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COVID-19 cases are still surging in N.H. What has that meant for local businesses?

a photo of a person wearing a face mask, standing in front of many different colors and skeins of yarn
Alli Fam
Scratch Supply Company co-owner Jessica Giordani says her Lebanon business is busy, but customers don't always come in person.

At the Carter Community Building Association in Lebanon, members looking to get some exercise can choose anything from swimming, cycling, to weight lifting.

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Membership still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels. But executive director Kerry Artman says that even with New Hampshire's recent COVID case surge, the business has improved since 2020. The weather's getting colder and new members are joining, she says.

While the COVID-19 pandemic ripples through the state’s economy, exacerbating the childcare crisis, labor shortages and supply chain issues, many local businesses say they are still experiencing strong demand for their services from Granite Staters. Still, not all New Hampshire businesses are finding themselves so immune.

The state's winter COVID-19 surge has led to record hospitalizations, overburdening the state’s understaffed health care system. But Artman says a lot of the center’s members are tired of having their lives controlled by COVID. The recreation center’s decision to require staff and member vaccination in November has helped people feel safe working out.

“We drew more people in than we lost from making that choice,” she said.

Nearby, Scratch Supply Company co-owner Jessica Giordani is preparing for another busy day. Her store sells yarn and she says knitting season has arrived. But her customers don’t always visit the store in person.

“We're really busy online,” Giordani says. “It's great for the local community and it's great for people who can't come to us physically because they don't live here.”

But offering online orders or curbside pickup isn't always feasible, especially for those in the “high-touch” economy, like the beauty industry.

Some businesses in the industry have felt the impact of this surge directly like Lilo Almonte, who runs La Fama barbershop in Nashua.

Ever since COVID cases, “started racing up, business has been getting slow,” he explained.

Almonte’s decline in business reflects a broader trend, according to Saba Waheed, a research director at UCLA’s Labor Center. For “high touch” businesses, their profits depend on individual risk assessments by customers.

“It’s all about “consumer confidence” and the level of risk consumers are willing to take for something like a pedicure,” Waheed explained, noting that those types of services are not as essential as going to the grocery store.

There are similar challenges for beauty sector workers. Manicurists, hairdressers, massage therapists and others are unable to work remotely during COVID surges. If workers get sick, they could lose days of pay stuck at home quarantining.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in the economy's service sector, 4 in 10 workers have no paid sick time. Rates drop significantly further for low-wage workers. In New Hampshire, average wages for beauty salon workers range from $525-$750 per week, depending on the county. Wage averages were even lower for nail salon workers, at $450-600 per week.

A lack of protections like indoor mask requirements, access to high-quality PPE, and widespread vaccination can add to that risk, Waheed says.

New Hampshire hasn’t had a statewide mask mandate in place since April, which leaves the decision up to business owners. Not all nail or hair salons NHPR spoke to have their own mandates. Vaccination rates have also stagnated in the state, at below 70 percent of the total population, according to CDC data.

Nicola Scott runs Nikki’s Hair Braiding in Londonderry. In capital letters on her website, she makes it clear that she requires masks. Since she reopened in 2020, she says business has been steady.

“I’m just a one-woman show, I work by myself,” she says, which keeps exposure minimal.

She says demand from customers is high because there aren’t a lot of braidersin New Hampshire.

“I'm just always busy,” she says.

She has clients coming from all over New England to get their hair braided. Even though winter tends to be her slower season, she says she’s booking weeks in advance.

And as winter drags on, and the more contagious variant of COVID–19, omicron spreads further into the state, Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan said Thursday he expects to see “further increases in the already high level of COVID 19 we're seeing now.”

And what that will mean for the day-to-day decisions Granite Staters make, like getting a haircut, or joining a gym, is something businesses can only try to predict.

“I think with this new variant, we're all kind of bracing ourselves for what might come,” said Kerry Artman.

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