Pandemics don’t necessarily equal large profits for business owners in the healthcare industry.
At the height of the pandemic, hospitals across the country are at or near capacity. Yet, many of those same hospitals are losing millions per day by forgoing elective procedures. Primary care physicians saw a 60% decline in patient visits in early April.
For small-business owners in health care, it’s been a series of pivots over the last few months, from temporary closures to changes on how to service customers.
Three local health and fitness small-business owners (and HBCU graduates) share their pandemic experiences.
Black Business Matters
That’s an order
Dr. Alyssa Sprowl opened A List Smiles Orthodontics last November in east Charlotte. Within months, an uncontrollable enemy threatened its existence.
Sprowl, a Hampton University and Meharry Medical College graduate, rapidly scheduled patient office visits in March before temporarily closing in response to Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was scary. All the phone calls just stopped,” she said. “Every phone call matters, but especially when you are trying to build a business.”
The doors remained closed the entire month of April, but Sprowl continued checking in with her customers, making herself available as possible. To stay top of mind, she remained active on her social media business accounts. She assured customers that she was not permanently closed.
The virus created a unique situation for James “Jamie” Scott. His business operated in North and South Carolina, and the two states had differing plans about how to reopen.
In 2008, the South Carolina State University alum launched Jamie Scott Fitness, a personal training and corporate wellness consulting business in Columbia. He opened a gym in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood in 2016.
Once the pandemic hit, the Carolinas mandated gyms to close to prevent community spread of the coronavirus. Initially, both states shared a May timeline to reopen gyms after Phase 1 of their reopening strategies expired. South Carolina followed through, but North Carolina modified its plan and decided to keep gyms closed.
“We’re down about 40%,” Scott said about his business traffic in South Carolina.
The Columbia gym is open with reduced capacity. In Charlotte, Scott has been offering outdoor and virtual classes.
“My South Carolina customers have been really receptive and open to all the changes,” he said during a phone interview Saturday. He added that he’s been “cleaning between classes just to keep the business open.”
Employees have been loyal in Charlotte too, Scott says, but he’s had issues with local news outlets. He received some backlash in May when a Fox 46 Charlotte investigation questioned whether his gym was following the state’s executive order with its outdoor workouts. While not encouraged, the order did allow groups of 10 people or less to gather outdoors as long as they practiced social distancing.
“We’re sticking by the rules in Charlotte,” Scott explained. “I got a lot of hate messages on Facebook while some of the locations in Charlotte were open and had people working inside.”
He continued, “I felt like I was singled out a little bit to be completely honest. We have to do our part to keep the public safe, but at the same time, as a Black business owner, I feel like I’m walking a very thin line.”
Dr. Martez Prince, pharmacist and CEO of Premier Pharmacy and Wellness Center, has been serving residents in east Charlotte since 2015. Unlike Sprowl and Scott, the Florida A&M University graduate knew his services would be in greater demand as a result of the pandemic.
One example of those services is Premier Pharmacy deliveries. The service provides free deliveries on medication refills and purchases totaling $50 and up. With more residents indoors, Prince said there was a significant uptick in customers utilizing the service.
“We had to put in more hours to make sure we had products and services available to our community,” he said. “We were on a scavenger hunt.”
Tales of Covid relief funding
With a focus on underserved communities, Premier Pharmacy has searched for ways to assist customers disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. This required him to invest additional funds for new products and services.
“[Customers] were denied testing,” said Prince. “They felt like they weren’t being heard when they went to some testing sites. We felt obligated to provide that service to our community, but that is a huge undertaking. It’s 10 grand upfront just to start Covid testing.”
In addition to projected testing costs, Premier Pharmacy needed to increase payroll for additional employee hours and account for the rising prices for medications. Those factors led Prince to apply for and receive Covid relief funding. Along with grants, Premier Pharmacy received approximately $80,000 through the Paycheck Protection Program.
Scott received $40,000 in PPP funding from the Center City Small Business Innovation Fund, which prioritized businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans. Jamie Scott Fitness was one of 34 businesses selected in the first round of grant recipients.
Unfortunately, Sprowl’s applications for Covid relief funding were denied.
We serve everyone
As the more established businesses, Prince and Scott didn’t see much of an increase in new clientele due to the Black Lives Matter movement, but they say their diverse customers have been very supportive of them over the years.
Scott noted that the majority of his employees are Black. He says customers have inquired about how he and those employees are doing mentally and emotionally.
Sprowl saw an influx of new patients when her office reopened in May. When she inquired about how they learned of her business, several people told her they specifically searched for a Black-owned business to support.
“Honestly, it is really awesome to hear out loud,” she laughed. “It’s not that people should choose our office over others because of race, but to acknowledge that we are a Black-owned business – loud and proud – is awesome.”
She said, “I usually hear from others that they are proud of me as an African American female doctor. It’s humbling to know that I have the community behind me pushing me and rooting for me.”
The entrepreneurial spirit pushes these three business owners not only to survive but to thrive despite the pandemic.
Prince will be expanding his pharmacy business to the Historic West End near Johnson C. Smith University.
“We like to take anchor in communities that are historically Black, but accessible to everyone,” he said. “When that location became available, it just felt right. We were finally able to join some partners that had a common goal in mind.”
Sprowl has enhanced a few things to ensure new and old customers feel safe in her office. For starters, visits are by appointment only. Patients must wear masks, answer a detailed questionnaire and permit a temperature screening at each visit. Only those being serviced are allowed beyond the waiting room.
Scott is operating within the guidelines while he waits on the North Carolina order to be lifted, allowing customers inside gyms. Meanwhile, he’s also started a nonprofit to use his knowledge as a successful small-business owner to help others with their finances. As a native of Mullings, South Carolina — a small, predominantly Black town with a household median income under $25,000 — he sees an opportunity to impact those facing financial hardships.
“We’re going to educate people less fortunate than us on how to manage their finances,” he said. “I think it’s a big need right now. There’s a lot of people suffering out there.”
Editor’s Note: Black Power Moves is our three-part Black Business Month series, highlighting industries and notable members of Charlotte’s Black business community.
Part One focused on the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement from leadership of Black Business Owners of Charlotte and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce.
Part Two spotlighted three of Charlotte’s longtime Black media leaders who opened up about longevity and managing through the coronavirus pandemic.