As students return to campus, businesses are relieved to see the bulk of their customers return, but many also said they feared that the influx of students could threaten the safety of both employees and customers.
When students left campus due to the onset of the pandemic in March, many business owners feared the lack of business could be devastating to their survival. Dozens of restaurants and shops began GoFundMe pages to continue paying employees a livable wage while profits shrunk and indoor dining was restricted.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have had to quickly adapt to the restrictions placed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in addition to a much busier downtown crowded with students.
One of the businesses that quickly adapted in the face of these restrictions was Salads UP, a fast-casual restaurant on East Liberty Street. Salads UP was started by University alums Max Steir and Robert Mayer in December 2014 to give students fast, healthy options like salads, wraps and warm grain bowls. Jared Hoffman, the owner of Salads UP Ann Arbor, said the restaurant had to quickly make changes due to the pandemic.
“We shifted everything immediately to digital-only,” Hoffman said. “With the COVID situation, what we cared about most was the safety of our guests, the incoming students and the safety of our own staff.”
Verbena, a boutique on State Street, has also had to make similar changes to maintain the safety of their customers and employees. Verbena owner Kate Ryan shifted the store online when the University moved to remote instruction in March.
While Ryan is very grateful for the students coming back, she said she had to make sure her store follows COVID-19 protocols for small businesses.
“From a business standpoint, we are fortunate to have people moving back to Ann Arbor, we rely really heavily on the foot traffic there,” Ryan said. “But at the same time, we’re really hoping that it's the right decision and that everyone’s staying safe.”
Ryan implemented new rules for both her employees and customers, such as requiring face masks to be worn in the store. She has also made sure her store adheres to cleaning protocols outlined by Whitmer.
“We have free hand sanitizer for use here,” Ryan said. “We have our floors taped out for where it’s safe to stand. For a while, we were alternating which fitting rooms were available for use. We’re sanitizing each fitting room after use. We’re sanitizing the counter after each sale.”
Ding Tea, a Taiwanese tea shop that makes milk tea and other drinks, has also implemented similar rules. Phong Dinh, a manager at Ding Tea, said the store has kept indoor dining closed in the shop and discouraged groups larger than five from entering.
Dinh said they hope students continue to take responsibility for their own actions while on campus.
“Wearing a face covering, staying six feet from others and avoiding large social gatherings will not only keep you safe but our community safe,” said Dinh. “Ding Tea Ann Arbor’s primary concern is going to be the health and safety of our store and we will try our best to maintain that for our community.”
Though COVID-19 remains a threat, Nursing sophomore Liya Liu said she is optimistic about spending time at businesses in downtown Ann Arbor, so long as safety precautions are taken.
“I still plan to do some of that (going to stores), but of course it’s very limited now,” Liu said. “I might do it less frequently because of the pandemic. I think I would still get takeout, but less of the going inside the shops and spending time inside.”
Liu said she would be more willing to go to shops or restaurants that practiced safety procedures against the pandemic.
“One of them for sure is seeing all the employees wearing masks,” Liu said. “I actually feel safer when places do not allow indoor eating because I still feel like dine-ins should be pretty limited. Another accommodation that I really like is allowing online ordering, and you can just stop by the place and pick it up, without having to order inside the shop.”
Hoffman said Salads UP is glad to have students back.
“The town thrives on having these students here, it's a super seasonal business,” Hoffman said. “I’m happy they’re back, we all are, we know the University has taken protocols to ensure everyone’s safety and (we’re) hoping for the best and doing our best to make sure we’re contributing to an overall safe environment for them.”
Daily Staff Reporter Cynthia Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.