Small but mighty, a Washington florist battles back in the pandemic

Business

WASHINGTON – The bloom is back at Lee’s Flower and Card Shop in Washington’s historic U Street neighborhood, with an added touch: Blue, green, yellow and white origami cranes spelling out the words “Black Lives Matter” on the storefront window.

The signs reflect a slow return to normalcy as life and business adapt to the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice movement that both erupted in the first half of 2020.

The business, run by sisters Stacie Lee Banks and Kristie Lee, stayed open during the months of mandated shutdown in Washington, doing deliveries as its doors stayed shut.

Clients have been welcomed back into the store since June 22, although a table bars anyone from stepping in more than 10 feet. For wedding and funeral consultations customers may go further inside, but only after checking their temperatures.

“I think that we could have reopened more than we did, but we’re still being cautious about our space and not letting people in, because our employees are concerned,” Banks said.

When D.C. businesses reopened, the city government gave small businesses a supply of masks and hand sanitizer upon request. The shop, one of several U.S. small businesses that Reuters is following through the crisis, also bought face shields for employees and a thermometer.

The sisters had to modify staff schedules, with people working the same number of hours over fewer days.

The third generation owners of the family business also alternate their days in the shop to care for their mother, who was diagnosed with dementia this summer.

Staying open during the pandemic means rolling with unexpected punches, like when an employee attended a gathering where someone later tested positive for the coronavirus. The employee needed to quarantine, forcing the shop to juggle shifts.

“We’re a small staff, but we’re mighty, and so when one person is gone, we have to try to figure out how to replace them,” Banks said.

BUSINESS BEGINS TO BLOOM
Business has rebounded from a slump in the early days of the pandemic lockdown. Between June 1 and July 28, sales jumped 71% from a year earlier.

Being a Black-owned business may be a factor, Banks said. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May sparked national protests over racial injustice and a “buy Black” movement that she said has led customers to her shop.

Many people are sending flowers to their loved ones instead of visiting them. And orders have risen for funerals and a pandemic trend, micro-weddings.

“Where we ordinarily would have 20 deliveries a day, we’re having 40 and 50 deliveries a day,” Banks said. Three more people have been hired, bringing her staff total to 12.

Banks served on Washington’s reopening advisory committee, and is happy with how the district had reopened.

“I really think they did a good job by not reopening too soon, because look at all the places that are having to close back down, like California, Texas,” Banks said.

As the White House and Congress debate the next coronavirus relief bill, Banks said she would like more business funding and clarity on Paycheck Protection Program loans.

The shop received a $75,000 loan under the program, allowing it to rehire furloughed staff.

“They say it’s forgivable, but they haven’t come out with any clear-cut rules on how to make it forgivable,” Banks said. “I am on pins and needles.”