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Black Business News

Black Businesses and COVID: One Year Coping and Adjusting

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

This week marks a year for Virginia and

most of the nation, as they began to shut down amid COVID-19 infection rates.

A stay-at-home order was imposed in Virginia and many other states across the nation. All non-essential personnel were ordered to stay home.

Businesses were told to close or reduce operations and social distancing became the new norm.

Deidre Love recalls receiving a call from a Norfolk City official that changed the direction of her year.

The youth program she runs, Teens With a Purpose (TWP), is housed in the Vivian C. Mason Arts &Technology Center for Teens. It is a city-owned building and Love was told to “pack up and leave” the facility on

Olney Road.

TWP is a community-based, non-profit art, cultural and educational organization, sitting in the heart of The St. Paul’s Community.

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According to Love, Executive Director of the now 25-year-old TWP, sudden closure impacted some 250 youths, six full time program staff members and 12 young

contractors.

Love shared that despite the closings, her operation continued in the summer of 2020, as her staff set up various programs virtually or outdoors, following strict social distancing and in small pods to deter the spread of the virus.

Students still cultivated and worked on the Community Garden Project nearby the Mason Building.

When the school opened in fall 2020, a small group of students who had difficulties navigating virtually were provided assistance daily by the staff.

TWP “found a way”, she said, to continue its youth poetry series February 2021 with a socially distanced program at Norfolk’s Wells Theater and the American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach limiting student

artist, support crews and

audience.

TWP applied for a grant to provide training in photography for the youth, who captured images of all the programming and created a new outlet of art for them to explore.

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About 30 of its youth participants who

struggled with the virtual teaching system of the local public schools have been provided with academic classes from 7 to 3 pm virtual and in-person

and after school cultural programs, Love shared.

They are provided academic support, nutrition and even field trips.

“All of those students are doing very well now,” said Love. “Many of their parents do not want to return them to a public school setting at this stage of the spring semester.”

***

For the past year, Greg Uzzle has been proving his

barbering skills, not between four walls but mobile.

Uzzle’s “Greg the Mobile barber” provides one-on-one barbering

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services throughout the Hampton Roads area.

“COVID-19 has actually caused my business to grow,” said Uzzle,a

native of Norfolk who was raised in the Park Place Community. “My

clients feel safer and prefer me to come to them,

rather than going to a barbershop. There are a lot of

health-conscious, elderly, and disabled men who have wanted to

avoid exposing themselves in a regular

shop with people clustering.”

Uzzle, 64, dons gloves, masks, and other protective gear.

He has learned to work around the mask he requires clients to wear, to trim beards and mustaches.

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Hand and other disinfectants are readily available.

During the week day, Uzzle says he attends to about 10 customers. Weekends and days before holidays are heavier.

The price of gas has ticked up, so he coordinates his time and fuel

usage. For instance, he will service his customers located in downtown

Norfolk neighborhoods, before venturing to other areas of this city

or other locales in the region.

***

Busy was a norm for Electric Eye owner Kelvin Oliver and his assistant during the spring, before 2020.

Amid Covid-19, he had to hit the pause button on photographing and videotaping

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weddings and receptions, parties, and business meetings.

Large luncheons and

panoramic shots of large youth and adults’ groups, which generated

income were scrapped.

The pause could have created a large gap in his income flow, but self-employed, Oliver managed to stay afloat with the income his

wife Tammy was generating. He received unemployment benefits and

applied for and received a Payroll Protection Program (PPP) Loan, which he has

to pay back he said.

But in relation to Oliver’s Electric Eye operation, he had to become versatile to keep afloat until “normal” returns.

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Long before COVID, he invested in new equipment which allowed him

to provide streaming services.

So, sermons by pastors, funerals, and the new wave of drive-by

birthday celebrations for the elderly and others seeking to avoid

exposure to the virus kept Oliver afloat.

He has been converting images on near-extinct VHS to DMP4.

As for vaccination increases and the ability to hold events with

slightly larger groups, he will continue using his photo-booth to

capture images of people and produce them on the spot.

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Oliver is optimistic that more people are being vaccinated and the

social restricts are eased. He is now receiving his “potential”

weddings and other events, which he hopes will materialize later this year.

“I am really glad I invested in the new streaming and other

technology,” said Oliver who has been running Electric Eye for 37 years. “Even after the pandemic ends, it is the wave of the future because it

saves costs and allows you to do more things. I have been blessed and I know it will continue whenever things get back to normal.”

***

The ”style” of operation for Black beauty and hair care shops, catering to and owned by women has changed significantly as a result of COVID-19. Andrea Porter, who runs the Protégé Beauty salon on Virginia Beach Blvd., says she misses pre-pandemic culture and the social structure that it was built on, historically.

Now all client-stylist contact is by appointment.

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Instead of 8 or more clients a day, stylists are down to 3.

Masking and social distancing are the norms and the amount of income for her and four other stylists has been cut in half.

“We really had to change to protect our clients and our workers,” said Porter, who opened the shop in 1999, following in the footsteps of her mother who, is in her 80s and still working.

Porter said that not only do they have to limit the number of clients per stylist and people in their shop, “we have to be selective about who we serve now.”

“We don’t want to be disrespectful, but there may be some people who may not be conducting themselves responsibly during this Pandemic ,” said Porter. “So, we must be cautious and right in choosing whom we serve,”

Porter shared that her staff is constantly cleaning and sanitizing their workstations to protect patrons and themselves.

She also shared that her shop applied for a PPP loan and does not have to pay it back because it was used to maintain employees, protect clients, and continue operations.

She said she has managed to keep the doors open, despite the Pandemic, “but there is always overhead, and the bills do not stop.”

“I have been hairstyling for a long time,” she said, “but I have never seen anything like it. I miss the community and the talking. But we all have to change until it gets better.”

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***

Floyd Keller’s Iron Sports Health Fitness Center strives on being up and close with clients, but COVID-19 canceled that mode of operation for him and other fitness

centers and gyms for the foreseeable future.

Pre-Covid, Keller said he was the personal trainer for over 15 or more people a week. That number dipped to zero at the start of the Pandemic.

“I was concerned for myself and my clients, so I had to close,” said Keller who has been operating since 1989 in Newport News. “For about three months my business suffered So I had to pivot.”

Keller said he contacted his clients at home via email to keep them motivated and adopted some virtual workout regimens, but not enough to generate adequate income, so he began selling workout equipment like barbells and stationary bicycles to people setting up workout spaces at home.

“But I’ve discovered not a lot of people needed that service,” he continued, “so, I started repairing workout equipment, and that generated income. People were setting up spaces in their homes to avoid going to gyms.”

With the massive vaccination campaign, Keller said he expects business to get better.

He said that the fitness industry will have to restructure its business model across the board.

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“I know I may have to restructure not only how I do business,” he said, “but how my center is laid out. People are ready to get back into working out outside of their homes, but COVID-19 has changed the way they do that for a long time.”

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