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Many St. Louis-Area Businesses Reopened This Week. Others Feel Pressure To Do The Same

Sarah Young reopened her salon in Creve Coeur this week, but customers at Sola Salon must come in one at a time and follow strict safety rules, including wearing a mask and having their temperature taken. Week of 5/22/20
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Young reopened her salon in Creve Coeur this week, but customers at Sola Salon must come in one at a time and follow strict safety rules, including wearing a mask and having their temperature taken.

Sarah Young’s salon in Creve Coeur sat empty for almost two months. But this week, after stay-at-home orders were lifted, she reopened her booth at Sola Salon with back-to-back appointments.

Young is eager to see her regular customers again, but business is far from normal. 

Clients are required to follow new safety protocols. That includes sending a text upon arrival and waiting in the car until Young is done sanitizing. Only one client is allowed inside at a time, and they must wear a mask, have their temperature taken and sanitize their hands.

It’s a lot of steps, but Young said most clients are happy to comply if it means they can finally get their roots touched up. 

“We have had a couple people try to sneak in the door, and we’re like, ‘No, you can’t come in yet!’ You know, they’re just excited to be here,” she said.

Young is one of many business owners across the St. Louis region trying to figure out how to get back to work and keep people safe during the coronavirus pandemic. There are official restrictions on occupancy and sanitation, but a lot is left up to individual businesses.

Young has come up with a new uniform to feel safe at work. She wears scrubs, antimicrobial shoes and a mask, and her hair is tied in two tight braids. Operating her salon requires a lot more energy than it did before the pandemic, but Young said she’s grateful to be working again. 

“I kind of lost a sense of who I was in a way — you know, I was just throwing my hair up in a bun, no makeup. So it’s nice to be back doing what I feel is what I’m meant to do,” she said.

Seeking normalcy

Many people — tired of staying home — are looking for a glimpse of their pre-pandemic life.

On Monday afternoon, the first day businesses were allowed to reopen, Dave Seigal stopped by Ice & Fuel, a sports bar and grill in Kirkwood. It’s been a part of his almost daily routine for years.

Since he was temporarily laid off, he’s been missing the communal aspect even more, but he said the experience is a little different now. 

“Normally I’d always be up here with some buddies and we’d play touch screen games, darts, pinball or some Golden Tee, and they’ve got all that out of the building now,” he said. “I hadn’t really thought about that until today when I came in and realized everything is kind of gone.”

Customers at Fire and Ice
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Customers gather at Ice and Fuel, a sports bar and grill in Kirkwood, on the first week it reopened for dine-in service. Patrons aren't required to wear masks, but they're supposed to stand six feet away from other tables.

Gaming areas aren’t allowed under St. Louis’ guidelines for reopening. Another aspect that’s missing from the sports bar? Blues and Cardinals games. Until the teams resume play, the TVs at Ice & Fuel are tuned into sports reruns and the Game Show Network.

Korie Harris, who manages the bar and grill, said people seem happy just to have a place to catch up with each other.

It’s her job to make sure everyone follows the rules. That includes sanitizing hands, staying six feet away from other parties and ordering from a server while seated. She said things are going pretty smoothly so far, but she does feel like a bit of a buzzkill telling people what to do.

“The problem is, as it goes on more, I think people will get tired of it and not listen as much,” she said. “But I mean, I really haven’t had anything that’s made me feel uneasy. Hopefully it will stay that way.”

The restaurant has been getting a lot of takeout orders, while dine-in service has been slow and steady, Harris said. That’s given her and her staff time to get used to the new rhythm. 

She’s been working double shifts, and her voice is hoarse from shouting through her mask. “It’s a pain,” she said. “I’m not going to say any of this is easy — it’s stressful, it’s exhausting, but you know, if you want to be open, you have to do it. So, here we are.”

Pressure to open

Some business owners worry that no matter what precautions they take, it still won’t be safe to operate.

Laura Bonfanti owns a tattoo parlor in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood, Cousin Paul’s Tattoo. She specializes in large tattoo work, so her appointments last around three hours and involve close contact with clients.

She’s scared to go back to work, but staying closed is wiping out her savings. Bonfanti’s landlords have been cutting her a break on rent, but now that she’s allowed to reopen, she worries they won’t be as patient.

“If we don’t go back soon, you know there won't be a business to go back to,” she said. “But at the same time, we know that it’s not really safe.”

She ordered face shields for herself and the other artists in her shop, and she added more disinfection protocols. But even though she will require clients to wear masks, Bonfanti worries about taking on liability if someone gets sick. 

She says the city government is putting personal service businesses in a tough position. 

“They say you can open, but you have to follow CDC requirements of being six feet apart. So we can’t do both of those in our case. It’s not possible,” she said. 

Like Bonfanti, many business owners are struggling to figure out when and how to reopen. Some, with deeper pockets, plan to wait until the end of summer. But as Bonfanti’s bills pile up, she says the pressure to open is mounting.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.