Sulaiman Smith (left), shoeshiner, and Gustavo Espinal, barber, chat as they wait for a customer at Tommy’s Barbershop in Atlanta on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Nationally, a tidal wave of job cuts has followed the closure of restaurants and offices, the cancellation of sports events and conferences and the slashing of travel. Filings for unemployment insurance in Georgia were up at least 400% last week, according to the state Department of Labor. The numbers were even more grim in some other states. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Social distancing leaves local small businesses with few customers

Thomas Barber shop on the corner of West Paces Ferry Road and Northside Parkway has opened nearly every Saturday since 1959 at 6 a.m. with men and boys waiting in the parking lot.

From when the doors open to past 4 p.m., the customers have to wait their turns — sometimes long enough to run out for a bite or to grab one of the doughnuts Tommy Thomas keeps in the back — before stepping up into one of seven barber chairs.

Thomas turned on the lights at 6 a.m. this past Saturday to no one. David Rabinowitz, a regular, came about 6:45. Another customer showed up about 8 a.m.

“Never in my life have I seen anything like this,” said the 69-year-old Thomas, whose father “Big Tommy” founded the shop. “Nothing of this magnitude.”

Many service businesses across metro Atlanta have been hit hard as residents stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic except to jump out for groceries. Small businesses and shops from barbers to lawyers and dry cleaners to nail salons have seen steep declines in foot traffic even though they haven’t been ordered to shut their doors.

Running a brick-and-mortar business that typically relies on foot traffic became even tougher Monday afternoon, when Gov. Brian Kemp ordered closed all businesses where customers and workers cannot maintain at least six feet between themselves at all times. That came after several metro Atlanta jurisdictions — including the city of Atlanta — in recent days banned in-restaurant dining, gyms, bowling alleys and other businesses to maintain social distancing. And more restrictions could be on the way.

Some of the businesses have already been closing, sending home another wave of Georgia workers to join the growing ranks of the unemployed. Many business owners are waiting for the massive business relief package working its way through Congress and are hoping loans and grants might help or save them — and their workers.

“Customers are afraid to get out, and I don’t blame them,” Thomas said. But he hopes they will find safe ways to shop and support companies and their workers.

Dinesh “Dennis” Desai, co-owner of Midtown Cleaners & Laundry on North Highland Avenue, said that his business has sunk between 70% and 90%.

“I have a reserve for myself,” he said, “but I’m staying open for my employees to collect their salaries.”

Desai plans to cut back on days that his business presses clothes. Or he might suspend the dry-clean operations altogether and keep open the coin-operated laundry business, which is doing OK. He said he gets 20 to 25 calls a day asking whether his coin-op machines are available.

“People are inside with nothing to do but eat snacks. The only thing left to do is the laundry now,” he said.

High-end services are also feeling the pinch.

Eric Teusink, a managing partner at the 11-employee Williams Teusink law firm in Decatur, said the firm’s receipts are slowing even as they try to keep going — courts are largely closed and many government services that are key to their clients’ real estate and other businesses are curtailed.

“We are fully committed to hanging onto every employee we have,” he said. “They are incredibly talented and it’s going to be important for us to keep them as we navigate this.”

The firm is advising clients on what disaster relief help is available, and “we are looking at (government disaster) loans a well,” he said.

Allison McTigue, owner of Allison McTigue Salon in Buckhead, applied for a disaster relief loan and is waiting with a great deal of concern.

She said she spent her cash reserves two months ago moving her hair salon to a new location after being forced out of the old one. When the virus began growing worse, she shut her 13-year-old business down out of concern for her patrons.

“I am in a situation where my whole income has come to a complete stop,” she said. “I am a homeowner. I have a son in college and am on my own financially.”

At the same time, the rent and mortgage are still coming due.

What’s next?

“I don’t know,” the 42-year-old McTigue said. “I was watching the news this morning and trying to figure that out. I am going to have to find something to do, or I will go crazy. I’ve been working since I was 14.”

Maybe, she said, she’ll go to one of the hospitals and cut hair for one group that has more work than they can do and little time to visit a salon: doctors.

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