CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — EDITOR'S NOTE: Part One of a three-part series.
The woman looked both ways before she crossed the street in scorching late-morning sun, only her eyes visible above the two safety masks shielding her face.
As she approached the vehicle in her magenta scrubs, a heavy black butcher’s apron and gloves holding a touchless thermometer, anyone walking by could have easily mistaken her for a nurse.
She is a health-care professional, but she doesn’t work in a hospital or doctor’s office – Lauren Schroeter is a licensed massage therapist.
Schroeter's brand of health care was deemed non-essential in March by Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide stay-at-home order after COVID-19 reached Texas. It forced Hello Beautiful Salon & Spa, the salon she and her partners work out of in Downtown Corpus Christi, to close temporarily.
"It's affected every bit of work," Schroeter said. "I had already decided to close just because of the unknown. All we knew was that it was very contagious, and, obviously, being in a closed room with someone for an hour-plus would make it very high-risk if one of us was infected without knowing it."
As the novel coronavirus ravages the Coastal Bend again, the women are again faced with how to make ends meet.
“I never thought in our lifetime something like this would happen,” said salon owner Heather Van Zandt. “It was crazy how fast (COVID-19 closures) happened. It was all kinda sudden.”
The forced closure in March was difficult for the trio. The shop -- which then was operated by Van Zandt, hair stylist Andrea Hernandez Pallotti and Schroeter -- had just begun to hit its stride when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Suddenly, their new, seven-month-old business venture –- and their livelihoods –- were being threatened.
Van Zandt said she went a month without pay, and when her first unemployment check did arrive, it didn't cover the total amount of time she was out of work.
“We weren’t getting any income,” Van Zandt said, the stylist who brought her now-four partners together to form Hello Beautiful. “We were relying on clients to buy retail, but that’s not enough to support ourselves or pay the bills.”
As businesses began to struggle, federal loans and grants were made available to help local small businesses stay afloat, such as the CARES Act-funded Paycheck Protection Program.
Bloomberg reported April 17 that businesses such as Ruth’s Hospitality Group and Potbelly Corporation received millions from the fund. Ruth Hospitality owns 150 Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse locations across the United States, and franchises locations internationally. The latter owns Potbelly Sandwich Shop’s 400 locations and also franchises nationally and internationally. Potbelly announced April 25 that it would be returning the money. It is unclear whether Ruth's did the same.
But how much of those available funds trickled down to the small business on Schatzell Street, and others like it?
“PPP was denied right away,” Van Zandt said. “The money ran out super-quick.”
She applied for the few loans and grants available, but she said it seemed like small businesses much bigger than hers were getting more consideration, even though Hello Beautiful was in just as dire straits. It still had rent, insurance and product costs to cover.
"We're self-sufficient," she said. "We have to provide everything. No one pays our bills. Everyone's on their own, basically."
The shop received a non-PPP loan through the Small Business Administration, which Van Zandt said just came through very recently -- seemingly just in time for a new COVID-19 spike in the Coastal Bend. She said she’s holding onto that money as a “just-in-case” fund.
But the women who make up the shop still had bills to pay -- at the shop, and at home.
"We still had to pay rent," Van Zandt said. "There was no (price) break (from the landlord)."
LiftFund's Laura Leal Estrada and small-business mentoring organization SCORE Corpus Christi's Debbie Fernandez acknowledge the first rounds of financial help dried up quickly, but said more funding has become available since March, and that it's incumbent on business owners to seek out help, because the programs aren't always marketed.
Getting back to business
When Abbott deemed salons could re-open, additional costs were incurred.
Salons already are required to sanitize and clean regularly, but now, they would have to do it more frequently, driving up their cleaning budgets.
"It probably increased by double," Van Zandt said. "We're ordering extras, keeping two or three extra sanitizers around and requiring masks since we reopened."
Anyone who doesn't come to an appointment with a mask and wants to keep it must purchase one from the salon.
The current restrictions are a combination of guidelines the women have implemented, and county, state and federal mandates. They include restricting extra people from the salon, including children.
Whereas stylists and aesthetician Valerie Hernandez currently only require clients wear masks and use sanitizer to enter the salon, Schroeter -- the woman in the scrubs -- requires temperature checks and pre-screens the day before an appointment. It's a move Van Zandt said she also is considering implementing on the stylists' side of the salon.
"It's worth it if we know we have a safe environment for people to come into," Van Zandt said.
Taking the temperature on COVID-19
The masks and gloves are only some of Schroeter's new protocols. She also has installed medical-grade air filters in her massage room, her massage table is wrapped in a plastic covering, and the butcher's apron and a face shield are some of the other new additions to her post-COVID-19 work look.
"It was a lot of money I had to spend," she said. "I had to put a lot of money into making it safe to go back, so now I'm back at work, but even now my business doesn't look like it did.
"It was a big investment, and it's gonna be a really slow return."
A small dry-erase board on a small table outside Schroeter's massage room lists her stats for the day: the date, her temperature, any symptoms she may be experiencing and the number of people with which she recently has been in contact.
She currently limits massage sessions to one hour -- max -- and schedules an hour between clients to give her sufficient time to clean, mop, disinfect, sanitize and set up. She also changes her scrubs between every client.
"Everything I can think of to create a completely safe environment for the next client," she said. "So I'm only able to see two or three clients a day now, whereas before I was seeing, on average, three to four, even some days five. So I'm limited in how many people I see a day, and that may not change for a while."
Van Zandt also said the focus on safety has affected business on the stylists' side of the salon.
She and the salon's two other stylists work independently from each other, but share facilities such as the sinks in which they shampoo clients' hair. Operating safely during the pandemic has required each to change how they schedule their clients, and how many they can see in a day.
A typical appointment has the stylists sanitizing the chair in which the client will get their hair cut before they arrive. Once the client in in the chair, they are moved to the shampoo station. After they are done, the chair at that station is sprayed, and Barbasol -- a medical-grade disinfectant -- is allowed to permeate the chair for about 10 minutes. The client is moved back to the original chair in which they were seated, and the stylist goes back to finish sanitizing the shampoo station chair.
"If they leave the chair for any reason, we sanitize it," Van Zandt said. "We have to book a little extra time," Van Zandt said. "Especially since we have to move them from chair to chair. We leave about 15 to 30 minutes between clients (so we have time to clean)."
During the March closure, Schroeter, who has a 4-year-old son, was constantly researching and conferring with other massage therapists across the country to see how bad things could get in the Coastal Bend.
"There was a lot of discord among the massage therapy community: Is it safe, at all?," she said. "Should everyone shut down? Is there a way to safely open? And it was really split right down the middle.
In Part 2 of this series, local small-business experts tell KRIS 6 News why most small businesses missed out on federal assistance for small business, and how they can still take advantage of programs that have been re-funded. The story runs Thursday.