ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - Editor's Note: This is one in a series of profiles of Americans struggling with the economic impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Kemi Lawani tries to keep up her spirits in the face of financial adversity, especially in front of her two young children. But sometimes she can’t help but think the deck has been stacked against her amid the coronavirus pandemic shutdown in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota.
Lawani, who owns a small business in south Minneapolis, recalled times when she felt “everyone else has failed you.”
“I have had my fair share of nights crying,” she told VOA recently. “You’re not sleeping. You’re stressed. You’re taking medications to sleep. You don’t know what is going to happen. The anxiety is very high.”
Lawani has been braiding hair since she came to Minnesota in 2002 from Nigeria. For the past 11 years, she’s been running her own salon, called Bonitas Extensions and Braids. On March 17, like thousands of other business owners, she was ordered by the state to close her shop because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She had 102 loyal clients who paid an average of $150 for extensions, braiding, haircuts and other salon services. Like many small-business owners, she is struggling now to pay the rent, other business expenses and her home mortgage, and to put food on the table for her two children, a 13-year-old daughter named Zeal and a 2-year-old son, Zion. The single mom also has two employees she’s concerned about.
“I don’t know how long any normal person can keep doing that,” she said of her economic challenges, in a phone interview. “I don’t know how long if I don’t get back to work.”
For the first time in her life, she said, she went to a food bank for free food for her children. “You have nothing,” she said. “You have to survive.” She also applied for food stamps but has not been able to successfully apply for unemployment insurance online. Since the shutdown orders began in Minnesota in mid-March, more than 560,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits.
Lawani is particularly frustrated with what she sees as a lack of help for small businesses and individual workers from the federal and state governments, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars recently approved by Congress and President Donald Trump for small-business loans and economic assistance.
She said she applied through a community bank for the first round of the $349 billion in Small Business Administration (SBA) Payroll Protection Program loans under the recently passed federal CARES Act, but the funds ran out before she could get a loan. She applied for the second round of the $310 billion in loans through a larger bank but has not heard yet and is not sure she will get a loan.
Lawani has found herself crying in front of Zeal, her teenage daughter, who she said understood. “My daughter knows what’s going on,” she explained. “But when you are used to being in control, this is weird. You are out of control.”
When it was reported that some major corporations and even sports franchises such as the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team received the SBA loans, Lawani was not surprised.
“Just disappointed,” she said. “Everything is political. That’s the way the world runs, not just in this country, but in most countries. I wasn’t surprised or angry … It’s a waiting game, a who-you-know game.”
Lamani’s one ray of hope in her ordeal is the support she has received from what she calls the Bonitas community, the customers of her salon. She posted a GoFundMe page on Facebook seeking their help:
“I received another rejection letter from my bank this morning (Sorry the CARES Act has been DEPLETED.)" she wrote. "What businesses did it go to, who determined who needs help and who (doesn’t)? Most immigrant businesses started by self-funding and grow with the help of our communities. If you take away the help by shutting us down, please help us with a way to keep our livelihood open, because we are a big part of our communities.”
To her surprise, she received $1,500 from customers and friends to help her pay the rent on her business, including from a neighbor who heard her story on Minnesota Public Radio.
“I am so blessed that they [her customers and friends] didn’t let me fail,” Lamani said. “I am beyond thankful. Makes me feel that we are truly supported, that we are truly not alone.”
Lamani’s business was started in 2007 by her mother, who had immigrated to Minnesota from Nigeria in 2004, two years after Lamani, who is the fifth of eight children. Her mother started the business after she was diagnosed with cancer and thought she could at least help provide wigs and hair care for people going through cancer treatment. When her mother died in 2009, Lamani, who had been working in the banking business, took over the shop, she said.
But the business cannot survive long even if Lamani gets an SBA payroll loan. She said she needs to open her shop and bring back the customers and community members who have kept her afloat.
The closures in Minnesota and elsewhere have been imposed to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and to slow the spread of COVID-19. As of April 30, Minnesota had 6,663 cases and 419 deaths. Minnesota is among the lowest third of states in death rates per 100,000 population.
Lamani understands the health precautions that would be necessary if a business like hers were granted permission to reopen. She said she and colleagues can wear gloves, masks and protective gear and perform extra sanitation – although braiding hair would be difficult with gloves. But adding that gear is “like a double-edged sword,” she said. “It takes money to buy that equipment. Are they [the state] going to give us a grant to buy it?”
At the end of the day, she said, she just wants to get back to work.
“The instant gratification you give people … to see the smile on a person’s face, to be able to meet their needs, keeps me on my job every day,” she said.
But Lawani and thousands of other small-business people and their employees will have to wait a bit longer as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on April 30 extended the state’s stay-at-home order, which had been due to expire Monday, another two weeks. The new order allows some retail and other services, including salons, to open for curbside pickup of products, but not hair care services.