Specter of Omicron variant worries business owners, takes action

Relatively little is still known for sure about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, but already business owners are feeling anxious about more lockdowns and preparing to put back the ‘mask required’ signs on their doors.

The World Health Organization on Friday labeled the Omicron variant “of concern“, the same designation as Delta. According to the agency, early evidence suggests that Omicron – which was first detected in South Africa and was recently found in other countries around the world – could expose people at a higher risk of contracting the virus again compared to other variants of concern.

Most concerning is the high number of mutations in Omicron, says Gwen Murphy, executive director of epidemiology at LetsGetChecked, a New York-based home testing company. 50+ mutation could modify a number of things, from its severity to its responsiveness to vaccines. “It’s still the beginning,” Murphy says. “The main the thing, really, is not to panic. President Biden echoed this message in a speech Monday. But after going through incredible hardships throughout the Covid pandemic, some entrepreneurs are worried and are starting to prepare their businesses for the worst-case scenario.

This is especially the case for businesses that depend on in-person sponsorship, says Jeffrey Scott, owner of ME&I Fitness and Performance, a gym in Minneapolis. In 2020, ME&I was closed for six months and again later for two months. Scott estimates that he essentially lost the equivalent of a full year’s worth of revenue from the first shutdown, as customers did not return right away when the business reopened. And even when there are no restrictions, every time the virus grows, as it did Minnesota last month– attendance decreases at the gymnasium.

Scott came to rely on grants and loans, and returned to work full-time as a senior business advisor at Alerus Financial in May 2021 to pay his bills and those of the gym. Because of the pandemic’s toll, he says, he is unlikely to ever recover his initial investment. “It’s disheartening. It’s frustrating,” he said.

Nina Berenato, owner and creator of an eponymous jewelry brand in Austin, is less worried about the closures, which Texas lawmakers have largely opposed during the pandemic. Yet there is anxiety for its staff and clients. “Realizing that these challenges might be on the horizon again, it’s just a little stressful,” she says.

So, between the variant and the increase in traffic during the holidays, Berenato plans to force customers to wear masks again in his store, which they had stopped doing for about a month from the end of October, as conditions seemed to be improving. It also means buying more masks to hand out to customers and dealing with those who don’t want to wear them.

Murphy understands the pandemic fatigue of business leaders, but his advice refers to the first rule of epidemic management: slow transmission. So focus on working from home (or distance if you can’t), wearing masks, and washing your hands. Executives should also consider canceling the holiday season in person and indoors, she said. Taking such measures “is not glamorous”, she adds, “but it is under our control”.

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