A behind-the-scenes look at businesses during COVID-19

·6 min read

Amidst the battle cry of how we are all in this together and promotions to shop local, there is no doubt that repeated closures of small businesses, especially those in the service industry, have taken a financial and mental health toll on operators.

For Shawna Small, owner of InStyle Hair Studio on Queen Street, 2020 and 2021 didn’t turn out like anything she could have imagined.

A popular salon that enjoys what she calls “a full book of appointments,” Small should have been celebrating her 20th anniversary in September 2020 with a gala event, thanking clients and the community for their ongoing support.

Instead, she found herself recovering from a province-wide lockdown that ran from March to June 2020, and not even anticipating that two more such lockdowns were on the horizon.

Small opened the salon in 2000, as a novice hairstylist without a lot of business experience under her belt, but she was enthusiastic, looking for a challenge and had a seemingly endless supply of energy. During a downtown walk with her mother, they passed the empty storefront that would soon be home to Instyle.

“Interestingly, it was 20 years ago in 2020 that I opened the doors of InStyle Hair Studio,” said Small. “Reflecting back, I remember being a 22-year-old in desperate need of a “pep-talk” from my mom. She knew I needed more responsibility in my life. I was enjoying life to its fullest yet going nowhere. I needed goals and vision.”

“The love and passion I have for the beauty industry, the people, the social aspect… all of this lead me to opening my business,” said Small. “I had completed my schooling and was working as a stylist. I was very green with no business experience but like so many young entrepreneurs do, I took the leap and have never once looked back.”

Small incorporated her own philosophy of contributing to the community into her business life, supporting not-for-profit organizations and charities both with her time and financially. Her philanthropy and business acumen were recognized, with a Woman of Distinction nomination and a Business Achievement Award in 2019.

And then COVID struck, shutting down the business she had spent nearly two decades building, almost overnight. For almost two and a half months, she rode an emotional roller coaster as she waited anxiously for the shutdown to end. Not only was her business at risk, but the livelihood of her staff as well.

“To say I was shocked is a bit of an understatement,” said Small. “I was overcome with sadness, uncertainty and spent the first five weeks finding my way through so many tears, and being scared. Thinking to myself after 20 years of building my business I could lose all of it. I had to make huge sacrifices; my life was flipped upside down in less than 24 hours.”

“Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined, I would be celebrating 20 years in business with a lock down and involuntary closure of the business,” she said. “Going from a full book of client appointments to zero was a devastating feeling. That’s 100 per cent of our income gone, and not just my income, but also the income of the seven stylists in our studio.”

While government grants and subsidies for small businesses have helped, they couldn’t replace the amount of income lost. Most important, Small missed the interaction with the other stylists and clientele, many who have become friends over the years. Stylists, like bartenders, become confidants and a sympathetic ear as their relationships with their clients grows.

There was a sigh of relief from businesses owners in early June 2020, as the province moved into the second stage of the recovery plan to reopen. Masks, vigorous cleaning practices and contact tracing were required, but finally small businesses like Small’s could open their doors and welcome back clients.

Over the summer, staff worked diligently to service clients who had been waiting for treatments through the spring lockdown, and were beginning to catch their breath when positive case numbers once again began to rise. On Dec. 21, the government announced another lockdown, one with even more stringent, tighter restrictions, would begin on Dec. 26, 2020.

If the experience of reopening InStyle after the first lockdown left her rattled, (being a small business owner can be lonely, trying to interpret the rules and making decisions on your own), mentally, Small was better prepared the second time around. She says she spent more time focusing on her own health and wellness and volunteered her free time to community causes. She launched a personal training and fitness business, Yours All-InFitness, and organized a fundraising initiative for the Make A Wish foundation, called Trailblaze for Wishes. Keeping mind and body active helped her keep her focus on the positive aspects of her life.

She also credits support from the community with helping to get her through the rough patches, saying “it was the many phone calls, texts, emails and messages that kept me moving on.”

The second lockdown lasted until mid-February, and once again Small and her staff worked long hours catching up with missed appointments; glad the shutdown was over and they could begin to get back to ‘normal’.

Barely two months later, a province-wide emergency brake and stay-at-home order shut down her business for the third time in 13 months. She remembers well the toll this last lockdown had on her state of mind.

“This has been the hardest lockdown emotionally and mentally,” said Small. “I was burnt out … and so were many of my family, friends and stylists. I believe most people, even the most stable, have felt emotional and mental unrest through this current ‘stay at home’ order.”

Thoughts of how her business would never be the same began to creep into her mind. A state of numbness set in, as did feelings of defeat and lack of direction. And tears flowed.

Through this darkness, Small started to see the light, enough to take control of what she could and start planning for the future, a future after the pandemic. She began working with a business strategy consultant to get her feet back on the ground, moving forward one step at a time.

“If I have any advice to offer, it is you aren’t alone,” said Small. “Almost everyone I know is experiencing some sort of COVID fatigue. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone. Talk about how you are feeling. Reach out and ask how someone else is feeling, is a good place to start. Think of the most positive people in your life and reach out to talk to them. You aren’t alone. While we aren’t all experiencing this in the same way, we are all still experiencing COVID in some way.”

Armed with a new outlook and hopeful for the future, Small has a few surprises ready for clients when she can once again open her doors and welcome back clients, hopefully by early July, if not before. Her newly launched website, https://InStyleHairStudio.ca, is a refreshing reflection of her commitment to community, her staff and the work that she loves.

Tammy Lindsay Schneider, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kincardine Independent