Beach business owners share lessons learned about survival during COVID-19 pandemic

Photo above shows owners Liz Harmer, left, and Julie Watson in front of Afterglow on Queen Street East in the Beach. Inset photo shows Megan Evans inside Therapy Lounge, also on Queen Street East in the Beach. Photos by Ahmed Dirie.

By AHMED DIRIE

Two women-owned businesses in the Beach were thriving in the months and years before COVID-19 forced them both to shut down in the spring of 2020.

A combination of passion, determination, resourcefulness, as well as some timely community support and government intervention, has helped keep them operating since then.

Julie Watson and her partner Elizabeth “Liz” Doyle Harmer own Afterglow, a yoga studio located at 2034 Queen St. E. influenced by west coast yoga and rated best yoga studio by BlogTO in 2017.

At Afterglow they delve deep in the philosophy of yoga and educate themselves and their clients so that yoga will prepare them to appropriately deal with the stress of life.

“What we were trying to put out there from the very beginning was providing people with the tools that they could use to heal themselves,” said Watson. “Then they go out there and share that with the world.”

Megan Evans is the owner of the Therapy Lounge, a holistic health clinic located at 2245 Queen St E. that prides itself on diverse practitioners and customizing treatments to each client.

At Therapy Lounge, they treat the body as a whole and offer many services from massages, to acupuncture, to an onsite chiropractor.

“Each practitioner is so different and offers so many different services because our community is so different,” said Evans.

At Therapy Lounge the goal is searching for the cause of an issue as opposed to symptoms.

“We’re like detectives!” said Evans.

Afterglow Studios, opened five years ago, was a dream come true for Watson and Harmer. The forced closure brought on by COVID-19 was particularly hard on them.

“COVID-19 hit and my dream was crushed,” said Watson. “It was like I had no purpose and that was, I think, one of the hardest things about the time with COVID-19.”

For Evans, COVID-19 caused her to pause plans for expansion into the space next door, but that wasn’t the most pressing issue that had to be dealt with.

“When you’re self-employed, when you work you get paid,” said Evans of the impact of COVID-19 closures on businesses.

The pandemic made Evans re-evaluate her plans for Therapy Lounge and its possible expansion. She realized she was happy with the sustainable business she had created 14 years ago in November just the way it was.

“It pulled me back to the basics and simplicity and I don’t know if I really wanted [to expand],” she said. “Sure that was potentially an opportunity, but was it meant to be?”

Watson and Harmer had to watch as iconic yoga studios went out of business, wondering if they would be able to survive the pandemic.

“And so we were here watching some of our favourite studios that we had practiced at years ago shut down one by one,” said Watson.

“And feeling like how are we going to do this? How are we going to stay afloat? How are we going to manage this together? Physically how are we going to keep the space and the money to keep it going, but also mentally how are we going to push through this?”

One of the things they could count on was support from the community.

At Afterglow some clients chose to maintain their memberships even while the studio was closed. But money wasn’t the only way their community showed its support.

“We did have some clients pay their full rate,” said Harmer. “…And the ones that had to stop for their own financial situation were still there for us mentally, emotionally, and by doing online classes when they could. The community really stayed with us.”

Harmer’s love of the community applies just as strongly for the Beach itself, having lived here for 14 years.

“I love this neighbourhood,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the city I want to live personally. If I couldn’t live in the Beaches, I would leave.”

These two businesses have more than a few things in common which might explain why both are still around when many others went under.

Both are fixtures in the community. Both place a clear emphasis on engaging with their clients and community, and they strive to create a safe space that is not only sanitary but welcoming and relaxing.

Another trait both businesses share is the hands-on approach of the women in charge. They all play a direct role not just in administration but in the actual services their respective businesses offer.

“I’m a registered massage therapist by trade,” said Evans. “And have been for 18 years.”

Watson is an instructor for many of the classes offered, bringing more than 10 years of yoga training, and knowledge of nutrition and fitness with her.

Harmer is also an instructor despite not teaching at the moment, and writes thoughtful blog posts for afterglowstudio.ca.

