Even as many stay open, small businesses are feeling omicron's impact

Businesses are dealing with staffing issues, higher costs and fewer customers.

January 1, 2022, 12:05 PM

Small businesses around the country are feeling the impact of the surge in new COVID-19 cases, primarily driven by the omicron variant. The spread of the virus is causing staffing issues, higher costs and fewer customers, they say.

Some businesses said they have been forced to temporarily shut down because they do not have enough staff to stay open, while others are over-scheduling staff for shifts, just in case anyone gets sick and can't come in.

The Roguelike Tavern, a bar in Burbank, California, announced it will remain closed after its Christmas break, at least until next Monday, but will only be offering takeout and delivery.

The risk of exposure for the bar's staff became apparent when they kept hearing people they were in contact with test positive for COVID, according to John McCormick, the owner of The Roguelike Tavern.

"We had a couple of near-misses at the bar," McCormick told ABC News. "Folks that were in one night were posting on their social media the next [day] about testing positive. Even with [Burbank's] high vaccination rate, it was just everywhere," McCormick said.

At least 75% of residents in Los Angeles have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to LA County.

PHOTO: People wait on line to get tested for COVID-19 on Dec. 21, 2021, in New York.
People wait on line to get tested for COVID-19 on Dec. 21, 2021, in New York.
Brittainy Newman/AP, FILE

The decision to close meant the bar canceled all its events scheduled for this week, including karaoke, trivia and a New Year's Eve party.

"We're a small bar, no windows, very little ventilation; to have a bunch of people singing at the top of their lungs, that just wasn't gonna fly," McCormick said.

McCormick will be scaling back his staffing while only serving takeout and delivery. This means his hourly-paid staff will be earning less money.

"I'm going to be setting up a Venmo for them to hopefully get some regulars to help support them in case we have to be closed for an extended period of time."

While kitchen workers are paid above minimum wage, McCormick is worried about his bartenders, who are paid the minimum wage, which he said is barely a livable wage in Los Angeles.

"My bartenders are looking at pretty paltry tips for at least the next couple of weeks," McCormick said.

McCormick hopes his business, which he opened this year, is in a good position to make it through the next few weeks of closure now that he has a regular customer base looking to support it. If the number of cases decreases, he plans to reopen fully on Jan. 19.

The Roguelike Tavern is far from the only small business that had to close its doors. Franklin Barbecue, a restaurant in Austin, Texas, closed its dining room last week after multiple staff members tested positive for COVID-19, according to its Facebook page.

"Due to the absence of these team members, we don’t have enough staff to operate. It takes a village to run this restaurant and we hope to have enough healthy folks in time to reopen next Tuesday," the restaurant said in the post.

Kome, a sushi restaurant in Austin, Texas, also closed to conduct a health and safety check for staff due to a COVID-19 exposure, according to its social media page.

Kome then had to extend its closure period because it was "having trouble getting staff tested quickly and getting results quickly," its Instagram page said.

After two employees tested positive for the virus, the restaurant shut down on Dec. 18 and staff was told to get tested. Testing appointments were not readily available considering it was a week before Christmas, Kome's director of operations Elizabeth Hyman told ABC News.

While most staff members were able to get tested by Dec. 20, some couldn't get appointments until Dec. 21. When the decision was made to reopen, not all the staffs' test results had come back.

"I was staying in contact with the management team throughout the entire process, checking in with everyone on results and made the call late Tuesday night to reopen for dinner service Wednesday at 4. If we didn't get the remaining test results in time, we would just have run with a skeleton crew and made due," Hyman said.

The remaining test results came back negative.

Hyman said she is frustrated with how difficult it was to find testing sites that take walk-ins or have available appointments in addition to how expensive PCR tests have become.

Testing sites with immediate availability were charging more than $160. One of the places she found was charging $280.

