Relatively little is yet known for certain about the coronavirus's Omicron variant, but already business owners are feeling anxious about the prospect of more lockdowns and preparing to put "mask required" signs back on their doors.
On Friday, the World Health Organization labeled the Omicron variant "of concern," the same designation as Delta. According to the agency, early evidence suggests Omicron--which was first detected in South Africa and has recently been found in other countries around the world--might put people at a higher risk of getting the virus again compared with other variants of concern.
Most worrisome is Omicron's high number of mutations, says Gwen Murphy, the executive director of epidemiology at LetsGetChecked, an at-home testing company based in New York City. The 50+ mutations could alter any number of things, from its severity to its responsiveness to vaccines. "It's early days yet," Murphy says. "The main thing, really, is not to panic." President Biden echoed that message in a speech on Monday. But having weathered incredible difficulties during the Covid pandemic, some entrepreneurs are getting worried--and starting to ready their businesses for the worst-case scenario.
That's especially the case for businesses that depend on in-person patronage, says Jeffrey Scott, owner of ME&I Fitness and Performance, a gym in Minneapolis. In 2020, ME&I was shut down for six months and again later for two months. Scott estimates he lost essentially an entire year's worth of revenue from just the first shutdown, as customers didn't return right away when the business reopened. And even when there aren't restrictions, every time the virus spikes--as it has in Minnesota in the past month--attendance drops at the gym.
Scott has come to rely on grants and loans, and returned to working full time as a senior business adviser with Alerus Financial in May 2021 to pay his and the gym's bills. Because of the toll of the pandemic, he says, it's unlikely he'll ever get back his initial investment. "It is disheartening. It is frustrating," he says.
Nina Berenato, owner and designer of an eponymous jewelry brand in Austin, is less worried about shutdowns, which Texas lawmakers have largely opposed during the pandemic. Still, there's anxiety for her staff and customers. "Realizing those challenges might be on the horizon again, it's just a little bit stressful," she says.
So, between the variant and increased holiday traffic, Berenato plans to require customers to wear masks in her store again, which they had stopped doing for about a month beginning in late October when it looked like conditions were improving. That also means buying more masks to distribute to customers, and dealing with those who don't want to wear one.
Murphy well understands business owners' pandemic fatigue, but her advice harks back to the first rule of managing epidemics: Slow the transmission. So focus on working from home (or distancing if you can't), wearing masks, and hand washing. Leaders also should possibly consider canceling in-person and indoor holiday parties, she says. Taking such measures "is not glamorous," she adds. "But it is within our control."