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COVID-19 politics continue to complicate how small businesses in Ohio operate

Shay Frank/Lauren Green

Small businesses throughout Ohio have suffered financially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But they’ve also struggled with big decisions — often with political overtones — about how to keep their customers and employees safe.

And that effort to balance safety and a bottom line continues for people like Tim Friedman.

Friedman is the owner of the uptown Toledo record store Culture Clash. The shop includes a fully equipped stage with black walls and a row of windows looking over the busy streets of the the city’s warehouse district.

Friedman took over the business after the former owner died in 2016. He said it was a natural fit.

“It was so simple to find out — I don't know — just how rewarding this world of records was,” he remembered.

But rewarding or not, the last two years have been tough. Culture Clash was one of the few businesses in Toledo that required masks well into 2022. Friedman said keeping safety measures up for so long was no easy decision — especially as public health and politics became intertwined.

“Being someone who just wants to be affable and in the middle means that you've now got louder and angrier people on both sides of you saying that you're wrong for not being closer to them,” Friedman said.

Another challenge, he added, was the constant shift in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) over the last two years. He had to sift through the information, then develop guidelines for his shop. And in some cases, that proved costly.

Back in the summer of 2020, for example, Friedman chose to keep his store's mask mandate while many counties in Toledo’s close neighbor, Michigan, had fully opened up again. He remembered a scathing review from an angry would-be customer who “gave us a one-star horrifying review online.”

He recited the review: “‘Dumb. Still making people mask up. Nobody in Michigan is doing this anymore. Just don't really care about their customers and I drove this far to get there and they turned me away.”’

But on balance, Friedman said, customers understood what he was trying to do. And even if they didn’t, “I have to actively remind myself this on many occasions: If I lose too many customers who get angry and yell at us for wanting the best for everybody that walks through our door, maybe this isn't the business I want to be running.”

Gotta dance

In the Franklin Park area, about 15 minutes away,Paulette’s Studio of Dance faced the same dilemma.

With her Portuguese water dogs Zorro and Chloe laying at our feet, Paulette Szykowny talked about trying to find middle ground.

“I did have to walk the — or dance — the fine line by having vaccinated students and unvaccinated students or people that maybe didn't disclose that they had been vaccinated or not,” she recalled. “So I did split up some classes.”

Masks were a must until May of 2021, when the CDC guidelines changed.

But, she noted, “we still have several people that do wear a mask and that is A-OK.”

What her students all share, she said, is a need to be together and dance again, so most of them are willing to take precautions.

“We did hold a lot of classes online through Zoom but when we were able to re-open, they were happy to wear masks,” she said. “They were just glad about the procedures and the cleaning and everybody did their part, you know, to keep it clean and safe.”

New COVID-19 cases in Toledo and surrounding Lucas County remain low, according to the Lucas County Health Department, and deaths have been dropping dramatically. But hospitalizations have been ticking up slightly, and overall, less than 60% of the county is fully vaccinated.

A broken record: Empathy

Back at Culture Clash records, owner Friedman said he did finally drop the mask mandate in March. But as new variants emerge, he continues to worry about his customers. And the record-store owner said he also continues to hope for an alternative to the angry political rhetoric that had flooded into the public health debate.

“I have felt like a broken record for two years repeating the word ‘empathy,’ " he said.

Meanwhile, both he and Paulette Szykowny have come to realize that adjusting to public health issues is now a cost of doing business.
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