Eight months after the onset of social distancing guidelines, Governor Steve Sisolak’s renewed COVID-19 restrictions are a reminder that local shops are still not rid of the pandemic’s lasting effects on business.
As winter weather sets in, the next wave of the pandemic is in full effect. Coronavirus cases in Nevada have skyrocketed again in the last month. With an average of over 2,000 new cases reported daily in the last week, businesses are still a long way from business as usual.
Other states have already made heavy-handed returns to quarantine measures. In Michigan, indoor dining is gone. In Washington, in-person gatherings outside of family are banned altogether, save for those who can afford to quarantine for a full week. Even Iowa, long resistant to mask mandates, finally put one in place in November.
In an effort to curb the spread of the virus in Nevada, Sisolak announced further restrictions on public and private gatherings on Nov. 22. Under these new restrictions, which Sisolak is expected to revisit in the coming weeks, shops will again have to revise their model of business operations to accommodate smaller capacities. Even so, some business owners are still optimistic about the future of their livelihoods.
“There is some light at the end of the tunnel,” Steve Mathers, 68, said. Mathers is the owner of Pub N’ Sub, a restaurant in Reno he opened nearly 46 years ago.
Behind plexiglass and a mask, Mathers still greets customers at the restaurant nearly every day. To that extent, little has changed at Pub N’ Sub. But six months of curbside pickup and outdoor-only dining has inevitably taken its toll on the business. Mathers estimates profits dropped roughly 60 percent in April, though they have steadily improved since then.
April wasn’t the worst the restaurant has ever seen — after a Microsoft office in Reno received a letter thought to contain anthrax in 2001, business plummeted as much as 90 percent for a few days before the governor stated conclusively it was not a public health risk — but the coronavirus is a very different problem. The sustained nature of the pandemic is a slow burn on Nevada’s economy, and younger, smaller businesses have already collapsed under its weight. In the ongoing struggle to reach that “light at the end of the tunnel,” Pub N’ Sub’s greatest strength could be its deep-seated roots in the community.
“One never knows till it’s all over,” Mathers said. “But, you know, I didn’t start yesterday. We’ve been here 46 years.”
Pub N’ Sub’s target demographic has always leaned toward students at the University of Nevada, Reno. Staying open for decades has had an interesting effect on business: today, generations of UNR alumni spanning half a century visit the restaurant together. When regular customers could see the restaurant struggling under the weight of the pandemic early on, Mathers said, they tended to visit more often and tip more generously.
Mathers reopened the restaurant’s indoor dining in September, and regulars trickled back in. Thursday nights, rowdy university students’ preferred night at Pub N’ Sub, got even more hectic. In some sense, reopening was a return to form for the restaurant. But Sisolak’s latest round of restrictions could mark another departure from this renewed sense of normalcy.
“I don’t think things will ever be exactly the same,” Mathers said. “I think small businesses will tend to get hurt worse than others.”
In spite of these grim prospects, Mathers indicated he is still confident about the future of Pub N’ Sub and Reno at large.
We’ll see how it all plays out,” Mathers said. “But I think, on the whole, we’ll get back to a reasonable equilibrium.”
It’s not just restaurants
In Las Vegas, where the pandemic is even more widespread, Jared Fisher operates a very different type of business. At Las Vegas Cyclery, customers have no need to take off their masks to eat or talk with friends and family. Most come in, leave their bike for repairs, and go.
“Our business is sort of an anomaly,” Fisher said.
Only a few miles from Red Rock Canyon’s scenic loop, Las Vegas Cyclery benefited heavily from the statewide lockdown. As people across the country grew tired of quarantining in their homes, bicycle sales soared to their highest numbers since the 1970s oil crisis, according to the Associated Press.
Despite the pandemic, this year’s “bicycle boom” set up Fisher brilliantly for an influx in bike repairs. Early on, he set up tents outside to promote social distancing. When the summer heat made working outside unbearable, he rearranged the shop’s entire floor plan. All told, bike repairs tripled compared to previous months before the pandemic.
Fisher’s other business tanked.
Beyond Las Vegas Cyclery and a handful of other shops around the region, Fisher runs Escape Adventures, a bike touring company. As of now, tours are effectively on pause; roughly 95% of his customers are out-of-state tourists, and tourism has essentially vanished since the start of the pandemic.
With no guarantees of when it will be safe to travel again, he indicated, tourists are not interested in booking future tours, either.
“Until we see a vaccine at Walgreens and CVS,” Fisher said, “we’re not going to be getting business.”
Both Fisher and Mathers look to future prospects of a widely available vaccine as the key to solving America’s coronavirus-induced economic woes. Biotech and pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca have already released promising preliminary analyses detailing the effectiveness of their vaccines. More companies are likely to produce similar results, but it will still be months before any vaccine hits pharmacy shelves around the country.
For some business owners, though, the promise of a vaccine is enough to keep moving forward.
“Some people will still be afraid,” Mathers said. “There’ll probably be a neurosis named after COVID-19, and probably more than one, but I think we’ll make it. I think the economy in general in America will make it. I think.”
“I’m optimistic,” Fisher said. “I think we’re going to get through this okay.”
Ian Cook is a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Reynolds School of Journalism. Support his work in the Ally.