COURIER Illustration (Denzel Boyd)
COURIER Illustration (Denzel Boyd)

Recognizing “Small Business Saturday” by taking a look at the struggles and triumphs of owners and entrepreneurs during COIVD.

When the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Sally Torreggiani—like a lot of people across the United States—did not know what was happening. The 26-year-old was making headway as a small business owner in Fishkill, New York when all of sudden, a stay-at-home mandate required her to lock up her fitness studio indefinitely.  

“I lost maybe over like 50% of my clients,” Torreggiani told COURIER. “I could not afford rent anymore, because I had a triple net lease, so my landlord was charging me an extra $500 when I had zero income coming in.”

Torreggiani had to think fast—and creatively—to survive as a fitness studio owner and instructor in a global pandemic that has left 13 million people unemployed, pushed 8 million into poverty, and forced thousands of entrepreneurs to shutdown their businesses. Like many others, she went digital.

“I had to definitely transition to everything virtually,” she added. “I’m of the age of being able to understand computers, and it [worked out] since my clients really just wanted me to teach.”

But the transition required upfront expenses. She had to purchase professional subscriptions for Zoom, Vimeo, audio and video equipment, and a Microformer machine to instruct classes from her home. In total, Torreggiani said she spent about $1,800.

Despite moving her business online, the expenses she paid did not deliver enough in return. Prior to the pandemic, Torregiani would make up to $10,000 a month. Now, with only about 20 of her students attending virtual classes and reduced capacity at another location, her monthly income is at $2,000.

Despite these challenges, Torreggiani said she didn’t apply for federal coronavirus relief, like the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) or the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). She didn’t think she was eligible, since she hired contractors at her studio, not employees. That might not have stopped her from getting a disaster loan, but the lack of clear information made it hard for her and other business owners to successfully apply for aid. 

According to ProPublica, only about 67% of small business owners said they were approved for the loan, and 55% of them said they received the money awarded. The average wait time for just the loan processing portion of the application is 41 days. If Torregiani had gotten a loan, she wouldn’t have received word on her approval status in time to make rent.

The loss of income and inability to afford rent forced her to shut down her location in Fishkill. She was able to reopen her fitness studio at 33% capacity in nearby Poughkeepsie, where her parents own a commercial building.

Torreggiani also had to incur additional expenses and establish new studio policies to fall in line with New York’s requirements for reopening businesses. She said it felt like there was little guidance to help her understand what exactly was needed to operate in a safe and socially-distant environment, but she did the best she could with what she gathered from the news. 

“I take everyone’s temperature, there’s hand sanitizer, and all the machines are spaced out,” she added. “I don’t really touch any of my clients in class, I don’t touch them anymore. They’re just so grateful to have human interaction, it seems like. I try to make them as comfortable as possible in these stressful times.”

Torreggiani said she was frustrated with how both the federal and state government handled the pandemic response. She felt that gyms, primarily fitness boutique studios like her own, were not treated fairly compared to other industries despite being “essential” businesses. 

“I’m in upstate [New York], so we didn’t get hit as bad as Manhattan,” Torreggiani said. “But I saw strip clubs opened before gyms, and I was just like ‘why?” I understood that big gyms not reopening but my gym is so small. It’s less than 10 people at a time, which even falls under the maximum capacity for Thanksgiving. So, how are strip clubs open before me? I would get so upset driving by it and seeing it open.”

Torreggiani isn’t alone as a woman, small-business owner struggling to survive the pandemic. A congressional committee report released in October found the PPP program did not prioritize businesses owned by women and minority communities. According to the report, the Treasury Department told banks to limit their PPP lending program to their existing customers, which meant many women entrepreneurs and small business owners of color were excluded. Banks also knew the guidance from the federal government would establish “a heightened risk of disparate impact on minority and women-owned businesses,” but went forward with the discriminatory practice anyways. 

Despite the odds not being in her favor, Torreggiani remains steadfast and optimistic. The fitness entrepreneur said operating her business during a pandemic made her feel more appreciated as an entrepreneur by her clients. 

“Everyone is really happy. They’re getting more comfortable as it goes on,” she added. “They are more open to talk now and it feels like a stronger sense of community in the space.”