COVID-19 was the impetus for Afterglow to explore digital means of reaching clients.  Watson and Harmer found that the educational nature of the classes was conducive to a hybrid model of online and in-person classes.

“That’s really what the future is,” said Harmer. “And it sounds like that’s going to be the future for people at work to be hybrid.”

In addition to investing in the technology needed to transition to an online program, Harmer and Watson have gone further in expanding their digital footprint.

“We have a podcast called The Afterglow,” said Harmer. “We’re going to be starting on our third season now.”

Their first guest was Erica Miechowsky, known professionally as Erica Ehm, a pioneer video jockey for MuchMusic.

“It’s a podcast for women trying to find their ‘Afterglow’!” said Harmer.

Switching to an online model wasn’t as feasible for Therapy Lounge.

“All of us are manual practitioners,” said Evans. “We all have to touch the people to practice.”

Evans’ practice was closed for three months before being deemed essential. While she was glad to reopen, she was a little apprehensive.

“During those three months of unknown you watch all these businesses pivot,” said Evans. “Incredible things happening online, amazing stuff. How do we pivot our business? We can’t.”

The hands-on nature at Therapy Lounge in the various services provided there made the online transition difficult, if not impossible. You also can’t massage from a distance.

“We don’t have six-foot arms,” said Evans.

Both businesses took steps to make themselves as COVID-19 friendly as possible. PPE, plexiglass, and sanitation were all addressed.

They both went above and beyond the government regulated mandates for sanitation.

“I implemented everyone wearing lab coats because we didn’t know about touch,” said Evans. “When you’re massaging someone, sometimes their arm touches your arm and the oil gets all over.”

Temperature checks, handheld and stationary, were also installed at Therapy Lounge.

In addition to the sanitation mandates, Afterglow also took steps to ensure cleaner air for their clients.

“We redid our HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system,” said Watson. “We had it all enhanced with a new filtration system.”

Government intervention was key in not only renovating Afterglow but also in paying their staff.

“We were still providing services to our clients,” said Watson. “But not really generating any money to pay the other bills that we had to pay.”

Despite having trouble qualifying for some of the benefits the government subsidized due to being the only employee at Therapy Lounge, the rest of the staff being contractors, Evans was still thankful for the support she did receive.

“Super grateful for the government,” said Evans. “Getting CERB (Canadian emergency response benefit) was a huge help.”

Both businesses were also able to benefit from the rent subsidies provided by the government, and felt the government wasn’t being credited for all the assistance they provided for small businesses in particular.

While Therapy Lounge is getting back to the numbers they had before COVID-19 in terms of practitioners; Watson responded with a laugh when asked how close they are now to the heights they reached before the pandemic.

“And you can quote us laughing,” said Watson.

Afterglow does, however, have a plan in place that they are confident in and milestones they plan to hit.

“We are recovering,” said Watson.  “And we have a plan in effect in order to recover. We have a goal and a timeline and it will happen. And I feel like our community, our clients want that. They want that for themselves. And they want that for us as well.”

At Afterglow, Harmer and Watson try to dispel misconceptions about yoga being a means of escapism and also to make yoga less intimidating for newcomers.

“I practiced [a stricter] style of yoga for a really long time,” said Harmer. “But we wanted more freedom and playfulness. Everybody is welcome.”

If there is one thing Evans and Therapy Lounge want to get across is that everyone’s pain is different and their practice reflects that.

“We need to find the right fit for everybody,” said Evans.

The staff at both businesses match the inclusive and welcoming nature shared by all three owners.

Tyleen Li is a contractor of Therapy Lounge, and quickly became essential to Evans’ operation.

“I think one thing that really appealed to me about coming here, and I think that resonates with our clients, is we all like working together,” said Li. “And we all work well together. Which I think creates a really nice atmosphere here.”

Afterglow Studios and Therapy Lounge are two businesses owned by Canadian women, and they hope that their story will inspire not just other aspiring female business owners, but Canadians as a whole.

“I feel like we’re better people,” said Watson of the COVID-19 experience. “We’re better business women, better bosses and better yogis. I feel like we’ve learned so much that it’s almost like a second chance to just do it even better.”


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