As local and state governments continue to enforce stay-at-home orders, local businesses that are the pinnacle of communities large and small across the U.S. are facing difficult decisions. This week, the Eagle Times talked with small business owners who have reached out to government leaders about the hurdles they have encountered since restrictive declarations aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 were implemented in March. Here are their experiences:

‘A slap in the face’: Local hair salon owner describes government assistance challenges

Despite federal and state assurances to help independent business owners financially weather the COVID-19 emergency shutdown, one salon owner, Heather Irish of Claremont, said that when she tried to get assistance, the system left her stranded.

Irish, who co-owns Country Haircuts Family Salon in Guild with her partner Tonya Laventure, wrote to New Hampshire media outlets Monday about the struggle of many businesses, including hers, to get assistance through either state unemployment or business aid through the federal CARES Act.

“Not just businesses with numerous employees but really small businesses, some just getting off the ground, have had to close their doors because help has been denied,” Irish wrote.

Irish’s salon reopened this past Monday, May 11, following an eight-week mandated closure due to New Hampshire’s state of emergency declaration. While grateful to be working again, Irish told the Eagle Times that her situation now is far more fragile than two months ago. The new state restrictions on salons — particularly the one essentially limiting their services to haircuts and root touch-ups — means less income. Country Haircuts also lost the additional revenue from renting two chairs to other hair stylists, who turned to other occupations after the closure in March, Irish said.

But what hit Irish the hardest, and frustrated her the most, was being denied both unemployment and business loan assistance during the eight weeks of shutdown.

“I get [the challenges] of government,” said Irish, a former Claremont city councilor and school board member. “But our governor made a promise to us, that they were going to keep [business owners] afloat.”

The circumstances for Irish’s denial of unemployment were a combination of unlucky career timing and a state unemployment criteria that didn’t consider her situation.

Irish returned to hair styling last December, leaving a job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She briefly took a position at Supercuts in Lebanon, a chain barbershop, to refresh her skills.

“My intention was always to start my own business [in returning to hair care],” Irish said.

In January Laventure offered Irish a booth rental in her salon, with the opportunity to become a partner. Irish became a partner on March 1.

“My husband and I spent our savings helping to renovate the space and make it exciting and fresh,” Irish said. “My partner and I had booth renters and the salon was beginning to thrive.”

Two weeks later, on March 17, with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, Gov. Sununu issued the executive order that required salons to close.

Though the federal CARES Act expanded unemployment criteria to allow the self-employed to apply for state unemployment, Irish had not owned her business long enough to qualify under that rule.

She applied for regular unemployment. For eight weeks the New Hampshire Department of Unemployment gave her conflicting responses, she said.

“One person would tell me I was all set,” Irish said. “I would call two days later to find they had issues [with my application].”

The New Hampshire Department of Unemployment finally granted her a hearing on Friday, May 15, two days after she had already reopened her salon.

The state denied her unemployment benefits because she had quit Supercuts rather than being terminated.

“I was shocked and angry,” she said. “I have put into the system for years, never asking for help. And when I really need assistance and was promised it, I was put aside like an afterthought.”

Irish also sought a business loan through the CARES Act, but because her business was new and she didn’t have any employees, she didn’t qualify for assistance.

“I understand the health crises and believe in the decisions that had to be made,” she said. “But I also feel as if the government has stolen my dream and life from me. I did not ask to be out of work. I did not want to ask for help. It was frustrating to file for unemployment so to be denied was a slap in the face.”

Irish said she is worried about her salon’s future. Her savings are depleted and she and Laventure must cover rent and utilities with revenue hampered by state regulations and vacant rental spaces.

As we reopened our doors, with limited services allowed, we found that the booth renters we had have decided not to return. So, with rent and utilities now fully on my partner and I we are struggling to move forward.

Irish said she wanted to speak on behalf of all small business owners, many of whom have difficulty admitting publicly that they are struggling.

Too many businesses “are not getting this promised assistance because the proper processes were not in place,” Irish said.

Irish said she is “very grateful” to be in business again, despite the challenges and recent frustrations.

“We were very busy the first week and have been steady,” she said. “I’m so grateful for all of our clients. Even though they’re disappointed that we can’t do some of the services we would normally do, they’re still giving us their service.”

Gym owner who reopened early urges state to reclassify fitness centers

In absence of any official indication of when fitness centers will be permitted to reopen, Newport resident and business operator Heidi North has started to speak out. Owner of Newport Fitness & Spa, North wrote last week to Gov. Chris Sununu in an appeal to classify gyms as an “essential business.”

“It is clear that this [fitness] industry is being ignored [by the governor’s reopening task force],” North told the Eagle Times on Wednesday.

North briefly reopened her gym last week on Monday, May 11, but closed the business two days later after Newport Police Department officers delivered North a letter from New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald which detailed potential penalties on businesses that violate the governor’s emergency orders.

North said she wants to stay in compliance but is frustrated by the state’s discrimination against the fitness industry while allowing businesses such as liquor stores to operate, despite receiving proposed safety guidelines from the fitness industry on Tuesday, May 5.

In a reopening proposal to the task force, Michael Benton, a New Hampshire fitness facility operator, said that, if permitted to reopen, fitness facility regulations would include: reducing their occupancy and class sizes; spacing workout stations at least 8 feet apart; keeping saunas and steam rooms closed; and strict policies for frequent equipment sanitizing, social distancing and masks.

Benton said he hoped the state would reopen gyms by Monday, May 18. But the state still has made no indication when gyms may get the green light.

In her letter to Sununu, North asserted that fitness centers are essential to people in law enforcement and fire departments, whose members often use private gyms to exercise and condition, which is required in their occupations.

“Across the country, a significant portion of the gym-going population includes police officers, sheriffs’ deputies, corrections officers and firefighters,” North wrote. “Here in New Hampshire, as is the case in most states, individuals seeking employment as law enforcement officers, corrections officers or firefighters must pass a physical fitness test prior to their hiring and appointment, and in many instances [including New Hampshire] police officers must maintain that standard in order to maintain their certification and appointment.”

North said she is well stocked with disinfectant, hand sanitizer, masks and touchless thermometers. Gym members would need to take their temperature prior to using the gym. She will reduce the maximum occupancy to approximately 20 people. With 8,000 square feet, the gym is currently allowed 38. Masks will be available for members who wish to have one.

“I would never do anything to harm my community,” North said.

North said that people should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to frequent businesses or stay at home. People with compromised immune systems should not be made to work, though the state should also factor the demographics and regions most affected by the pandemic, rather than lump all New Hampshire communities under the same guidelines.

Sullivan County has 16 of the state’s 3,868 confirmed cases as of Thursday, May 21, the second fewest of any county behind Coos which has four.

“Some members have said that they aren’t comfortable going back to a gym right now, and that’s fine,” North said. “But if other members are saying they feel comfortable and want to use the gym, they should be able to.”

Though the exercise floor remains closed, North has been operating the juice bar, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., giving away free frozen yogurt and smoothies to gym members. North said she is grateful for her members who still want to support her during this period.

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