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South Philly businesses feel the pain of an economic downturn

They just hope it’s temporary.

In the wake of last week’s citywide mandate to close dine-in access at restaurants, June BYOB has gone from a white-tablecloth fine dining establishment to somewhat of a takeout joint – just with more upscale food.

“It’s not what I ever intended or thought of,” said the restaurant’s chef and owner, Richard Cusack, who’s had to lay off the majority of his staff in the wake of the mandate. While Cusack and his business ride out the crisis, he’s doing what he can to feed the neighborhood and pay his staff by offering online orders of $5 pastas for takeout. He’s doing all business through the restaurant’s 6-foot window.

“I don’t have a dishwasher so I’m washing dishes and doing all the work that I usually pay someone for,” he said. Even though he’s laid off some employees, he’s letting them work a few hours here and there to make what they can.

“I told them whatever money we make we split,” said Cusack. “I’m just trying to support my staff right now.”

But it’s not just restaurants that are feeling the economic pain.

“We’re figuring out how much we can pay people who were scheduled to work on the shows that have been canceled,” said Deborah Block, producing artistic director at Theater Exile, referring to the theater’s planned presentation of a play called Orphans. Even though the show was cancelled before rehearsals began, Block said she’ll be able to pay everybody who was slated to work on the show something. Just how much is yet to be determined, though. 

“They’ve understood that we can’t fulfill that obligation,” Block said. “Today I spoke with a number of different artistic directors around town and everyone’s handling it differently, but everyone seems to be trying to figure out how much we can support our employees. The wonderful thing about the arts community Philadelphia is that it’s so supportive of one another.”

Daniel Cordua, co-owner of yoga studio Palo Santo Wellness Boutique, and Jenna Fisher, owner of a women’s fitness center called Train and Nourish Studio, have found ways to move their businesses online.

“Since we shut down on Monday we’ve been doing virtual classes,” said Fisher. “We’ll record it as we’re doing it, that way if someone works in healthcare or works all day they can access the link and do the class on their own at a later time.”

Fisher’s business has been utilizing a video conferencing app called Zoom – similar to Skype – to conduct the classes. So has Cordua.

“We have basically three classes every day during the week and one class on Saturday and Sunday each,” he said. “We have special meditations also that are donation based.”

Cordua said that his business sought out the donation-based model “because so many people are going through economic uncertainty and hard times.”

“We wanted it to be accessible, but also have it support our yoga teachers,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll allow them to pay some bills.”

Despite his business losing about 80 percent of its income, Cordua has remained positive.

“A difficult time either brings out the best or worst in people,” he said, “and we’ve seen the best out of our community.”

Adam Leiter, executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, said that businesses’ transitions to online platforms are part of a larger trend.

“I think that in general, everyone is trying to adapt as they can both in terms of what’s even feasible and allowed, but also in terms of what they can do in creative ways and getting up to speed with creating online platforms,” he said. “We’re seeing a handful of businesses that haven’t had a real focus on online presence that are now making that shift.”

That being said, Leiter said that business owners aren’t “panicking” just yet. But the longer this goes on “the more concern there is on everyone’s part,” Leiter said. “These are small, independent business owners. As well as a lot of them do, something like being out of commission for a long time can really have a big impact.”

Leiter said that pandemics are often not covered under business interruption insurance, contributing further to uncertainty among business owners.

“That’s going to be a huge impact on independent business owners,” he said. “We’ve spoken with officials about addressing that. It’s worth making the push and letting them know that these people need to have their voices heard.”

Not every business in South Philly is doing poorly, though.

“Put it this way, we’re hiring,” said Dana Ward, communications and public affairs manager at Acme. “We are having more increased business than ever before.”

Ward said just like all Acmes across the country, the three in South Philly are hiring people both so current associates are available to get the time off they need and because the extra hands help keep the stores clean.

“We are spending a lot of time reevaluating cleaning procedures and ramping them up to make them more in depth compared to what they were,” she said. “Cleaning and safety is always a No. 1 priority, but it had to be revamped a bit.”

Ward said Acme stores are cleaning and sanitizing all their surfaces “once every hour.” The biggest challenge has been keeping everything in stock.

“If people are stockpiling we can’t keep things in stock,” she said. Because the coronavirus is affecting the entire world, there’s no extra stock that can be pulled from other regions.

“This isn’t a snowstorm that’s just affecting the east coast,” she said. “It’s affecting the entire nation.”

From 7 to 9 a.m. during the week, Acme has limited shopping to just people in “vulnerable” communities, such as pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and people with disabilities. The store is also closing later – at 10 p.m. – “in an effort to give us some more time to stock and clean,” Ward said.

Despite Acme’s success, most businesses in South Philly are left feeling the pain of a struggling economy. They just hope it’s temporary.

“If in May people come out of the woodwork, we’ll be all right,” said Theater Exile’s Block, “but if it lasts into next season that will be a problem.”

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