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A person dressed as Uncle Sam during a protest against mandated COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine passports at City Hall in Manhattan on Aug. 25.

ANDREW KELLY/Reuters

Alex Compton is a self-confessed hustler, in the best sense of the word.

How else to describe the 35-year-old New York City restaurant owner who, while suffering from COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, managed his eatery in Astoria, Queens from the isolation of his car parked across the street, passing out periodically from the effects of the virus?

“We’re not closing unless I’m in the hospital on a respirator,” Mr. Compton told colleagues. When he recovered, he worked long hours in the restaurant and in a second location in Brooklyn, scrubbing his hands until they were raw.

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Even in the darkest hours of the pandemic, Mr. Compton went above and beyond serving customers, providing free meals to the police, firefighters, hospitals and neighbourhood food banks.

By most measures, Mr. Compton is the poster boy for the resilience, ingenuity and grit of a U.S. small business community buffeted by the virus and its variants, along with the seemingly endless stream of restrictions imposed by federal, state and city governments meant to stem the spread of the disease. Added to that burden are choppy consumer spending, labour shortages, supply-chain interruptions and a host of other challenges related to the public-health crisis.

During the pandemic, small businesses have experienced their own version of the ancient Chinese punishment of lingchi – death by a thousand cuts – imposed on the most violent criminals. In this case, however, the punishment has no crime.

The latest cut is the vaccination mandate issued last week by the Biden administration, which shifts the onus – and the cost – for mandatory employee vaccination and testing onto businesses with 100 workers or more. Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $14,000 a case. The order is expected to affect about 80 million private-sector workers, as well as the 4 million employees of the U.S. government.

Many big companies are ahead of the new mandate, with vaccine programs already in place or planned. McDonald’s Corp., Walt Disney Co. and United Airlines Holdings Inc. are among those who implemented plans earlier this year. Other major companies followed suit over the summer.

For small- and medium-sized businesses that do not have the administrative or financial horsepower to manage compliance effectively, the new rules and the potential knock-on effects are more high hurdles to clear.

It’s unclear how much more businesses can take, said one CEO, whose 1,500-employee nationwide specialty contracting company is wrestling with compliance and the prospect of losing skilled people who refuse vaccinations and may quit or be fired, noting it’s growing ever harder for companies to make money and stay in business.

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Added Mr. Compton, whose restaurants are subject to a labyrinth of restrictions imposed by the city and state: “It’s a Wild West of rules. Everybody is shooting from the hip.”

Like many small-business owners and managers, Mr. Compton, who is vaccinated, supports vaccinations and guidelines. Like his Canadian counterparts – who now must contend with a patchwork of provincial vaccine-passport plans, on top of everything else – he says the shifting sands of regulation are so confusing they lead to mistakes, which in turn lead to reprimands and fines. He favours simpler, streamlined rules, “not a new set every week.”

Robert Dilenschneider, a veteran New York-based communications strategist, agrees. He has been helping corporate clients manage the pandemic crisis, creating messaging on the ever-changing compliance requirements for use with employees, customers, investors, regulators and others.

“People are paralyzed,” Mr. Dilenschneider said. “People want to do the right thing. They don’t want to break the law. But it’s getting harder to know what to do.”

Predictably, the new vaccination mandate, like most every pandemic-related rule, has become politicized. While some business owners and associations welcome it as a way to further curb the spread of the virus, others say the federal government has overstepped its authority once again. They also fear the mandate may be inflationary, in that the costs small businesses incur to administer and enforce it will be passed on to consumers.

There is also a moral issue, said the physician chief executive officer of a mid-Atlantic chain of medical clinics with about 200 employees and contractors. He said the policies make it the companies’ responsibility to police how employees managed their bodies, asking what happened to “My body, my choice” – a reference to the abortion-debate slogan.

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Further, some say, the 100-employee threshold is meaningless. Many small businesses with only a handful of workers and contractors, like Mr. Compton’s restaurants, are being required by customers and suppliers to ensure their work force is vaccinated. In effect, vaccination is becoming a condition of engagement and employment even for the smallest firms.

Despite Mr. Compton’s determination, he said the lack of consistency in regulating small businesses through the pandemic is discouraging.

“We’re supposed to be in this together, but we’re not,” he said. “There’s no doubt small businesses have taken the brunt. There’s not much optimism. I’m numb to it. I’m just going to keep doing my best to stay open, stay busy and serve my customers.”

Mr. Compton offered this advice to fellow small-business owners: “I don’t see it getting any better, so you better adapt or close your doors now. No one is going to make it easier for you.”

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail

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