Gamze Kazakoglu, Contributing Reporter

As many social events remain postponed due to COVID-19, the non-restaurant small businesses of New Haven continue to struggle.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the collection of New Haven businesses built around dress repair and upkeep have suffered from a drop in the use of professional and formal attire. As work remains remote, public socialization remains limited and large events remain restricted, businesses like dry cleaners, tailors and shoe repair shops have stomached a sharp hit to their numbers. The reduced number of office-goers and students requiring formal attire has added to their woes. 

In interviews with the News, several business owners expressed apprehension about the fates of their livelihoods as the end of the pandemic remains far away. Now, as the loans they received earlier during pandemic, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans, have begun to dry up, many owners have begun to hunker down. 

Earlier in October, Gov. Ned Lamont’s decision to move Connecticut to Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan allowed “restaurants, hair salons and other businesses to serve customers at 75 percent of their indoor capacity provided that social distancing and other health guidelines can be observed.” 

The decision has been a welcome sign for many in the restaurant industry. But it didn’t do much to help businesses that sell formal clothes and attire, who have struggled for reasons other than the limitation of in-person services. 

Fausto Guamantari opened Christian Shoe Repair on Whitney Avenue and Grove Street with his brother two years ago. He told the News that he and his family have come close to closing the family store on various occasions, even though the business represents the family’s main source of income. 

“To stay in the business, you need to make at least 65 to 70 percent (of rent)” he said. “Now we’re down to 15 to 20 percent because nobody is going out. You don’t need the shoe shine, the shone cleaning, you’re staying at home.” 

Diagio Onofrao, owner of Mike’s Shoe Repair in the Amity neighborhood, expressed similar concerns. He told the News that he is down to 20 percent of his usual business. 

Onofrao attributed the drop in shoe repair needs to a drop in office life and a reduction in “going out.” Much of his business comes from the repair of formal dress shoes.

“All people are working from home. There is no going out to restaurants. There is no parties. There is no church. People don’t need shoes. People are using flippers,” he said. 

Other businesses that serve the formal attire industry, like dry cleaners and tailors, have fared equally poorly. Michael Amore Jr., third generation owner of the Jet Cleaners on Orange Street in East Rock, told the News that his shop noted an immediate drop in business of 50 percent at the onset of the pandemic. His business has remained at that level since. 

As stay-at-home orders went into place, he noticed that several customers did not return to pick up their attire. Amore made efforts to reach out to his customers to arrange for clothes deliveries or over-the-phone credit card payments. Yet, some still did not come, leaving Amore with a collection of still-unclaimed clothes. Amore attributed the loss in business to a drop in activity among his usual clients, like high school marching bands and research labs. In the past, he said, these sorts of organizations could guarantee 600 to 1,000 boxes per order. Without school graduations, he also missed out on the usual accumulation of graduation robes in May and June.  

“No costumes needed as there are no shows, parties, dances,” he said. 

The decline in business has pressed many tailors and dry cleaners to reduce their hours of operations to save money.

Yet, like other businesses, they have also had to find ways to keep up with rent even as revenue has stayed much lower than usual. Onofrao told the News he would likely have had to close shop if he did not own the commercial space where his business operates.  

But not all the small businesses are proprietors. Guamantari, for instance, is not. He has had to scrape by paying for rent along with the other fixed business costs of electricity, phone and heat services. The shoe repairman said he is especially nervous about this upcoming winter, when he expects his monthly electricity bills to increase, even as profits might not.

Until now, many of these businesses have relied on loans like the federal government’s PPP loans, to help cover their expenses. Congress funded several rounds of PPP loans beginning in April, with the intention of helping small businesses keep their workforces employed during the economic recession brought upon by the pandemic.  Thousands applied for the loan program in Connecticut alone. The Connecticut Bankers Association announced that $4 billion in loans were processed nationwide on the first day of the program. Applications for PPP loans closed on Aug. 8. 

Amore told the News that he participated in the PPP loans. Now that the money from this first loan has run out, he said he hopes for a second round as his business is still suffering. Others were not so lucky. Onofrao applied but was rejected, which he believes is because he does not have any employees. 

Guamantari, however, told the News he is apprehensive to apply for any sort of loan. He said he would only feel comfortable getting a loan if he was sure he could pay it back. He is unsure if he can guarantee that his business would last long enough even after receiving a PPP loan for him to repay it. 

“If I get it, I don’t know if I can pay it back. If business is going down, how can you repay it?”, he said. 

The U.S. government has announced that PPP loans under $25,000 do not require a personal guarantee from the business owner and in the event of bankruptcy, can be discharged. 

According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses generate nearly 44 percent of U.S. economic output.

Gamze Kazakoglu | gamze.kazakoglu@yale.edu