‘How are we going to survive this?’ Small businesses in Miami-Dade confront coronavirus

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Six months ago, Eunice Miranda and her husband Joel Otero fulfilled a lifelong dream: To open their own business and work together.

Their shop, Miranda’s Discount Store, is tucked away inside a strip mall in West Perrine. The small, tidy store, which is open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, stocks a little bit of everything: Clothes, household items, vitamins, cosmetics, baby supplies, shoes, kids’ games, even luggage.

But Tuesday, as several national retailers announced they temporarily would close their doors, Miranda looked worried as she stood behind the front counter, even though customers were coming and going from the shop.

“We had wanted to do something like this for a long time, to run a business where people could find anything,” she said in Spanish. “We were just starting to build up a clientele through word of mouth. But now we are scared. We use our store to pay for everything — our rent, car payments, cellphones, the light bill. Just one month of bad business could ruin us.”

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Miranda’s fear is shared by thousands of small business owners across Miami-Dade County, who worry that the city and county’s closure of restaurants, nightclubs, movie theaters and other public gathering places will keep people inside their homes and away from their stores. Many launched their businesses with bank loans that require regular repayment.

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The threat isn’t limited to neighborhood mom-and-pop shops, either. Books & Books, the beloved bookstore chain founded by Mitchell Kaplan in 1982, will close all of its locations temporarily on Wednesday March 18th.

“It’s been heartbreaking,” Kaplan said. “A good bookstore creates a sense of community, which is what we’ve tried to do for 40 years. But bringing people together is not a good thing in the world of this virus.”

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Kaplan said the stores will remain closed for two weeks and the situation will be reevaluated then. The chain’s 85 employees will be furloughed but will continue to receive healthcare benefits.

“So many people have been asking us what they can do to help, and we’re asking all of our customers to transition to our online store and buy through our website,” he said. “We are also going to continue some events through Facebook and Instagram live. So everyone can find out what we’re doing.” Information about virtual events and opening updates will be posted online.

Tuesday, several national chains with a significant South Florida presence — including Macy’s, Nordstrom, H&M and Bloomingdales — joined Apple, Nike and Urban Outfitters in temporarily shutting their stores to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Shopping malls around the country — including several in South Florida — have cut their business hours, as well as supermarkets such as Publix and Aldi.

But some of those giant chains have the financial reserves to close and ride out the coronavirus pandemic without going under. Many small businesses don’t have that option — and they are of critical importance to the stability of Miami-Dade’s economy.

A small business economy

According to the report “Small Business. Big Impact.” conducted by Florida International University’s Small Business Development Center in 2018, 53.3 percent of Miami-Dade’s workforce is employed by 82,293 small businesses around the county. More than half of those employ one to four people.

The retailers among them live or die by foot traffic. Douglas Nicaragua, 44, a lifelong running enthusiast, launched his Go Run stores in 2014, with locations in West Kendall and Brickell. The stores specialize in footwear and clothing for walkers and runners, and Nicaragua was able to compete with big-box stores such as The Athlete’s Foot by giving his customers personalized training advice.

Through his stores, Nicaragua also formed a free Run Club, which has more than 200 members, to compete in local marathons and 5K runs. He keeps tabs on his members’ running regimes through an app on his phone that shows whether they’re training too little or too hard.

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But since the coronavirus outbreak, the Run Club has been put on hold. And business at his stores has dropped so drastically that he plans to temporarily close his doors by the end of the week.

What he won’t do, however, is lay off his four full-time employees.

“I have vendors and rent and personal loans,” said Nicaragua, who pays $6,000 per month in rent for his West Kendall location. “But my number one priority is to make sure my employees are okay. I have to keep the business afloat somehow, because the number one problem facing everyone in the world right now is how are we going to survive this economically?”

Nicaragua said he will try to direct sales to his website and offer free shipping to customers. But there is no point in keeping the stores open for now because, he said, sales have flat-lined.

