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Quarantine Chronicles: Katie Balthrop
KATIE BALTHROP owns Savannah Sport and Wellness, a studio that offers personal trainers, sports scientists and massage therapists. Her business is classified as a gym and was included in the first round of businesses to open back up under Governor Kemp’s order. She plans to open on Monday, May 4.

This is Katie’s Quarantine Chronicle.

What was your decision to reopen like?

We were allowed to open last Friday, but we did not. We are planning to open next Monday the 4th, with a lot of protocols in place. We’ve taken a week to think about that; there’s a lot to think about.

We will wear masks, gloves are optional, and as soon as I can get my hands on some hand sanitizer we’ll be sanitizing and washing our hands. We’re going to space our clients out to be able to disinfect the studio between clients. No groups, no buddies, it’s all one-on-one or family sessions. Our massage is still closed.

Everyone that works in my salon is an independent contractor, so it’s up to them if they want to come back to work. It’s been really hard to get any sort of … as an independent contractor, you can apply for the PPP and the EIDL, and they cannot apply for unemployment. They’ve got to find resources on their own. As soon as I get any of those things I’ve applied for coming in, I’ll try to help them out, but none of us have seen any sort of relief.

I applied for the EIDL through the SBC, and none of us have heard back. I happen to have a good friend and client in banking, so when my bank said they were no longer accepting applications, I reached out to her. She’s helped me personally chase down some loan money that might be coming in soon.

It’s so interesting that you haven’t gotten any of that money yet.

I applied last week, only because independent contractors weren’t allowed to apply until the second round. That’s why I applied for the EIDL because you can use that for rent and overhead. But by the time they allowed independent contractors to apply, the money was out and we had to wait even more.

I understand that everyone needs this. Everyone’s in the same boat; we’re just waiting our turn.

My landlord has been accommodating a little bit; if I need to defer payments, we can extend the contract or make it up later. I don’t expect my business to come rushing back, so I’m trying to keep paying my bills and not have that hanging over my head later.

I’m trying to be a little forward-thinking about it, too. It doesn’t help at all to have bills piling up in six to 12 months. It’s not like my business is going to recover the six weeks of loss at any point, especially if this comes in waves and then next winter we’re looking at the same thing again.

I know it’s less expensive for a landlord to keep the current tenants and be flexible with payments than to have me close up shop and try to find a new tenant. I would never exploit that, but I know I can at least go back and say, “I want to be in business, I want to be here and be honest about what I can actually do.”

Do you find this decision stressful?

It’s very stressful. The last thing I would want to do is be part of the problem. So we have this opening day and we’re trying to not work at the same time, so how do we stagger our schedules and how do we space out our clients? What happens if there is this uptick? Do we shut down again?

My trainers have to work, everyone has bills to pay, so I want them to be able to work. At the same time, it’s my job to be socially mindful.

I opened my business two years ago. I was working out of my home studio and took this big leap of faith and opened the studio, and I was going to be debt free by the end of the year. But now I won’t be, and that’s okay.

Whatever people’s politics are, I also understand that at some point, the damage to the economy and people’s livelihoods are so great that we’ve overstepped it. Personally, if I had a gym or a place where I couldn’t keep my clientele distanced and separated—which we really can, we’re actually in a good spot to be able to do that. But I do worry about the businesses that are desperate to reopen, but people are going to be near each other and sharing stuff. I think that’s harder.

I was reading through the salon’s disinfecting and reopening guidelines, and it’s four pages long. I don’t know how anyone’s actually going to accomplish all of those cleaning guidelines.

What information do you look at for your decision?

I watch and read all kinds of different news sources and it’s really hard because one day they’re telling everyone stay home, if you have to go out wear a mask, all these really high safety measures for people, and then very shortly after, they open businesses that don’t seem logical to open.

It’s essential that everyone work, but I would also imagine that people would go back to a spaced-out office before they would go back to shared equipment.

The leadership on the national level will say it’s time to reopen, and then medical leadership will say no, that’s not safe. Then our state leadership will say, “Let’s reopen,” and then our mayor will say, “That’s a dangerous idea, don’t reopen.” There’s a lot of mixed messages. I want to do the right thing for everyone, but it would be nice if it was all based on scientific recommendation and everyone was on the same, nonpartisan page about how to proceed.

I’m really curious what’s going to happen when we open on Monday. I have clients lined up and spaced 15 minutes apart so I can spray everything and let it dry and disinfect, but my business is personal. I spot people and I get things for them and I load the bar. We’re going to have to change how we work, and part of my business model is that personal attention, all focus and all eyes on you while it’s your hour. I don’t want to lose that connection I have with people. They can’t tell if I’m smiling if I’m wearing a mask.

Why did you choose May 4 for your reopening date?

We thought we needed a week to get ourselves together and to individually contact every client and ask where they were, ask what they wanted to do, and then come back together as a team and say, “This percentage of my clientele wants to come back, I need this block of time.”

I also needed a week to procure cleaning supplies. The day it came it out in the paper, I had people calling and texting me already, “What are you going to do?” So it was either May 4 or another week later, and we thought we would give it a go.

I don’t have a problem being fluid, so if that goes poorly, I can say, “Hey, that didn’t work.” I hope people are forgiving of that.

You had a big demand from clients?

I would say a moderate demand. I think I had as many people who said, “There’s no way, I’m coming back in.”

I’ve seen a lot of people simplify it down to, if you feel safe, go. If you don’t feel safe, don’t go. And yes, but no. People have to make decisions based on more than just that. There are so many people that own stakes in businesses, and they have to make a decision about their livelihood.

The other part of it is, if you’re allowed to open and you don’t, do you have any negotiating power left on rent and utilities? Or other services—we pay for credit card processing, we pay for a website, we pay for all kinds of stuff that people don’t think about. If the governor says my business is open, what’s going to happen with my ability to manage my bills? There’s no way we’re going to be able to cover them this month.

Are you and your staff all on the same page?

I think we all have the same level of caution, which is really helpful, and they’re all very understanding. When we sign the independent contractor contract, they understand that with being an independent contractor comes a lot of freedom to make as much money as you want to. You bring in clients, build your business under my roof, there’s a lot of freedom there, but there’s also not a lot of safety net for that contract.

They have to buy their own insurance, I cannot apply for unemployment for them. I think what’s nice is that no one on my team is valuing their income over the safety of our clients, which is wonderful. We can really talk through the protocols and be on the same page with safety, so that’s good.

I think some people are more desperate than we are. We’re lucky. Every single one of my people have a spouse or partner with a job, or a second job, or something to do. I don’t think any of us would let another person get into a situation that was dire.

I haven’t seen anyone opening up in a cavalier, uncaring way. Nobody wants to get sick.