DC small businesses adapt to pandemic challenges


photo via radici-market.com

With over 500,000 lives lost and 30 million people contracting the Covid-19 virus, it is safe to say that 2020 was a hard year for every American. Although the virus has had fatal consequences, the implications go beyond the health effects of the physical infection, especially impacting small businesses. 

According to the University of California, Santa Cruz, approximately 317,000 small businesses closed between February and September 2020. This means roughly 1,500 closures a day. To put this in perspective, the virus has caused the United States to spiral into the worst economic crisis that the nation has experienced since the Great Depression in the 1930s. 

However, many businesses had the support to survive the pandemic. Radici, an Italian cafe located in Eastern Market, Washington, D.C is a prime example (Note – the author is an employee at Radici). When the Coronavirus ravaged through America in March 2020, Americans couldn’t even go to leaders such as principals, parents, or even politicians for an explanation. There was virtually no information on the fatal disease.

“The most challenging part was the unknown,” said Radici owner Bridget Sasso.  As a result, Sasso and millions of other small business owners dealt with the constant fear of having to shut down or failing to pay the rent as they operated their businesses. There were not only financial stresses but safety concerns. “Each day I would wake up and hope that I could continue to operate my business and keep the staff, our customers, and myself safe,” Sasso said. Small business owners had to adapt every aspect of the way they operated their businesses. What they had considered second nature now had to be completely re-evaluated. 

On March 24, 2020, D.C’s Mayor Bowser ordered that nonessential businesses close. Six days later, she ordered Washingtonians to stay at home unless receiving medical care or visiting the grocery store. Businesses such as Radici were forced to abandon their practices and convert to a solely take-out business. The backbone of Radici, the restaurant aspect, had to shut down.  Additionally, Sasso was forced to cut back on inventory and staffing. “There were certain days that I literally would operate the store myself,” she said. 

However, some of the adaptations that small businesses were forced to make had positive outcomes. Businesses like Radici shifted from simply being a coffee shop to the “focal point” of the Eastern Market neighborhood. With social distancing mandates in place, things that we took for granted before, such as a simple trip to a cafe became the highlight of Americans’ everyday lives. As a result, business owners got to know their customers better. “We frequently became their sounding boards as they meandered their way through this difficult year,” noted Sasso. Furthermore, the pandemic highlighted the loyalty of customers as they risked their health to support small businesses. 

With nearly 1,500 businesses closing every day during the height of the pandemic, federal government support was needed — but it often didn’t come. “I have heard frequent stories of fraudulent claims or large businesses receiving millions of dollars,” said Sasso. In addition, the government programs were not user-friendly, causing many small businesses to be unable to figure out the paperwork or the requirements to file for help.

Financial support from the government is not the only support that small businesses like Radici need. “In general people need to think small when making their choices of businesses. Big business will survive, the small business might not,” explained Sasso. As everyone works to support themselves, Americans also need to consciously make decisions that help everyone survive this pandemic.