Thinning crowds

Scattini Remeau started noticing fewer customers at the family-owned Little Haiti Hardware & Lumber around three weeks ago.

“I watched it just collapse,” the 44-year-old shop owner said. “It went down to about 25% of what I’m normally making.”

Construction around the neighborhood has basically stopped, he said. The only thing people are asking for are cleaning products, like Clorox and masks.

The bottles of auto oil and tools collect dust, while the display of Clorox disinfectant continues to dwindle down.

The masks flew out. The gloves flew out.

People have kept calling, asking for masks. “It’s one person per hour,” Remeau said.

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Remeau has tried to make up the losses by stocking more cleaning products, but they don’t generate much of a profit.

“We’re not making much from it,” he said. It’s pennies.”

The store normally closes at 5 p.m., but now they’re keeping it open until 9 p.m. to catch all of the sales they can.

“It’s family-operated, so we all understand what’s happening. So we all are just taking a hit.”

Just down Second Avenue, Edeline Didier snoozed behind the desk at Best Appliances as she waited for customers.

“Before the virus, it was busy all the time,” the 65-year-old said.

Best Appliances sits at a four-way intersection at 7037 NW Second Avenue, surrounded by auto shops and grocery stores. Traffic is normally heavy. But now, people aren’t passing by the shop, because they’re staying inside.

Didier said only one customer came in on Tuesday.

It was for an emergency, she laughed. “What are you going to do if your stove goes out? They had to come in.”

“The only thing people are going out for is to the market for their children,” she said.

They’ll wait until later to roam the rows and rows of stoves, ovens and dishwashers.

Going online

Rebecca Millares-Macias, co-owner of The Children’s Exchange, a consignment children’s clothing store in Coral Gables, is facing the same dilemma. Her shop, a cozy space full of colorful brand-name children’s clothes, accessories and toys, was operating normally until Monday, when only a single client walked through the doors.

So Millares-Macias is shuttering her brick-and-mortar location for now and turning to eBay and Instagram to generate sales. It’s not the same as entering the well-organized space, full of adorable Ralph Lauren baby dresses and white linen first communion shirts, to browse the racks divided by age groups, but it’s a way to at least earn some revenue.

“I’m hustling for my clients, posting items online to try to keep the business going,” she said. With three kids at home, she forwarded the store’s phone line to her personal cell and has been posting sought-after items such as second-hand American Girl dolls and other toys on social media.

The Children’s Exchange employs two people — one full-time and one part-time — and Millares-Macias said they will get paid for two weeks, even if the store is closed.

“I’m going to try to pay my employees for as long as I can, but right now two weeks is what I can promise,” she said.

The giant mall situation

Although shopping malls have not closed, many have taken measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Aventura, Dadeland, Sawgrass Mills, the Falls and Dolphin Mall shortened their regular hours of operation on Tuesday.

”We believe this change takes into consideration the staffing challenges tenants may face, the personal challenges of employees, the need to responsibly practice physical distancing and still allows us to serve the needs of the public,” said Dolphin Mall spokesperson Maria Mainville via email. “Naturally, the situation remains highly fluid and more changes may come.”

Some malls, such as Aventura and Bal Harbour Shops, have added hand sanitizing stations throughout the property and increased the cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas, including elevator buttons, bathrooms and food hall trays.

Aventura also closed certain amenities that could lead to close contact, such as its Rainbow Valley Playground.

The large malls will survive. But Books & Books’ Kaplan said it is the small businesses, and the people who work there, who face the greatest peril during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The number one thing we ought to be looking out for, aside from not spreading the virus, are people who derive their livelihood through small businesses,” he said. “All of our 85 employees rely on people coming and supporting the bookstore. A lot of businesses like ours survive revenue-day to revenue-day. There need to be programs put in place that will relieve so many of these workers who survive paycheck to paycheck.”

Miami Herald staff writers Rebecca San Juan and Adriana Brasileiro contributed to this report.

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