved streams of revenue.

Samantha Sapienza runs four Hudson Valley locations of the popular coffee shop, ALL THAT JAVA. Her team has developed more efficient and COVID-safe ways for people to get their caffeine fix. “People can text in their order and order directly off of our website,” she says. The java hotspots even keep customer credit cards on file for faster ordering. Samantha also says the increased foot traffic from New York City tourists have greatly helped sales.

Rough Draft has made similar arrangements for to-go and pickup ordering, but the Stromoskis can’t help feeling anxious about the unpredictability of pandemic conditions. “With guidelines and comfort levels changing so frequently, it’s been hard to get into a flow and devote time to future projects. It feels like we’ve been playing catch up for two years.”

Tara Templeton, owner of Mahalo, a cozy children’s gift store in Catskill, is equally exasperated. She says that despite mandates being lifted, the pandemic is still impacting Hudson Valley businesses everyday. At least 80 businesses closed between the start of the pandemic and October of 2021, which has a knock-on effect for those businesses that have survived thus far. 

“Retail needs restaurants, local community theater, and daily foot traffic,” she says. “Every customer plays a part in keeping small businesses open.

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