Business owner Nathan Rao stands outside the second location of his doggy day care, Wag’n World, which he is preparing to open despite the economic downtown cause by COVID-19.

Julio Rodriguez can’t wait for his first customer. While the rest of us have been cooped up inside our homes, inspecting the refrigerator every half hour or so, the barber and stylist has been sweating alone inside the Montrose storefront for Tradesmen Barber.

It’s surreal, he admits, but working on the business he’s been preparing to open for months has kept his mind occupied. “The duality of the situation is the world is suffering yet during the same time my dream is coming true,” Rodriguez says. “This makes it challenging to grasp the anxiety of the pandemic as I'm very distracted by my build-out.” 

Rodriguez isn't the only Houstonian preparing to open new businesses in the wake of COVID-19. Right as the pandemic hit Houston, Nathan Rao was ramping up construction on the second location for his Wag’n World doggie day care and grooming business.

“Before the COVID-19, I was riding high and feeling really good about my second location,” says Rao, who opened his original location in Montrose in 2017. After making the decision to expand, he started transforming the old Action Pawn Shop location neighboring Christy’s Donuts into a wonderland for pups of all shapes, sizes, and quirks. He’d even commissioned a large mural for the outside of the building featuring winking, floating puppers. “I hired a general manager to get the ball rolling, and we were on the fast track to having everything ready to go for hiring and systems put in place.”

Rao and Rodriguez, along with countless other new entrepreneurs, were itching to open to the public when the global pandemic set in, delaying the start of a new chapter in their own lives. Now, they all face an uncertain future before even opening their doors.

“In all my years living in Texas, I have never seen such an immense impact on our industry. It’s scary to ponder what the lasting effects of this will be,” says Lacy Williams, who’s in the process of opening up a new bar with chef Anthony Calleo. “There’s nothing to even compare it to so how do we begin to understand how to bounce back?”

In the pre-Coronavirus days, Rodriguez was targeting a May 5 grand opening with two barbers on staff; Williams and Calleo had planned to open their new bar concept, dubbed 6’s and 7’s, at the beginning of April. These days, Rodriguez is applying for the same business grants and loans as everyone else while dreaming of wooly heads and scraggly faces in need of trimming. A bubbly and beloved host behind the bar, Williams says she hasn’t been away this long from her patrons and is excited to see their faces and hear their stories.

Julio Rodriguez (center) and the staff of Tradesmen Barber, opening in Montrose.

But the concerns are still there. “My worries are pretty straight forward,” Rodriguez says. “I'm prepared for this situation, but it's not ideal. I can wait until June, but after June my capital will be tight.”

In the five weeks since Harris County issued its stay-at-home order, more than 80 percent of small business executives say their operations have been moderately to severely impacted by the pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership. Almost half of businesses said they had issued hiring freezes and more than half had seen a decline in revenue. Only four in 10 businesses thought they could survive a shutdown of more than a month.

Rao’s clientele of dog owners is mostly working from home and tending to their pups themselves. “It's the absolute worst feeling in the world to have to shut down your business and have practically everything you have worked so hard for come to a screeching stop,” he says. “In the beginning of the stay-at-home order, I was slightly depressed and had my moments of hard cries and strong emotional outbursts.”

In the meantime, clients have warmed Rao’s heart with emails, Instagram posts, and Facebook messages about some of his most favorite regulars. “I can't wait to see all my fur babies and everybody again,” he says. “The messages are the best thing I could ever ask for in a time like this. They have no idea how much I truly appreciate that right now.”

Like many, Williams and Calleo are bracing for the aftermath of the pandemic, and the new normal, whatever that might be. Part of the difficulty in preparing is that no one knows exactly what this new social landscape will look like and what rules will accompany it, says Calleo, who spent his COVID-19 season feeding medical staff outside of the Rudyard’s kitchen and pitching in his expertise with other charity projects. In the meantime, the new restaurateurs have continued whipping the space previously occupied by The Next Door Bar into fighting shape all while watching their next-door neighbors, Rudyard’s, go from a busy Montrose hangout to limited hours of to-go service.

Williams and Calleo know the bar they planned to open won’t exactly be the one that finally does open; the concern of social distancing is real. There will be layout configurations to consider and limits put on restaurants capacity.

“More importantly, what will our guests want? What helps them feel safe? They need to see that we are taking the rules seriously,” says Calleo. “It’s a hard algebra. It’s not easy, but we are tackling it every day.”

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