Businesses prepare to close and navigate Austin’s shelter-in-place order

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — After shelter-in-place orders were issued Tuesday for the City of Austin, Travis County, and Williamson County one thing was clear: local leaders believe residents need to limit their in-person interactions significantly to curb the anticipated spread of the novel coronavirus.

The shelter in place order requires that all “non-essential businesses” (those businesses not critical to the health or safety of the public) must close or operate in a work-from-home capacity through Tuesday through April 13.

Those “non-essential businesses” have until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday March 24 to comply.

The stakes are high for public health, Austin’s Interim Health Authority Mark Escott explained in a briefing Tuesday that according to modeling from UT Austin.

In the next three-to-four weeks, Austin area hospitals could be overrun.

Escott explained that the modeling shows that letting schools, businesses, restaurants, and bars run as normal would increase the number of person-to-person interactions in the community, increase the spread of the virus, and increase the toll on local healthcare systems.

In a release, Tuesday Veronica Briseño, Director of City of Austin Economic Development Department, acknowledged that these orders will make a significant economic impact during this unprecedented time — both for businesses that will be closed and businesses that continue operating in limited capacities to support critical infrastructure within our communities.

Preparing for uncertainty

In southwest Austin Tuesday, Cobalt Blue Salon staff were busy working to tie up loose ends before they close their doors indefinitely on Wednesday.

The Cobalt Blue team is well aware that as a salon, they don’t fall into the essential business category and have been getting advice on how to proceed from salons around the country through a coaching network they belong to.

Co-owner Amanda Seijas has been helping employees file for unemployment and co-owner Amy Sinclair has been working on a Small Business Administration loan application.

Sinclair explained that it’s only in the past two weeks that they even began to consider how COVID-19 might impact their business. An employee who has a boyfriend in Italy kept alerting staff to concerns about how serious the virus could be.

Then last week, Austin-Travis County prohibited gatherings of 10 people or more.

“Once they put the no-more-than-10 people into place it was playing Tetris with the books, trying to schedule people where we could,” explained Seijas.

The owners explained that some staff members wanted to self-quarantine and wanted the time off. Others have been anxious about these changes.

“One of my employees, yesterday, she was counting paychecks,” explained Sinclair. “She’s nervous about what’s going to happen.”

They’ve also seen a reduction in customers over the past week.

Sinclair estimates they’re seeing around one-third of the people they typically do.

To make things work in the time being, they’ve been offering products for purchase from the salon which customers can pick up curbside. Cobalt Blue has also been encouraging customers to buy gift certificates for future appointments at a time when public health officials are not advising for everyone to stay indoors.

An an employee at Cobalt Blue Salon in Austin cleans products the day before a shelter-in-place order goes into effect in Austin-Travis County. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Closing things down comes with mixed emotions. Seijas is looking forward to having more time to do inventory and organize.

“It’s kind of giving the opportunity for everybody to just take a time out,” Seijas said. “I feel like we’ve been living in such a fast-paced world.”

But inevitably, this pause on business will also impact the finances of the Cobalt Blue employees.

“We have some hourly employees, but for the most part we’re commissioned. So if we don’t have a client in our chair we don’t make any money on a daily basis,” Seijas explained.

Sinclair said she feels fearful, both for herself and for her staff.

She explained that it took several months for the business to move to the new salon building they are in.

“I’ve had to go through a lot fo financial challenges,” Sinclair said. “So closing the door is pretty frightening right now.”

In the meantime, the business is trying to encourage customers to purchase gift certificates to use when the Austin-area has moved past this wave of COVID-19. They also say that customers who wish to do so are welcome to tip their stylists as they navigate this financial uncertainty.

Despite the hardship is stepping into, its owners say that hunkering down and staying at home to protect public health is what has to happen right now.

Sinclair hopes,”that we all get through this together and safely and with as few deaths as possible, that everyone stays healthy, and does what they can to keep themselves healthy right now.”

“That’s what’s most important,” she said.

Working with businesses on the next steps

The Greater Austin Area Chamber of commerce says it has been in constant communication with local businesses about the potential impacts of these orders and other policy changes related to COVID-19

“The chamber is here to help,” said Dana Harris, Vice President of Federal and State Advocacy for the Austin Chamber. “If there are things that we can do to help any small business in our community please reach out, let us know what the need is and we will certainly try to help.”

The Austin Chamber has a host of resources on its website as well, specifically tailored to businesses figuring out where they will fit within all the changes occurring related to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Harris has been following what the City of Austin and Travis County are doing with these orders, on Saturday the chamber sent a letter to those local government leaders requesting that they protect manufacturing and IT jobs under any potential shelter-in-place orders.

“The chamber’s position was that we wanted the CISA (Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Administration) guidelines to be used as a basis for what’s critical infrastructure and what’s not,” said Harris adding that those guidelines cover a broader range of professions even beyond IT and manufacturing.

She noted that even the companies that are considered essential businesses won’t be running like normal.

“Let’s be clear that all of these companies that are operating under shelter-in-place are operating with a skeleton staff and they are strictly following CDC guidelines as well as guidelines from the city and the county,” Harris said.

The Austin Chamber is working with Governor Greg Abbott’s office to connect Austin-area businesses to the newly created Supply Chain Strikeforce to see if those local businesses can meet the needs of the governor or of the healthcare industry. The chamber has also been hosting webinars to help businesses understand the many changing policies they are facing.

On Friday, the chamber plans to have a webinar to help businesses navigate the recently-signed into-law federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Harris noted that with each change related to COVID-19, there is a bit of lag time between the passage and the implementation of the policy.

“At this unprecedented time, it’s vital that every single one of us does our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Harris said. “Our local elected officials have shown leadership by making tough decisions that are ultimately best for our community.”

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