Image shows four women dressed in black
Carolyn Blum, second from right, and associates at B. de Vine in Houston, Texas. The photo was taken before the coronavirus outbreak.

Even in hotspots, furniture stores can operate safely

Political leaders in Houston and Harris County, Texas, want the authority to impose new lockdowns in response to rising coronavirus cases.

Carolyn Blum said such orders shouldn’t apply to businesses like hers.

“We are not part of the problem in any way, shape or form,” said the owner of Home Furnishings Association member B. de Vine. “Everyone who comes in here is responsible. We’re following the rules.”

Blum, who opened the fine furnishings, decor and design business near the northwestern edge of Houston in 2014, perfectly expressed the HFA’s position about operating safely during the pandemic.

“There’s not a crowd of people in here,” she said. “It’s very easy to social distance, wear masks and be responsible.”

Image shows a man with white hair wearing a coat and tie
Chris Pfeifer

“We are not a Home Depot, Lowe’s or Randalls grocery. There’s a lot of space here,” said Chris Pfeifer, owner of HFA member Homestead House. His store is in Conroe, in Montgomery County, north of Houston. Pfeifer said Montgomery is “an anti-mask county,” but “I tell people don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. I’m a conservative Republican, but I’m not a stupid one.”

He requires employees to wear masks and asks customers to do so as well. Some who don’t want to might “turn around and walk out,” but that has been rare. “The customers have been very good,” he said. He provides lots of hand-sanitizer and enforces social-distancing, among other measures to keep the business running safely.

Those practices help everyone, Pfeifer added. “If I get sick, this company goes down the tube,” he said. “Any small business person can’t afford to get sick.”

California order doesn’t include furniture stores

Furniture stores escaped California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July 13 order to close many businesses across his state – this time.

Newsom’s order immediately closed indoor operations for restaurants, winery tasting rooms, movie theaters, family entertainment centers and more. In nearly 30 counties on a “Monitoring List” for three consecutive days, further closings were mandated. Those include “offices for non-essential services.”

Except for those that sell appliances, furniture stores are not listed as providing essential services in California.

“Counties should be ready to restore limitations if outbreaks increase,” the state said. “The State Public Health Officer may take action if needed.”

Miami-Dade County in Florida is another Covid-19 hotspot. Its mayor, Carlos Gimenez, last week issued a confusing series of statements, ordering some businesses, notably restaurants, to close. Then he partially stepped back. Furniture stores were not threatened with new shutdowns, however.

‘Retail businesses are going to stay open’

“Just certain businesses will be closed,” Gimenez said in an NPR interview. “So the vast majority of businesses – retail businesses are going to stay open because, again, you can go into a retail store. Keep your mask on. You can keep social distancing. And you’ll be OK.”

That’s an important message furniture retailers should be ready to make to their own state and local government leaders. Even in areas with new outbreaks, their stores can serve customers safely. They should invite local leaders to visit and see for themselves.

In addition, they’re meeting customers’ desire for essential home furnishings products. And they are providing critical tax revenue to support state and local governments, which desperately need funds for first responders, public health departments, schools and other services.

[HFA’s ‘safe and essential’ argument still must be made]

Texas calls mattresses essential

Even if Houston, Harris County or all of Texas shuts down again, many furniture stores can stay open if they sell mattresses, which are deemed essential. Both Pfeiffer and Blum do. Pfeiffer kept his store open during the initial lockdown, but Blum closed hers.

“It was pointless to be open, honestly, because everybody else was closed,” she said.

In the current environment, business success depends to a great extent on the comfort level of customers. Pfeifer has seen shoppers who feel it’s safer to visit stores in Conroe than in Houston. Shoppers also are trending a little younger – people who may be less fearful about going out but also are less likely to buy.

Blum, however, has found that her customers are “very comfortable coming to us. It’s just not a high-risk environment. It’s just not.”

HFA pushes for more help for retailers

The HFA is pushing Congress to provide further support for businesses. The next recovery bill should extend and modify the Paycheck Protection Program, allowing businesses to apply for a second loan, or Congress should create a new, longer-term lending vehicle such as the RESTART Act.

As events in many areas of the country show, the COVID-19 crisis has not passed. This may put pressure on some communities to shut down retail businesses again – a step that just isn’t necessary when it comes to furniture stores that operate safely.

But, with few signs of easing, the continuing crisis is a stark reminder that some businesses may need additional financial assistance in the months ahead. Congress must make sure it’s available.

[HFA COVID-19 Recovery Resources]

[NRF calls on retailers to set nationwide mask policy]

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