How can a party-based business pull through a pandemic? That was the question balloon artist Ava Sealey found herself facing in March, when Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced a shutdown of all nonessential businesses.
Sealey's business, Ava Party Designs, specializes in custom, big ticket balloon art. Forget that image of twisted balloon animals and think bigger - like massive standing balloon sculptures, balloon castles large enough for an adult to stand inside, and wearable costumes made from balloons. The company, based out of Bethel, Connecticut and working across Fairfield County, works with corporate and private clients that are looking for unique, customized decor for their events.
"My clients are so used to balloons on a string, that when I create my sculptures, they're like - I didn't even know you could do this with balloons. And I'm like 'yes you can!'" Sealey said.
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Sealey started her business in 2014 - making a dramatic switch from a career in banking.
"When I said I am quitting banking and I'm going into balloons full-time and everybody was like, what, you're going to blow up balloons for a living, really?"
She said starting her business was about finding a passion and committing to chasing it.
"I always tell people, don't be afraid to try something you never know. Right? Like, if somebody had told me I would have grown up to be a balloon artist, I'd be like, 'you're condemning me to a life of misery aren't you?'" Sealey said with a laugh. "'You think so little of me, don't you?'"
2020 started strong for Sealey. She estimates in the first three months, she'd already made 50% of what she brought in the year before.
"2020 was going to be my best year ever," she recalled. "I was so optimistic and nervous, because I was like 'oh my God, can I do this?'"
Sealey was even looking into expanding her business by absorbing other balloon businesses in her area.
On March 20, 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont announced at a press conference that he was issuing an executive order that would require all nonessential businesses to shut down, effective three days later. It was called the "Stay Safe, Stay Home" initiative, and included the business closures as well as limits on public gatherings.
"Nonessential public community gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason should be canceled (e.g. parties, celebrations or other social events) are canceled or postponed at this time," the order reads.
With parties and events forced to cancel and the public being advised to stay home as much as possible, Sealey's business came to a grinding halt.
"The governor's announcement was one thing, but when the cancellations started to roll in, that's when you felt like, this is happening," she said. "I cried."
"The only thing I can relate to is that someone pulled the rug from under your feet and when you looked down, there was nothing but black."
Although she was unable to go about business as usual, Sealey still found a way to put her studio to use. When the news poured in that health care workers were facing the coronavirus crisis with limited supplies of personal protective equipment, Sealey decided to use her newly purchased 3D laser printer, originally meant for making party decorations, to make face shields.
"With the lack of PPE I was able to use my studio as a manufacturing studio for PPEs, and we donated over 3,000 face shields," she said. "And that was you know, like the community coming together, and we were pumping out these face shields and I was able to use my studio and use my laser machine and…do something good."
"People are like 'how do you go from balloons to making face shields' and I'm like, the same way i went from banking to doing balloons," she continued. "You know, you think about what the need is."
In May, Lamont slowly began the process of reopening the state, allowing nonessential businesses to restart operations. However, there were still limits to the size of public and private gatherings. Sealey said it wasn't until June or July, during the state's second phase of reopening, that she was really able to begin operating again.
The warm summer weather brought some respite, with outdoor event limits being larger, and with COVID-19 numbers down, indoor restrictions being relaxed. But in November, with those numbers creeping up again, the state once again rolled back some of the reopening, limiting event venues to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
For Sealey, the combination of that cooler weather and new event restrictions meant translated into another multi-month shutdown until she could figure out how to operate safely for herself and her clients.
Moving into January and February, Sealey is once again taking clients, but she's had to pivot her business to events like drive-by baby showers or coporate launches where the appropriate COVID-19 restrictions can be met. Walkthroughs are often virtual, done over Facetime or phone calls as Sealey looks at a map of the space she has to work with. Sometimes she still arrives on site, but keeps her distance from both her clients and her assistant, who chimes in through Facetime as they plan out the balloon magic.
Still, Sealey says despite the changes forced upon her she finds joy in bringing her clients' events to life, and that makes it worth the extra effort.
"The business is so personal and I feel like every party is my party, you know?"
"In some ways I feel like I am living through my clients," she said.
Uncertainty is all that's certain in a pandemic, but Sealey believes in her business's future.
"We're all in it," she said. "We're all figuring out what next week is going to look like day to day. Basically business. It's a lot of uncertainty. And we're just, I have to say, literally taking it one day at a time, it feels like. So we're just hope for the best and see what happens."
ABOUT REBOUND: From dealing with restrictions brought forth by COVID-19 to wrangling with issues of equality and representation, Black-owned businesses are doing everything they can to rise up and be heard.
REBOUND tells the stories of three Black-owned businesses and how they are persevering through difficult times, as well as how they’re using creativity and innovation to make their mark on a changing society.
We supplied each business with a camera so they could take us behind the scenes themselves. REBOUND shows us their stories.