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Kendall Andes, general manager at Lilly Pulitzer, showed dresses to customer Kim Brann during reopening day at Short Pump Town Center on May 15.

Serving as community stewards, small businesses represent the local heartbeat. With a finger on the neighborhood pulse and an ear to the ground, their impact is profound. Local businesses create job opportunities and growth, infusing dollars into the local economy that help sustain vital services. In times of need and tragedy, they often are the first to step up. When organizations are looking for sponsors or help, whether it be for an event or your child’s sports team, they dutifully answer the call.

These businesses now are paying a heavy price for measures that were intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. Many have been closed for months, and those that have been able to remain open have, for the most part, done so as a skeleton of their former selves — a means to, quite literally, keep the lights on and provide some semblance of employment for their staff. Every single business has been forced to make tough decisions, to pivot with little notice or options, and to evolve in ways that seemed unfathomable just three months ago.

As we look toward reopening and much of the state begins to navigate the process, businesses once again are forced to make a tough choice in determining what is best for them, their staff, their customers, and of course, their community. It’s a decision that no business owner takes lightly, and one that can have polarizing effects lasting long after this crisis ends.

At their core, brick-and-mortar businesses are about curating experiences and cultivating relationships. In reopening, businesses must find ways to provide positive experiences for their customers in a way that won’t be detrimental to their relationships.

Reopening a business is more than just unlocking the front door and turning on the lights. Small businesses reopening must go through the expensive and time-consuming process of physically restructuring their business, whether by adding plexiglass to the cashwrap station, installing social distancing decals on the floor, or moving fixtures and furniture in order to create a better layout for customers to spread out.

Restaurants must buy perishable food without a guarantee that guests will even show up. They must educate themselves and also train staff on new state-mandated guidelines, as well as best practices. They also must equip employees with protective equipment and additional training to prepare for customer reactions both good and bad, completely changing the experience model they once knew.

While it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, today’s business owners are navigating uncharted territory without so much as a practice, much less an established playbook.

Recognizing this fact, and that the power of many is far greater than the voice of one, the retailer-led board of Retail Merchants Association (RMA) voted in March to open up membership to all local businesses at no cost.

Founded by retailers and led by retailers, RMA always has acted as a champion of local businesses and has been working throughout this crisis to build solidarity across the retail sector, so that the entire industry could come together and best utilize RMA’s relationships with local jurisdictions and partner organizations.

These businesses have had the weight of the world on them throughout these past two months. Like many of us, not only are they worrying about their job and family, they’ve been worried about the jobs of their staff members — as well as the families of those employees who also count on that paycheck.

As we take this next step, it’s important to understand that business owners and their staff need you, the community. They need your understanding that this period has been incredibly brutal and yes, traumatic, on small-business owners who often have sunk all they have financially, as well as their whole heart and soul, into their business.

They need the continued support so many of you have been quick to provide through online orders, gift card purchases, takeout and GoFundMe pages. They need you to shop local for those essentials — even if it means curbside pickup instead of two-day delivery. They need you to visit their stores and restaurants when you feel safe to do so. But they also need you to bring your kindness, your patience, and of course, your mask.

Our goal throughout this process has been, and will continue to be, to help shepherd small businesses through this time by providing information, support and advocacy. We will continue to do everything in our power to support the small businesses that so greatly enrich our community, but we need your help.

Please raise your voice in support of the restaurants, hotels, shops and entertainment venues that you love. In supporting them, you support the community. While we might not know what the other side of this pandemic will look like, we know that we will get through it together.

Nancy Thomas is president and CEO of Retail Merchants Association. Contact her at: nthomas@retailmerchants.com

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