"I was very disappointed that, after nearly two years of dealing with this virus, we still don't have the necessary resources available to everyone, regardless of income level, to be able to get tested and help fight the spread of this deadly virus," Hyman said.

Kome has only been open for curbside pickup since March 2020. The restaurant was closed for a total of four days, and even that short period took a toll on the business.

"Having to close the week of Christmas, when everyone has family in town, and kids are out of school, was a huge financial hit to us, not to mention the products we had to throw away. We get fresh produce deliveries daily, fresh chicken, fresh fish, prepped food, all of it had to be discarded," Hyman said.

Kome's staff was not the only one unable to get their test results quickly. An employee at The Brattle Bookshop, a used bookstore in Boston, was out of work for five days while waiting for a COVID test result, its owner told ABC News. The test eventually came back negative.

Because he had symptoms, the employee was a little more restricted about where he could get a COVID test, an added hurdle on top of labs already overwhelmed with tests, Ken Gloss, the owner and proprietor of The Brattle Bookshop, told ABC News.

PHOTO: People line up to get tested for Covid-19 at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts, Dec. 20, 2021.
People line up to get tested for Covid-19 at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts, Dec. 20, 2021.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

This is a problem Tarik Fallous, the owner of Au Za'atar, a Lebanese restaurant with two locations in New York City, has also had. As a result, some employees have had to stay home for five or six days to get their test results. Others, however, have only needed to stay home for two days.

Some of Gloss' staff have been missing work in the last few weeks because those supposed to take care of their children were testing positive for COVID.

"It happens. In the best of times, childcare can be an issue. And this time, it's happened much more than we would want it to be. But we've managed," Gloss said to ABC News.

Fallous said being safe and telling the staff to stay home if they are not feeling well has had a significant economic impact on his small business.

"We always have to schedule additional staff in case one or two staff members don't come to work or are not feeling well … which can be costly for a small restaurant," Fallous said.

By not scheduling additional staff, Fallous would be risking losing customers.

"The other option would be not to add additional staff, but take a chance, and then possibly sacrifice quality or service. And on the long run wouldn't be a good thing for restaurants," he said.

Fallous said business has been very "inconsistent" in the last few weeks. On days where the number of cases are high, the restaurant sees a lot of cancelations. When the case numbers are not as high, he said Au Za'atar gets a lot of reservations.

"They're not behaving as they were maybe like a month ago," Fallous said. "I see a lot of people who are requesting to sit in the outdoor area where it's not covered."

Fallous has also seen more customers putting in takeout or delivery orders.

"I see the increase in the business' takeout and delivery, much more now than earlier the pandemic," Fallous said.

PHOTO: A "No Mask No Entry" sign is pictured outside a business in Times Square during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in New York City, Dec. 15, 2021.
A "No Mask No Entry" sign is pictured outside a business in Times Square during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in New York City, Dec. 15, 2021.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Fallous said the price of shifting away from in-person dining could be costing the business up to 30% or 40%, depending on the size of the order.

"All the fees associated with deliveries can become costly. So financially, it is not a great benefit, but the benefit is being able to reach our customers and deliver it to them," he said.

Gloss was surprised by how well his bookstore did during the holiday season, even compared to before the pandemic. But, he has noticed business slowing down in the last few days. Gloss said the omicron variant came on so fast that people have only just started reacting to the rise in cases.

Gloss said the surge has caused a slowdown of businesses from some groups more than others.

"Very, very noticeably, the average age of the people coming in is 20, 30 or 40 years younger than normal. A lot of our old customers, the regulars and the elderly, we're not seeing them at all," Gloss said. "I think they are much more worried."

Fallous, whose business relies on many goods imported from Lebanon, said costs that have risen during the pandemic have been going up even more in just the last few weeks due to omicron.

It is becoming more difficult for the business to get supplies it uses and often suppliers are putting limits on the number of products Au Za'atar can buy, he said.

"They don't have enough and they want to supply everyone and on top of this, the price has tremendously increased," he said.