Cambridge Local First

Surviving coronavirus as a small business: Antonina Colbert of Antonina Bodywork

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By Lina Cho (CLF), originally published in Cambridge Day on July 8, 2020 and updated on July 14.

Antonina Colbert, owner of Central Square injury and sports massage therapy service Antonina Bodywork.

For Cambridge independent business owner Antonina Colbert, the coronavirus epidemic meant three months with no income.

Colbert is the sole proprietor of Antonina Bodywork, an injury and sports massage therapy service. A licensed practitioner and a professional member of the American Massage Therapy Association, Colbert offers a structural type of therapeutic bodywork, delivering relief for those with chronic, post-surgery or repetitive stress pain and supporting a client base stretching from athletes to musicians to performers. Located on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, Antonina Bodywork has five-star reviews on Google and Yelp.

On March 15, five days after Massachusetts declared a state of emergency, Colbert’s business was ordered to shut down. The order remained in place for more than three months, during which she applied for the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The assistance provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to individuals typically ineligible for conventional unemployment assistance, such as gig workers or self-employed workers. The weekly $600 is appreciated, but it is not a long-term solution.

“It’s not very much,” Colbert said. “It’s nice, it’s helpful, but it is nowhere near what I was making for myself.”

Colbert is not aware of colleagues who have gone out of business since the shutdown, but knows no one in industries similar to hers had any income in the past months. She managed to survive with the combined cushion of the assistance and her savings, eventually reopening alongside other services for skin and nail care, tattooing and piercing, and personal training.

Trickling in

Before the coronavirus, Colbert had, on average, 22 to 24 clients a week. The week she reopened, she had three. The next week, she had 12, due to a “bottleneck of people … who really needed it.” The next week, client bookings dwindled again to just six, and the next couple of weeks show a range of three to five bookings. Colbert estimates that clients will continue to trickle in at around a quarter or a third of her usual numbers.

Colbert attributes the low return numbers to the uncertainty that still dominates around coronavirus and its risks, especially with more businesses reopening as restrictions lift. “I have clients who have either emailed me or called me or spoken with me and said, ‘I want to see you but I’m not ready yet; I don’t feel comfortable; I’m nervous,’” Colbert said.

It worries Colbert, but she said she was happy some clients canceled their appointments because they felt unwell. “I appreciate it because there’s so much work and thought that I’m putting in to making sure it’s a safe environment for everybody,“she said.

Low client numbers, however, are not the only challenge.

Complicated aid

Close-contact personal services face the high cost of personal protective equipment, which is necessary to comply with state hygiene protocols and to ensure her and her clients’ safety. The equipment includes gloves, masks, air purifiers and cleaning supplies. The time spent cleaning between each client could limit the length of sessions, though the longer sessions give her higher returns and are what three-quarters of her clients come for.

While grants for such costs exist at the federal level, the processing for them is often slow, and the regulations so complex that some businesses simply feel that they are inaccessible. “You have to follow very strict protocols. People don’t want to be stuck with a huge loan term because they didn’t use [equipment] correctly,“she said.

Colbert has applied for several general grants from Cambridge, and all are at different stages of processing.

Customer appreciation

The situation brings a fresh appreciation for her relationship with regular, long-term clients, Colbert said. She attributes the business she has had since reopening to the relationships she built with clients over time. “The people who have come in have all said they’re nervous, but they trust me,” Colbert said.

Perhaps the only benefit of the coronavirus epidemic for Colbert is that it has allowed her to slow down and reflect.

“It’s just grounded me. I really appreciate things around me more, including the people in my business and the relationships that I have there. I’ve really loved that part of Covid,“she said.

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