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In Reopening, N.H. Businesses Balance Personal Economics With Public Health

Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Businesses across New Hampshire, including in downtown Portsmouth, have been deciding over the past week whether to reopen to customers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This past week, some New Hampshire business owners were faced with a big decision: How do I balance the survival of my business with public health concerns?

NHPR’s Lauren Chooljian talked with several business owners this week to see how they made that choice.

Visit NHPR's coronavirus news homepage for more stories on COVID-19 in N.H.

Nicole McMann, owner of Nicole’s Creative Cuts and Styles in Groveton, knew she’d open once the governor gave the OK for retailers, golf courses, hair salons and barber shops to welcome back customers starting Monday. But she was still pretty nervous. She hardly slept for three days before opening: What would it be like, she wondered? Would it be safe? Does she have enough sanitizer?

But once the day came, she said, it almost felt like starting over again. She thought of that other opening day, 20 years ago, when she opened her shop for the first time.

“It was great,” she said. “You can’t describe that feeling. It was like, ‘oh my god, we can do this again.’”

Each business owner I spoke to had an entirely different view about what is safe and economical for their own staff, family and customers.

Take Joe Naser, for example. His family runs the Naser Jewelers chain, and despite owning two stores on the border with Massachusetts, where infection rates are high, reopening wasn’t a question for Joe and his brothers.

“We closed our business down six weeks and took a pretty massive financial hit,” he said. “There’s five families that rely on this business, so literally all of us were at a standstill. So we had to come back and start getting some business back.”

As for getting sick himself, Naser doesn’t think it’ll happen. He’s worried about his family, for sure, but with all the extra precautions, he’s not too concerned. What’s he supposed to do, he said: “Judge every single person that comes into your store? The world has to go back to normal at some point.”

So on Monday, Naser Jewelers were open. But just a few plazas down Route 125 from their Salem store, other shops, like the Bull Moose music store, were still closed.

[Coronavirus Update: Sununu Outlines $595 Million in Relief Funds for N.H. Businesses]

Bull Moose has taken an entirely different approach to reopening: They’re doing curbside pickup for now and they plan to open their New Hampshire stores soon, they just want to take it slow.

For example, if the state says they can have 10 people in a store, Mick Pratt, Bull Moose’s marketing and events manager, figures well, maybe they’ll just allow five. But it’s not the kind of decision he’s used to making: He manages record stores, not public health policy.

“I run a Facebook page where we talk about pop punk and what horror movies are good, and now it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, like how we’re gonna manage the health and safety of our customers and staff through global pandemic?’ ” Pratt said. “It’s crazy to me that this is the position a lot of folks are faced with.”

If there’s one thing I heard consistently from the business owners I talked to though, it’s that they are prepared for anything to change any day.

Chris’ Comics in Seabrook and Salem made a tweak in their rules midweek. They had been pretty busy before officially opening their store doors: They ran a curbside pick up business, and even started a free comic pickup on their sidewalks on Saturdays.

But after they reopened, owner Chris Morse noticed groups of people would come by the store, just looking for something to do. So, a couple of days after reopening, Morse changed plans. He originally were going to allow just 10 people at a time inside each store, but he decided to cut it to seven. Only one or two people need to be shopping at a time, Morse said.

And this, of course, is just Week One. As more sectors of the economy reopen, including outdoor dining at restaurants starting next week, more and more businesses will have to make these same hard decisions.

I called McMann back Friday at her salon in Groveton to see how things were going. She said there were a few people who didn’t want to wear masks in the salon, as required by the governor’s order, but they told her they were fine waiting until regulations were lifted to schedule their appointment.

Other than that, things were going well.

“I feel like everybody is kind of pretty cautious at this point,” she told me. “At the end of the couple of weeks, I’m not sure of how people will be but right now, I’m gonna say I count my blessings pretty well.”

In the meantime, she’ll just be cleaning like crazy. Or, as she describes it, chasing people out the salon door with Lysol spray.

Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.
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