Some Mass. Small Businesses Resume Limited Operations Under New Rules

Some non-essential businesses in Massachusetts have reopened — even though their doors are still closed.

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The state changed some of its rules this week to allow businesses that were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic to fulfill online and phone orders for delivery.

And the changes came just in time for some retailers’ peak season.

“We have been getting a lot of orders and a lot of calls. The demand for flowers is absolutely huge right now,” says Jackie Levine, the manager of Central Square Florist in Cambridge.

That’s because Mother’s Day is quickly approaching.

“It’s pretty much the second busiest [day] behind Valentine’s Day. Some could argue that they’re equal,” Levine says.

So, Levine was excited when the state loosened up restrictions on non-essential businesses. Up until this week, those businesses couldn’t sell their inventory.

Levine and other retailers can now bring in a limited number of employees to take orders for delivery. Central Square Florist has about 20 employees and Levine says she’s bringing in three at a time in shifts to process orders.

“We’re unpacking shipments of flowers, processing them and designing them into vase arrangements for gifts,” she says.

Under the new guidelines, there must be no physical contact with customers when deliveries are made.

Levine says her employees are wearing gloves and masks, and are stationed at least 6 feet apart while they work. The flower shop will also be cleaned nightly. All the precautions are as required by the state.

“It feels amazing to be around flowers,” Levine says. “It feels amazing to be able to service our customers and help them connect to their loved ones who they likely can’t see right now. So I feel a lot of joy today.”

Non-essential businesses must still remain closed to walk-in customers.

But Massachusetts Retailers Association president Jon Hurst says the ability to do deliveries gives small businesses a lifeline until they can fully re-open.

“Really, the local store was put at a great disadvantage versus big national and out-of-state internet sellers that were shipping directly to our customers right here in Massachusetts. Yet, the local store did not have that ability,” says Hurst, who pushed for the Baker administration to ease restrictions on retailers.

While some businesses will be able to cash in on Mother’s Day and springtime sales, not everyone is benefiting from the new guidelines.

Hassan Issak owns Mabruuk Fashions in Roxbury. The store specializes in modest clothing, and sells accessories and home goods. Issak says this time of year, business would normally be booming because of another special day — Eid, when Muslims gather to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

“Now with corona[virus] and everything now being shut down, there will be no holiday. There will be no gatherings, nothing,” Issak says.

He adds that he usually makes up to $70,000 in sales in May — about double the average month. But he says he understands that “sometimes you just have to, you know, choose the health over the wealth.”

Issak says his store relies on foot traffic and he doesn’t believe he would get enough phone orders to make re-opening worthwhile. His store also doesn’t offer online shopping.

Even small businesses that do sell online may struggle to fill orders right now, says Jules Pieri, the CEO of Somerville-based e-commerce website The Grommet.

“My experience of especially small retailers is that their websites are pretty subpar,” Pieri said. “They don’t have good ways to keep their inventory feed accurate so that the stock that’s in the store is reflected on the site. And they don’t have modern marketing practices to attract customers.”

Pieri says a bigger worry for small businesses may be that they’ll lose customers for good.

But some retailers are optimistic now that they can do business — even if it is limited. And they hope to see more restrictions lifted soon. Marathon Sports President Colin Peddie says Massachusetts is already behind other states on this.

“New Hampshire and Connecticut have had curbside pickup since the get go,” says Peddie, who has stores in both states. “And for some reason, we in Massachusetts have not been able to do so, which has been somewhat frustrating not only for Marathon Sports, but probably a lot of other retailers.”

Peddie argues that small retailers are safer and can be more controlled than the larger essential stores that are fully operating.

But for now, he says he’ll take what he can get until the state releases its much anticipated re-opening plan on May 18.

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