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The omicron surge is making it hard to staff stores and restaurants. Some are closing


* If you've been out shopping or dining this holiday week, you may have noticed fewer workers at some businesses. The omicron surge is making it harder to staff stores and restaurants. And as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, some businesses have had to make the hard choice to close their doors.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In New York City, Sarita Ekya shut down her restaurant for the week. It's called Sarita's Macaroni and Cheese, or S'MAC for short.

SARITA EKYA: There's a lot of S'MAC jokes out there. I've heard a lot of it for sure (laughter).

WANG: But it was no joke when one of her employees tested positive for the coronavirus a few days ago. Ekya and her staffers decided to give themselves time to line up for PCR tests, wait for results and try to figure out when it's safer to reopen.

EKYA: I'd be lying if I didn't say that we had the shot. I did feel very defeated. It just felt like, oh, God, here we are again, you know? And it's just exhausting.

WANG: Other restaurants and stores are also feeling it. With COVID surging as the world heads into a third year of a pandemic, that has put service workers' health and safety especially at risk and kept many small business owners in survival mode.

EKYA: My employees are still going to get paid. We're paying them, but who's paying us? No one, right? Like, so that's the financial stress. And you want to make sure decisions are based on the right thing to do. That can be cloudy. What is the right thing to do?


WANG: For Alice Hutchinson, the right thing to do this week in Bethel Conn....


ALICE HUTCHINSON: Thank you for calling Byrd's Books.

WANG: ...Was to leave this voicemail greeting for customers.


HUTCHINSON: And we have decided to close through January 3.

WANG: One of her staffers tested positive, and she did too.

HUTCHINSON: It's not great timing, but I keep reminding staff, aren't we lucky this didn't happen Thanksgiving weekend? And we would have faced essentially financial ruin because the last six weeks of the year are where most bookstores make 30- to 40% of their year sales.

WANG: No one who has COVID, Hutchinson says, is allowed to go back to work at her bookstore without isolating for 10 days.

HUTCHINSON: Oh, definitely 10 days. Oh, yeah. I'm not going to mess around with this.

WANG: Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shortened their recommended isolation time to five days - if you've tested positive, have no symptoms and wear a mask around others for five more days. Hutchinson says she also wants staffers to get a negative test before they return to work.

HUTCHINSON: It's not good for my staff. It's not good for me. It's not good for the store. But it's certainly not good for our customers to walk into an environment that's iffy. And they're not going to trust us unless we do this.

WANG: Still Oliver Chen, a retail industry analyst for the financial services firm Cowen and Company, says the CDC's latest recommendation could help lessen the pressure on the parts of the industry that are having a hard time filling work shifts. And that's not just the parts that are most visible to customers.

OLIVER CHEN: All of retail requires staffing - the digital side, in terms of the supply chain and the warehouses and the delivery. And retail is just getting more complicated.

WANG: Including how to keep workplaces safe. And as the pandemic grinds on, many business owners will have to rethink how to retain their staffers, says Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, a market researching company.

SUCHARITA KODALI: It's going to be hard to find people. And what you're going to need to do is you're going to have to pay people more.

WANG: Theo Scoulios, a part-time bartender in Maryland, says employers also need to have consistent protocols once workers test positive or have been identified as close contacts.

THEO SCOULIOS: I know some other people were - they said that their bosses would tell them to come in or they're fired. And I'm like, that's crazy.

WANG: And with no end to the pandemic in sight, Scoulios says many service workers are hanging by a thread.

SCOULIOS: It just looks like we're going to have to fend for ourselves. There's no safety net for service workers or anyone that has to go inside to do their job.

WANG: Jobs that are only getting harder to do as omicron continues to spread. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.