At the beginning of the pandemic, many Ann Arbor stores and restaurants struggled to keep their businesses open while following health and safety protocols, forcing some local businesses to make changes to their operations to stay afloat.
Although the new omicron variant threatens the hopes of a return to normalcy, Ann Arbor businesses are prepared to adapt once again.
In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases in Ann Arbor have increased substantially compared to the beginning of the pandemic. On Jan. 18, the number of new cases per day hit a record high of 3,017 in Washtenaw County because of the highly transmissible omicron variant.
AJ Davidson, the owner of Bivouac, an outdoor apparel store in downtown Ann Arbor, said his business has not been impacted significantly by the increased cases due to the omicron wave.
“In terms of sales, while the foot traffic might be down a little bit, the people who are coming out in the height of COVID, in this cold, they’re buying stuff,” Davidson said. “So, while there might not be as many customers in the store, sales are very similar to previous years.”
He said customers who come to Bivouac are serious buyers –– willing to make the trek to the store in the middle of winter while also taking COVID-19 into consideration.
“As you know, the customers who come out are serious buyers because to come out in this cold, to come out when there’s all these COVID cases, means you really need something,” Davidson said.
To ensure the store is still maintaining safe protocols amid the omicron wave, Davidson said Bivouac adjusted their mask policies to require all employees and customers to wear one when inside. Masking requirements were previously encouraged, not required, as COVID-19 cases were decreasing in 2021 before the rise of the omicron variant.
“We just required all of our staff to wear face masks or face coverings,” Davidson said. “Now that cases have spiked, we just changed our policy to require all customers (to wear a mask) so everyone in the store needs to wear a mask.”
Davidson said because all the staff members are vaccinated, the omicron variant poses a smaller threat to their customers.
“Everyone’s been pretty safe … with the fact that everyone’s wearing masks and everyone’s social distancing,” Davidson said. “Our staff feel safe enough to work at this time, and they’re all vaccinated, so I think that also gives them a level of safety.”
Jeff More, the owner of Ashley’s Bar on State St., said he has noticed a change in customer flow since omicron hit, particularly in regards to in-person bar socialization.
“(There is) less dine-in traffic, a little bit more carryout business,” More said. “Just particularly, I don’t see people gathering in decent-sized groups to go out and have drinks and do some of that. Bar socialization is what I’ve been seeing the least of.”
LSA sophomore Sam Rao said she’s been going out less this semester given the rapid spread of the omicron variant, particularly in Ann Arbor.
“Especially for restaurants in the depths of Ann Arbor, there’s not only students from UMich, but there’s also people from Ann Arbor too,” Rao said. “There’s definitely more possibility of spreading COVID.”
Rao said some smaller restaurants can get really crowded, adding to the stress of potentially transmitting COVID-19.
“I probably wouldn’t eat there if there are too many people if it feels uncomfortable,” Rao said.
More said Ashley’s implemented some adjustments, but the changes were not as dramatic compared to previous waves of the pandemic.
“We did go back to wearing masks for all the staff when they’re interacting with guests,” More said. “We have got almost everybody on my staff that can be vaccinated fully, vaccinated, and otherwise, we’re just trying to survive and get through until hopefully this passes, and soon we’ll be dining outside again.”
“I didn’t see a huge impact from omicron affecting the football season,” More said. “Now it’s affecting us because we’ve lost (revenue from) basketball games that were canceled and entertainment events.”
Compared to last winter — in which More said Ashley’s was operating with completely outdoor seating — More noticed a decrease in the number of customers interested in dining outside.
“We kept our outside fully operating last winter when we were shut down inside… (because) there was no option to dine inside,” More said. “We often had people braving the cold who turned on the heaters. People don’t really have a desire this year to be that rough.”
More said his staff members largely have not been affected by omicron because of the vaccine and adherence to safe practices.
“We’ve been really blessed throughout this whole thing,” More said. “I’ve had very, very few staff get it, at all, in any form of COVID.”
Owner of Jerusalem Garden Ali Ramlawi, a member of the Ann Arbor City Council, D-Ward 5, said the omicron variant has not affected his restaurant as significantly compared to other points of the pandemic.
“Business continues to be steady,” Ramlawi said. “We have continued to experience higher takeout orders … but we have not seen an overall slowdown in business.”
Ramlawi said he feels there are not many more adjustments to make for omicron, given that the restaurant has had to adapt to the COVID-19 safety protocols for over a year and a half.
“There was no more adapting after the last more than a year and a half,” Ramlawi said. “You’ve settled into your ways, and you accept the risks and the challenges. Everyone has finally gotten used to wearing masks and distancing themselves and being careful as much as possible.”
However, Ramlawi also said he has seen more employees getting COVID-19 during the holidays than before the holiday season.
“We are experiencing what we didn’t experience before (omicron), that people are unable to work because they’re sick,” Ramlawi said. “They’re not getting sick, thank God, at work, they’re getting sick over the holidays. So coming back from the holidays, we did have some people who couldn’t come to work. I guess that is the difference operationally.”
After following the pandemic protocols for the better half of almost two years, Ramlawi said he is exhausted by the never-ending cycle of adapting to the pandemic.
“Everyone’s kind of battle fatigued by now, and we’re just taking it day by day, and hopefully this is the last of it,” Ramlawi said.
Daily Staff Reporter Erin Chai can be reached at email@example.com.