- - Thursday, May 14, 2020

The story of Shelley Luther, a hair salon owner in Texas who defied local orders to open her business and then faced jail time, not only caught the nation’s attention last week but prompted her local senator — Ted Cruz — to stop by for a haircut. “Hair salons & barbershops are open in TX today,” he tweeted. “Just got my hair cut for first time in 3 months at Salon ALa Mode to support Shelley Luther, who was wrongly imprisoned when she refused to apologize for trying to earn a living. Glad Shelley is out of jail & her business is open!”

Ms. Luther opened her salon not to profit, but for both her and her stylists to survive. She defied local law but ultimately was found justified in her actions. Unfortunately, there are millions of business owners like Ms. Luther across the country right now and they’re stuck at home. They are restaurant owners, merchants, landscapers, roofers, auto mechanics, hair stylists and physical trainers who can’t perform their livelihoods because their local governments are suppressing them from doing so.

Most — like me — aren’t as courageous as Ms. Luther and don’t want to risk fines or jail time, and I understand that. I also understand that local politicians and public health officials are trying their best to deal with an enormously difficult and unique problem.

But in the meantime, tens of millions — mostly hourly workers employed by small businesses — are out of their jobs. Unemployment rolls have swelled. The federal government is paying out trillions in stimulus money. The economy has significantly contracted. Confidence has been badly shaken. And yet, our objectives have been reached, haven’t they? Haven’t we “flattened the curve” as so many people desired just two months ago? Aren’t both cases and deaths — while of course tragic — now at manageable levels? Has capacity, equipment and supplies at our hospital systems not been increased in order to handle any potential new influx?

So instead of discussing “when to reopen” or a new stimulus package or aid or relief for small businesses let’s try something else: Allow companies with less than 500 employees to simply re-open nationally. Will this turn into a public health disaster? Quite the opposite. What will happen is that most business owners — if given the chance — will do what they know they need to do to operate profitably and safely in this post-pandemic environment. 



People who run small businesses are not idiots, and the most successful ones know exactly what steps they need to take. They’ll create very safe workspaces for both their employees and customers. They’ll check temperatures and encourage regular testing. They’ll send people with symptoms home immediately. They’ll bring back workers as they can afford and take care of those workers that are unable — for any reason — to come back to work. 

They’ll certainly encourage the continuation of work-from-home policies. They’ll be more flexible with their vacation plans. They’ll help those employees who need to take advantage of the federal emergency leave programs available. They’ll make sure that everyone — customers and workers alike — are socially-distanced, possibly wear masks, and that their products and services are delivered in a safe manner.

Some business owners, of course, won’t do this. These will be the very few. They will mistreat their employees. They won’t practice safe distancing or operate safe workspaces. They will demand their employees return to work, regardless of their concerns. They’ll charge headfirst into reopening their businesses without giving thought as to how they’ll address the concerns of their customers and employees. There will be reports of these business owners in the news. That’s good.

Because those business owners will soon find themselves in worse shape than before. Their employees will find work with better managed and more caring competitors. They will learn that unless they do what’s absolutely right to run their businesses in the best manner possible during these very new circumstances they’ll quickly be out of business.

But that’s for the market to decide, not for governors and mayors. I won’t shop at a store or eat at a restaurant where I feel unsafe and neither will others. Shelly Luther had it right when she told a local judge “I have hairstylists that are going hungry because they’d rather feed their kids. So sir, if you think the law is more important than kids being fed then please go ahead with your decision but I’m not going to shut the salon.” She knows how to run her business. She knows that if she doesn’t take the right steps to accommodate her customers and take care of her workers then she won’t stay in business for long. Most business owners know that, too. 

So why not at least give us the chance? Most of us are quite capable of looking after ourselves, our customers and our people, just fine without the government’s help. Our livelihoods depend on it. 

• Gene Marks is a CPA and owner of The Marks Group, a technology and financial management consulting firm that specializes in small- and medium-sized companies.

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