Busy Bees – A Tale of Small Business in the Early Weeks of COVID-19 in the U.S.
Before the U.S. woke up to the current shit storm, I was baited into answering a handful of survey questions circulating the Facebook pages of several friends. One question gave me pause: What do you collect?
I looked around my bedroom. I took in the two tissue boxes poised strategically on either side of the space, the large green vase, magenta pen holder, and four magnets climbing the neck of one lamp all made by Grichels.
I gazed at the four-set green dragon & brown teddy bear paintings I’d collected from The Wayt Gallery, the pair of Pigcasso’s from seasonal VegFests, the painting I’d picked up from the Summer Spirit Music Festival at Merriweather to which I’d dragged no less than four co-workers with me because I was so excited about Lizzo, and the Universal Pulse painting by John Sosnowsky I paid off over the length of an entire season at the Maryland Renaissance Festival because it sang to my soul.
I glanced at the dreamcatcher made from scraps I found at a flea market in Harper’s Ferry, the handcrafted leather triceratops skull made by Ryan Schnitzer I won at a holiday ornament exchange party, the Dancing Pig Pots ceramic mug engraved with Have a Cup of Calm the Fuck Down my best friend bought for me at Pennsic last year, and the bright orange Santa Muerte I fell in love with on South Street in Philly one year.
I answered: “local art.”
Cocooned amidst the geode of art from these small business owners, considering how very different our accessibility to their wares are now, I realize how this collection defined me. Assimilating these odds and ends identified what I like, what charms and brings me joy. And what comforts me in quarantine.
Goldman Sachs conducted a survey of 10,000 small business owners over 48 states and four territories, 54% of whom are women. Of those 10K, 51% answered that their business will not survive current conditions beyond three months and 54% reported their employees could not telecommute. As of this writing, 96% have already been impacted by coronavirus.
Kim Sandberg Workman is one such business owner. She owns The Busy Bees Maids, a cleaning operation that services homes and offices in Frederick County, Maryland. She is also a well-known, well-respected rose seller for the Maryland Renaissance Festival and former vendor coordinator/current bartender for the Virginia Renaissance Festival.
Kim, you’re a relatively young person like me—but you’ve run Busy Bees for a while! How did you get there and how has it grown?
“I bought Busy Bees Maid Service (Busy Bees) in 2011 as a preexisting entity. The former owners had trouble with budgeting and had found themselves in a sizeable debt to the IRS and was facing legal backlash if they didn’t sell or come up with the money. I helped them out of debt and brought Busy Bees back into the black within five years. Truth be told[,] it’s been a plateau the last few years — not really growing nor shrinking. I feel like we had hit market saturation for our area and have been looking for new and different ideas to find some new growth.”
On March 17, 2020, you had to make a very difficult decision. Can you talk about what led up to that decision and how it may impact your business and household?
“I had a number of staff meetings with both my office manager and my teams. I had gone over all of the CDC recommended steps for safety, I had gotten extra disposable gloves and a small amount of masks should they ever feel it necessary (as the CDC recommends against masks as a preventative measure and only for preventing the spread, but some immunocompromised or high-risk clients were requesting that we wear them). We were already using products that were EPA approved to kill the virus. My teams were filled with the right information and the right tools. We had notices and conversations with clients about the steps we were taking.
Regardless, my teams were nerve-wracked. Who doesn’t have someone elderly or immunocompromised in their life? Unhappy employees mean my clients won’t get the service they deserve. My clients were starting to cancel. After all, who could say for 100% sure they weren’t sick already? We know the incubation time starts many days before symptoms show and with social distancing, you shouldn’t have an unknown factor walking into your house.
We took a vote and the majority voted in favor of temporarily closing and it was absolutely the right choice. I would likely have had to lay a number of employees off regardless [with] clients canceling. At least, in this case, it was on our own terms and we were able to control the situation with the majority of our clients so that when we reopen, it will also [lean] on our terms which, we believe, means a strong reopening to ensure our income covers payroll and overhead.”
Kim, you have served a central role in the development of the Virginia Renaissance Festival held annually in the spring. I can only imagine how deeply invested you are. Can you describe the gravity of what the show, crew, and vendors are facing right now?
“Everyone is scared. We love this show deeply and thrive on the energy from our social circles there and also count on the income. We need time to put all the ducks in a row and sometimes those ducks require non-refunable downpayments and pre-planning. Now? We don’t know if we should be planning to open on time, opening later than usual, or even at all. Each plan requires different decisions to be made to make the show run as smoothly as [every] year before it.”
I understand that Busy Bees has a licensed and insured disinfecting service for residential and office spaces covering most of central Maryland. Can you elaborate? And how can one book an appointment?
“We use an EPA approved disinfectant that is sprayed as a fine mist (fog) into the air where the droplets are as small as 5 microns to penetrate and cover all surfaces in a space so that all surfaces are cleared of any coronavirus. For electronics, we have a direct topical application as it is a wet mist and not suitable for certain [environments]. You can book an appointment by calling our office at 301-271-1170.”
Kim, we’ve spoken before about the charm of community culture within the festival circuit. It takes a village, is a common phrase among us. Do you have any words of encouragement for those such as yourself whose budget accounts for that income and may now be a vacuum?
“We truly are a village. We got each other’s backs through thick and thin. I think the amount of outreach groups and programs being created all over social media and various charities certainly prove that. In the end, the show will go on and we will get there together. We’re all feeling the pinch and when the travel and social gathering bans are lifted, we will need our artists, crafters, and performers more than ever at our shows to spread the cheer again.”
For the foreseeable future, dear reader, I will introduce you to these artisans and small business owners. The Goldman Sachs survey reported that 75% feel they have no voice in the policymaking that holds their livelihoods in the balance.
I promise they will have a voice here.
I love that you’re giving the silent majority a voice and visibility!
Your style feels like we’re sitting there in the interview with you.