Dry cleaners close as coronavirus pandemic drags on
“All they had left was not enough to give us a big boost,” Gary, 61, said of the extra customers as he swept the tiled floor of his gutted storefront on East Glebe Road last month. “It’s just an example of the state of affairs. When people don’t go to work, they don’t bring clothes.”
Two metal shelves containing washed shirts and pants were still near the window, where a paper sign summed up their fate: “Notice: store closed.”
Nearly two years after the pandemic changed daily life, the divergent economic consequences for small businesses in Northern Virginia and beyond are familiar: There are the moms and pops who made it through and those who couldn’t get out of it. Entrepreneurs who have found a way to pivot — to contactless “ghost kitchens” or online-only yoga — and family outfits are still praying for some sort of return to normalcy.
Auburn Cleaners was firmly in the latter camp until the omicron variant of the coronavirus and its staggering number of cases delayed a return to the office. The blazers and blouses would sit inside the closets for a few more months, and the Whitesides decided that was it: they would leave the storefront where they and a handful of employees had been cleaning, ironing and packing since the couple had bought it in the early 1990s.
It was another dry cleaner lost to the coronavirus – the third casualty in a stretch of about eight blocks and a much bigger omen for an industry that may never recover. Some trade groups expect that, by December, 30% of dry cleaning businesses operating before the pandemic will have closed.
In the DC area and other major metropolitan areas, dry cleaning has long been considered a middle-class vehicle for immigrant families, many of whom were Korean Americans who settled here in the 1970s to 1990s, according to industry experts. There were low barriers to entry and a limited need for language skills, not to mention a community of other store owners who were often willing to help with loans and training.
But even before the pandemic, many of these independent stores were preparing for change: their American-born children were choosing not to take over the family business, opting instead for white-collar fields. Even in Washington, offices were relaxing their standards for business attire and reducing the need for professional cleaning.
“At one point, you had a casual Friday and then moved on to a casual daily,” said Mary Scalco, chief executive of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, a business group based in Prince George’s County. “A lot of them have repositioned themselves as convenience stores and embraced a broader range of clothing – it’s your golf shirts, polo shirts, khakis, not just your ties and suits.”
For the Whitesides, however, it was simply a matter of following the multiple generations of customers who passed through the store – everyone from first responders and hotel workers to a US congressman whom Gary declined to name. . (“He’s been in the news a bit and got some criticism, and I don’t want people to know he lives in that area,” he said.)
Chong Whitesides, who immigrated to the United States from Korea as a teenager, had grown up working in his family’s dry cleaning shops and stayed in the business while Gary worked in telecommunications at a base in the US Army in Maryland.
After moving to Northern Virginia in the early 1990s, she decided to start her own business. The couple bought the Auburn Cleaners store on East Glebe, a neighborhood mainstay on a block full of longtime establishments.
It quickly became a family affair: their son Jeremy, now a computer programmer, worked his way up to George Mason University. When Gary was laid off from his IT job during the Great Recession, he joined her – a ploy to get them to spend more time together.
But the work weeks were 70 hours. With the exception of Sundays and a few holidays, one of them was almost always at the store – labeling the clothes, checking for stains, pre-cleaning, staining and ironing, then sorting and packing.
There would be seasonal rhythms: spring meant ball gowns and wedding dresses; fall was for coats and sweaters. But “other than very general seasonal things,” he said, “it’s a month-to-month crapshoot.”
The number of dry cleaners remained relatively stable in Alexandria during the first half of the pandemic, according to the city’s economic development data, dropping from 54 in January 2019 to 50 in the same period last year. But trade groups warn the worst is yet to come.
Peter Blake, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Cleaners, which represents 350 storefronts in the district, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, said the number of closed outlets — about 10 to 15% of industry – could double by the end of the year.
He said his group had also encouraged its members to diversify their businesses, tapping into laundry and folding and delivery services that could appeal to customers who had few shirts to iron when they started working from home. .
But as the original coronavirus gave way to the delta variant, which gave way to the omicron, the outlook for the Whitesides was bleak.
They closed their store for a few weeks and then reopened – with slightly limited hours – to serve the regular trickle of first responders and other frontline workers who arrived during the summer of 2020. But business this year- there have never reached more than a quarter of what it was before the pandemic.
“There were all these different edicts — which can stay open and which can close — that were all undetermined for a while,” he said. “At one point it didn’t really matter because no one was coming out anyway.”
Auburn Cleaners received two rounds of loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which “are enough to keep us going for a while,” Gary said. (Some other companies have relied on a special tax credit that was phased out in a federal infrastructure package last year, though industry groups are pushing for it to be extended through March.)
The Whitesides dipped into their savings. They made calculations. They had customers hooked – and still do, even though they moved some operations completely out of a storefront.
But the rest of their clientele, he fears, will simply never return.