By Mary Hladky
When Jody Sorrels closed her Boynton Beach dance studio on March 17 because of the coronavirus pandemic, she expected to eventually reopen.
But she struggled to figure out how she could change her teaching style to keep her students safe. They would have to be socially distanced, with no hugging or holding hands.
Even if she took all precautions, Sorrels still worried about the possibility of a student contracting COVID-19 at the studio.
Her family’s health concerns also weighed on her. Her husband, Scott, is a kidney transplant recipient and her son, Joshua, had a kidney transplant on Sept. 6. Reopening could expose them to the virus and jeopardize their lives.
Sorrels finally decided the reopening just could not happen. The studio she owned for 20 years at 1700 Corporate Drive is now permanently closed.
“It is like a death in the family,” she said. “I am mourning my studio. It was my dream to open it. This is not the way I wanted to close it.”
Miss Jody’s Place to Dance is one of many small businesses felled by the pandemic.
Data on business closures is sparse, but it is clear that closures are mounting.
The online review company Yelp said in mid-September that 97,996 businesses across the United States had permanently closed as of the end of August, a 34% increase since its mid-July report.
In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro area, 1,949 permanently closed as of July 10, including 417 restaurants and 285 retail businesses. By the end of August, the number had risen to about 2,600, Yelp’s data shows. Not all businesses are listed on its site.
U.S. Census “small business pulse survey” data released on Oct. 1 showed that 1.5% of small businesses in Florida permanently closed in the last week. Data released in early September showed that 0.9% had closed in the last week.
A review of information posted on the websites of some south Palm Beach County businesses shows that closure does not necessarily mean the company is out of business. Some are relocating, possibly to get better rent deals elsewhere or to reduce rent costs by moving into smaller spaces.
A number of businesses operating in multiple locations are scaling back. For example, Le Macaron French Pastries has closed its store on East Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, but its store in Boca Raton’s Mizner Park is open.
In downtown Delray Beach, a Downtown Development Authority inventory started in early May showed that 55 ground floor spaces were empty along Atlantic Avenue between State Road A1A and Northwest Fifth Avenue and along Northeast Second Avenue as of Oct. 9, said DDA Executive Director Laura Simon.
The number of vacancies is much higher than normal, she said.
She estimated about 15% of those vacancies are related to COVID-19. Reasons varied for the others. Some were vacant before the DDA started its inventory. Some of the others had decided not to renew a lease and moved to another part of the city or to a different city. She didn’t know if rent costs were a factor in those decisions.
If non-essential businesses had not been shut down in March, she said the city possibly would have lost only a few of those businesses.
In a second conversation 12 days later, Simon said three businesses had opened downtown, and three more planned to open. “That is good news,” she said.
The turnabout in the downtown’s fortunes was completely unexpected since 2020 was expected to be a “stellar year,” she said.
“On March 13, we went into full crisis mode,” she said. Since then, the DDA has taken steps to help businesses. That includes letting the public know which businesses are open or offering take-out meals, providing information on business assistance programs and generally “being a lifeline for our business community.”
The DDA also plans to implement a business recruitment plan.
National business organizations are sounding the alarm that the situation is dire, worsened because federal financial assistance to businesses has run out.
The National Restaurant Association said on Sept. 14 that one in six restaurants, nearly 100,000, are closed either permanently or long term, with nearly 3 million employees still out of work. The industry is on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year.
A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey in July found that 70% of small businesses were concerned about financial hardship due to prolonged closures and 58% worried about having to permanently close. Two-thirds feared they would have to close again or stay closed if a second COVID-19 wave occurs.
Business groups are intensely lobbying Congress to approve additional economic relief, but as of late October no deal was in sight.
“Unless Congress acts there is no opportunity for these small businesses to access another round of (Paycheck Protection Program) funding or even the employee retention tax credit,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and chief policy officer Neil Bradley said on Sept. 1.
The need for congressional action is “critical,” said Dennis Grady, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches. “It would behoove us if politics could be put aside and a next round of PPP would come out.”
Businesses are in a “can we survive another day mentality,” said Troy McLellan, president and CEO of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. While he thinks Congress will eventually act, the uncertainty leaves business owners to grapple with “how many weeks and months can I hang on.”
But it’s too late for Stacy Silvestri, owner of five Calico Corners fabric stores in Florida and whose grandfather started the company in 1948.
She shut down her Jacksonville store in July and was holding liquidation sales for her stores in Vero Beach, Stuart, Orlando and at 170 NW 20th St. in Boca Raton in October.
The stores were struggling pre-pandemic as her parent company did not allow her to sell online and fewer people are sewing or interested in custom fabrication.
But when Silvestri reopened after a two-month closure in the spring, customers were leery of in-person shopping and her employees in high-risk groups were nervous about returning to work.
“We got to the point where we had to close them,” she said. That leaves about 65 employees out of work.
“That has been the hardest part, for the employees and the customers,” she said. “It was a very difficult decision to make.
“We had an outpouring from our customers of being very sad,” Silvestri said. “We have a lot of customers who have been very loyal for years.”
Not all Calico Corners stores are closing, with three on Florida’s west coast and others owned by the parent company across the country still in business.
Jewelry designer Jen Scoz also decided it didn’t make sense to keep House of Zen Dali in Delray Beach open since profitability had declined after she reopened in May.
She and co-owner Hawk Stillwind closed their store, at 424 E. Atlantic Ave., in August after operating it for 10 years. Five employees lost their jobs.
“I felt OK with it,” Scoz said of the decision. “I felt it was the right thing to do. If you are not being supported in what you are creating, it is time to move on.”
But her loyal customers “were really, really sad to see us leave,” she said. “We were such a stable and beautiful and spiritual part of the community.”
Scoz said she will continue to design and create, although “I don’t know what that looks like yet,” she said in late September.
Sorrels also was deciding next steps in late September. She expected she would teach at another local dance studio.
But launching a new studio once the pandemic is under control is not an option.
“It would be like opening from scratch,” she said. “I can’t put my family in financial jeopardy to do that.”