What it was like opening a business as COVID-19 spiked

Starting your own business comes with a degree of uncertainty. The investment, financially and emotionally, is significant, and the journey almost always includes a few bumps in the road.

When Tom Freeman and Grace O’Sullivan launched Enhance Physiotherapy and Health five months ago, they knew he would face challenges. They just didn’t realise that one of those would be the COVID-19 pandemic.

A qualified physiotherapist and Pilates instructor, Tom spent the last five years living, studying and working in Melbourne. In 2019, he and his partner Grace moved back to rural Victoria, where they had met as teenagers.

It hadn’t always been the plan for Tom to set up his own business, but after a casual conversation around what it would be like, the idea started to grow legs.

“For a long time I would never have considered running my own business. I think Grace and I just talked about it, and what started off as a probably a pipe dream became something sort of more and more realistic,” says Tom.

“It probably happened over a period of like six weeks – it really went from nothing to something.”

Enhance opened its doors on February 3 this year. It was as good a start as Tom and Grace could have hoped; Pilates classes were full and physio consultations were gradually building each week.

Fast forward a month. The Victorian government announces coronavirus restrictions will apply to allied health businesses, and suddenly, Tom and Grace were facing challenges they never anticipated.

“It wasn't even until maybe about the Sunday night (before restrictions came in) that we were like, ‘Oh, we can't run this week’,” says Grace.

“The physio side of things had started to take off and that was going to be a very busy week but then suddenly went to nothing.”

Even as more details were released on how businesses could continue to operate, the uncertainty remained.

“The hardest part was the unknown. A few times we just felt tense, and frustrated, and maybe overwhelmed, because we were thinking, ‘Oh, we don't know, we want to be doing the right thing, but we don't know whether we are or not,’” says Grace.

“We’d just started this new business and were getting a feel for it, and then you get hit with this. Then there were the mixed messages, and we tried not to compare different circumstances but there were shopping centres full of people, and we were limited by space in an environment where people are trying to do something for their health.”

Two physiotherapists look at the camera

Despite some pretty drastic immediate changes (reduction of class sizes for Pilates, longer gaps between consultations to allow for disinfecting), the pair adapted as well as they could.

“We tried to focus on other areas of the business, like marketing and keeping the community engaged through social media with videos on exercises to do at home,” says Tom.

“We thought it was really important to get our faces out there to let people know that we were still operating. We even sent a letter to the doctors to reassure them we were still open, especially with the freeze on elective surgeries, there were a lot of people waiting that needed some form of rehabilitation.”

“In the end, we tried not to go down the rabbit hole and just accept that what was happening was trying.”

However, it wasn’t just the clientele that Tom and Grace needed to take care of. The pair reflected on how the last four months has impacted them, and what mental health strategies they adopted to cope.

“We tried not to go into the ‘what if’ too much but it was tough. I remember at one stage thinking, if we do have to close, what are the job options? But in terms of coping mechanisms, when we had really quiet days and not many people were booked in, we still tried to stick to the same structure, like getting there at seven each day,” says Tom.

“We also tried to exercise regularly, a lot of Pilates obviously, but I think the main thing was having each other. We talked every day and if I had been doing this with anyone else, I would’ve been a mess. I don’t think I would have been able to do it,” adds Grace.

While opening a business amid a global pandemic isn’t ideal, Enhance has shown the type of resilience required to adapt and succeed moving forward.

For tools to assist small business owners protect and nurture their mental health, visit the Small business resources of Beyond Blue's Heads Up website.

You can find more information on how to manage reopening your business in this article.

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