After operating Hair by Susan for five months, business owner Susan Edwards had to close her salon at Birnham Woods Marketplace in March following mandates from Montgomery County tightening restrictions on which businesses could operate to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in the county.

“I am doing as well as can be expected,” Edwards said. “I will not be receiving a paycheck during this tough time, but I have not yet received a paycheck in 5 1/2 months. I put every penny back into my business, so my only major loss is getting the business up and running.”

Edwards said she is fortunate because her husband has held an industry job that has been deemed essential by the state, but she is upset at the mandate to close because Hair by Susan was just beginning to take off.

Many businesses have had to close their doors since the coronavirus began to spread in Texas, affecting thousands of local workers, particularly in the retail and restaurant industries, which were among the first to close.

According to 2017 U.S. census data, the most recent for which employment data is available, 4,176 residents in The Woodlands were employed in retail, with accommodation and food services making up an additional 2,242 employees.

Information from the Texas Workforce Commission states in the week of March 25 alone, over 150,000 unemployment claims across Texas had been filed. To provide some relief nationwide, the federal government on March 27 approved direct aid to individuals and businesses through a $2 trillion stimulus package. The package includes $377 billion in low-interest, small-business loans and individual payments of $1,200 to most residents who earn less than $75,000 annually.

J.J. Hollie, president and CEO of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses will feel more significant effects the longer social distancing practices go on.

“It is devastating to the local, state, national and global economy,” Hollie said. “It hit the restaurants first; we saw layoffs there almost immediately. It is going to be really tough for businesses the longer this goes on.”

Restrictions established

Area businesses were forced to limit their numbers of customers to comply with a variety of proclamations from both Harris and Montgomery counties throughout March.

The first confirmed case of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in Montgomery County was reported March 10, after which Judge Mark Keough pronounced a state of disaster March 12.

Subsequent county orders restricted the number of people that could gather publicly, culminating in an order for dine-in operations at restaurants to cease March 19, although operations could continue as long as they offered takeout, catering or delivery options.

On March 27, Keough issued a formal stay-at-home order that applied to all “nonessential businesses and residents,” and the order was extended through April 30.

“I have attempted at every turn to make patient and measured decisions and write patient and measured orders,” Keough said on March 27. “However, given the most recent information concerning the spread of the virus and the potential for loss of life for our county and for our region, I am amending my original order to become the Montgomery County ‘Stay at Home, Stop the Spread’ order.”

A need to change

Area businesses have had to get creative with how they operate since March. Among those is Sue Brooks, owner of The Woodlands Yoga Studio, located on Grogans Park Drive, who has shifted to providing her classes for free through streaming services on YouTube and Facebook.

Brooks said she made the decision to close the studio around the same time public gatherings were restricted to 10 or fewer. At the time, she said she had concerns about community yoga mats being properly sanitized and felt shifting online would be the best option.

“I do one or two classes per day, free to the public,” Brooks said. “It’s my way of giving back to the community.”

Brooks said by doing the livestreams she can maintain a sense of community for her students. The continuity helps with stress, anxiety and the sense of uncertainty, she said. Brooks said she understands the need after closing and reopening the studio through multiple floods and hurricanes.

Romy McCloskey, owner of Faden Design Studios and a designer in The Woodlands, said she closed her business to general commissions to use her excess material to make face masks and donate to entities that are in need. McCloskey said lockdown restrictions prevented her from seeing her father in an assisted-living facility, and it made her realize the effect a lack of masks during a shortage would have on sensitive communities.

“It’s made me more thoughtful about how to protect our most sensitive and most compromised with this virus,” she said. “It’s devastating to think doctors and nurses are either going without masks or they are using them until they disintegrate. To me, it’s shameful that people that need things like this do not have them readily available.”

For the time being, McCloskey said her efforts will be focused on getting supplies to local individuals, such as nursing home residents, cancer patients and the immunocompromised.

McCloskey noted the masks she is making use cotton and linen fabric, and while they will not be as safe as a medical grade mask, some protection is better than nothing.

“I know a lot of people are going to want them,” she said. “I [decided] to give from my heart and not try to line my pocket.”

Meanwhile, while her business is closed, Edwards said she has shifted her focus to answering calls and questions from her salon clients and is speaking with new clients so she is prepared to get back to work as soon as she is able.

“People need to know that I will be back as soon as I get the all clear,” she said. “I already miss my clients and can’t wait to discuss the pandemic details with them hearing their stories and telling mine. I want to let people know I’m going to still be there for them, working even harder for them.”

Finding support

Local entities such as the chamber have been attempting to keep area residents patronizing locally owned businesses through several methods. The chamber kicked off a gift card challenge March 20 to encourage residents to continue visiting their favorite local restaurants.

Lauren Joerg, director of marketing and communications for the chamber, said residents could take part in the challenge by visiting a local establishment, purchasing a gift card to use at a later date and posting the photo to social media.

“These small-business restaurant and retail owners are the backbone of our community,” Joerg said. “These folks are always some of the first to step up when a storm hits, and they go all over the region to feed those who are hungry regardless of payment. It is our turn to have their backs after they’ve had our backs time and time again.”

Joerg added the challenge would run as long as it is needed to keep local shops and restaurants in business.

Hollie said the chamber has been seeing businesses band together in order to support one another during this time.

“We put out a plea early [on Facebook] and often that if you have a business and you have something you want to tell the business community ... let us know about pickup and delivery, or a special deal,” Hollie said. “The business community can come together and help each other through what is a really difficult time for all of us.”