The coronavirus very quickly changed the world as we know it. The pandemic triggered a global health emergency with critical consequences for the economy and our way of life, even here in Portugal where our initial response to the virus received praise within the European community. In a short matter of time, the situation deteriorated as it has elsewhere. Cases have been rising significantly again, particularly in the Greater Lisbon area, which has prompted the Government to implement new restrictions. With these photos of businesses in my Lisbon neighborhood, I try to tell the stories of small business owners navigating changing rules and constraints in these very uncertain times.
Fátima opened her beauty parlour in Cascais 35 years ago — how much fuss she has had to put up with from all us women here at home! The pandemic brought a multitude of new concerns and procedures for her business, from the required use of a mask, face shield visor and gloves to the mandatory disinfection of the whole place between each appointment.
“If I used to get 10 or 15 clients a day, now there are perhaps 5 or 6, as I need some time to air the parlour and clean everything. People are coming though, I’ve been busy,” says Fátima. Ever since reopening in May after the lockdown, customers have been showing up. When they come in, they have to disinfect their hands and shoes first, and then drop their belongings in a designated area. After they leave, every single space is cleaned. “
The doorbell has never been cleaner,” she tells me between laughs.
Fátima cannot be too careful when it comes to COVID-19 because she herself is high risk.
“My children are always concerned with my well-being, they immediately bought me a face shield visor and they don’t want me anywhere near a supermarket.” On the one hand, this pandemic is limiting her to being either at work or at home; on the other, all this forces Fátima to work a little less, which ultimately favors her health.
“Better days will come. I’m forcing myself to believe this is all temporary.”
Gonçalo has been working as a driver for 5 and a half years. He even had his own company with 12 employees and 9 cars for a while, before transitioning back to working independently before the pandemic — which turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.
“If I still had the company now it could have been devastating,” he tells me.
In Portugal, professional drivers working independently or via an app must acquire a TDVE license which stipulates they’ve been driving for at least three years and passed a competency course. This pandemic has been quite precarious for TDVE drivers, and many companies in the area have closed due to a lack of funds to pay both their drivers and the cars. Undoubtedly, being an independent comes with its disadvantages as well, as those who work for themselves are offered no support from the Government.
“What I most like in this job are the tourist tours, but due to COVID-19 all of that has come to halt.”
In addition to a significant downfall as a result of the lack of tourism, local clients have also been quite retracted.
“With an increasing number of cases in the area of Lisbon, business is still deficient. If it wasn’t for this current situation, perhaps bars would be open now, which would make a huge difference in our profits. At the moment, it’s only enough to survive,” says Gonçalo. Every driver who used to work nights is now operating during the day, so the number of services dropped.
Nevertheless, amid this economic disaster, Gonçalo manages to be constructive.
“I believe this has forced people to put their lives in perspective. In one day, everything can change.”
“Still, I feel this is an opportunity for development, it’s a time for us to review our priorities and set them straight.”
Marta & Olímpia
My cousin Marta is the creator of “Menina e Moça,” a brand dedicated to handbags and accessories that is based in Carcavelos. Beside her is Olímpia, seamstress and longtime friend, who materializes Marta’s vision for each product. “Let me think… Right, my daughter wasn’t born yet, so we’ve been working together for 17 years now,” says Olímpia.
After going through a turbulent phase with the business, it is going quite well at present, even as we are traversing this pandemic. Olímpia used the extra time during confinement to, like many others, start fabricating masks. And Marta, who previously did not believe in the online world, took the opportunity to further explore the potential of Instagram.
“I usually prefer a hands-on approach, all our pieces are unique so I’d rather have customers see them live. But the fact is the brand has been working quite well online, I’ve been selling more now through Instagram,” she tells me.
According to Marta, the brand is aimed mainly at Portuguese people rather than foreigners, which means that sales are not being affected by the fall in the tourism market.
For Manel, who spends almost every breathing moment in the sea, opening a surf school was almost inevitable. And thus, in April 2019, Green Wave Cascais was born, with the purpose of providing sea-related sports activities.
But with the arrival of this pandemic came the mandatory confinement, which was quite problematic for the school. “I was afraid to lose a business I had always dreamed of and for which I’ve been fighting for for years. Being closed for three months, with no possible way of providing our services, was quite complicated to manage,” Manel tells me.
However, after beaches reopened, the school’s attendance came storming back. The imposed restrictions and social distancing rules have not stopped further clients from reaching out, even with the fall in tourism.
“There is a higher demand for outdoor activities, people are looking to feel some freedom and they can definitely find it while riding a wave. I’ve been noticing that our students, whether children or adults, seem to be even more ecstatic now with each second they get to spend in the water,” he adds.
Taking the necessary precautions, including the use of masks when transporting students to the beaches, Manel trusts there is nothing to be afraid of.
As for this crisis, he believes that it has been able to open everyone’s eyes, and brought over new solidarity between people and businesses. “We were always busy, running wild, not thinking about how those who surround us were really doing… But the world has stopped and people have been forced to look around. I sincerely hope that those who have fallen are able to get up again, stronger than ever.
How has your favorite small business navigated the pandemic? Let us know on Twitter!