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Laundromat Owners Share Their Thoughts on Providing Essential Services During These Historic and Unsettling Times

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, our world changed – seemingly overnight. At least for now.

Sheltering in place, social distancing and personal protective equipment have become part of our everyday lexicon. The financial markets alternate from day to day, between precipitous free falls and corrective rallies. Unemployment figures harken back to the days of the Great Recession, as entire industries shut down to slow the spread of the virus. And, of course, the terrible human toll cannot be ignored.

A government-backed small-business stimulus package ran dry less than two weeks after launching. And, as of this writing, Congress was working on an additional package of small-business funding, while President Trump has announced plans for possibly reopening portions of the U.S. economy.

Through it all, essential services have remained open and on the front lines, serving Americans when they need it most. It’s not surprising that the vast majority of states have deemed laundromats to be “essential.” After all, doing laundry, by definition, is about cleaning and sanitization. It’s always been a critical need – and never more so.

This month, we talked to a number of store owners, who shared their thoughts on providing these essential services during such historic, unsettling times:

Leah Schulte
Midtown Washboard
St. Charles, Mo.

It’s a very stressful time, between business and personal stress. Personally, my outlets have been running, creative writing, observing spring here in Missouri, and just realizing these are historic and unprecedented times. We are all figuring it out together and that helps put everything into perspective.

Many customers have thanked us for being open and for being so clean. We are located near some HUD projects, and those residents rely on us.

To be proactive, we’ve removed the seating to encourage shorter customer stays. We’ve placed spray bottles of Lysol and paper towels throughout the laundromat. We’ve ramped up our cleaning to include door knobs, handles, points of contact on machines, and so on. We enforce social distancing, as well as recommending that customers stay in their vehicles between loads and fold at home. We also have placed signage everywhere on how to launder to fight COVID-19.

For our wash-dry-fold business, we no longer spot-treat during this crisis. Also, our staff members use gloves and masks, are required to wash their hands frequently, and have been instructed to step back from and minimize conversations with customers who don’t respect personal space.

We have shortened our business hours twice already – three hours the first time and then another two hours. We toyed with idea of curbside drop-off, but we’re uncertain if it’s worth it.

Our revenue is down – with our self-service and wash-dry-fold business down about 25 percent, and commercial accounts down 75 percent.

We’ve applied for an SBA loan and PPP support from the government. In addition, we’ve talked with our lenders, our landlord and our utility providers about making reduced payments temporarily as we weather this storm.

We’ve only been in business for a year and a half, so we don’t have the customer base or the reserves of more mature laundromats. We’ll focus on the federal relief package, cutting expenses, trimming business hours to meet the need – and then put on a seatbelt for the rest of this rollercoaster ride.

Dave Menz
Queen City Laundry
Amelia, Ohio

Personally, things are very tough. We want to be there for our community, but also protect our employees. It’s really a lose-lose proposition. I’m taking things day by day and trying to be a good leader during these times. Everyone is scared. Laundry and laundry services are essential to public health, but many don’t agree, so they question why we’re open. However, our team is honored to serve our community during this tragic time.

We’ve closed our drop-off laundry services but have maintained most of our attended hours in order to provide a high level of cleanliness and sanitization. Additionally, we’re asking customers to wait in their vehicles while machines are running and limiting the number of customers within our stores based on square footage. Also, providing additional gloves, masks and hand sanitizer has helped.

Our commercial accounts have dropped virtually 100 percent, due to businesses not being open. Our residential pickup-and-delivery is better, but still down significantly. Our self-service business is down anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent across all four of our stores – and our drop-off service are nonexistent, due to us temporarily stopping this service. Typically, during tough times, it’s helpful to have a larger business with multiple locations, but right now all of our businesses are hurting, so our pain is multiplied.

Our pickup-and-delivery business has helped, but that is down as well, so we’re much less efficient in our routes. Overall, due to this “stay-at-home economy,” being able to offer no-contact, residential pickup and delivery during this time has helped us stay afloat.

Our delivery business is offering $50 off the first pickup for all health care providers. Beyond that, we’re just trying to meet our communities’ needs and hunker down. It’s getting pretty tough out there, but there’s only so much we can do.

James Whitmore
Sunshine Express Laundry Center
Gloucester, Mass.

I’m definitely missing direct personal contacts. Way too many conference calls and video chats right now. At the same time, it has been a great opportunity to assess what is truly important. I’ve also taken this time to catch up on long-neglected tasks in the office, the shop and the backyard, as weather permits.

As laundry owners, this new reality cements our position in the community and calls for us to be at our best. Caring for our communities’ essential need for clean clothes and bedding – while also keeping ourselves, our families and our employees safe and healthy – is daunting.

At my business, we have temporarily shut down and stowed away our Family Read, Play and Learn Center – removing the books, chairs and carpet. We’ve shut down air handlers/HVAC systems, closed off folding tables and seating, posted extensive signage encouraging best practices, guided staff to adhere to these best practices, increased the flow of ozone to our washers, and educated our customers about the value of ozone in the rinse water. We’ve also increased the availability of card-versus-coin options to start washers and dryers.

For our employees, we provide instruction, gloves, masks and chemicals to support their work. Additionally, we have advised them to maintain a proper distance at all times, even if it means moving to a different task to avoid being too close.

Thus far, business has been fairly steady, but I’m starting to see an incremental slowing as money gets tight for those not working.

The best advice I can offer is to follow the CDC guidelines, as well as the latest news and education on this situation from the Coin Laundry Association. Read and participate in the CLA’s online forum. Support your peers. And set an example with you own self-care, business practices and sharing of what you learn.

Larry Adamski
Muskegon Laundromat
Muskegon, Mich.

I’ve been in business for more than 50 years, and I thought I’d experienced just about every stressful issue and depressive event possible, but this pandemic is a first and it came upon us suddenly and without much warning.

On a personal level, COVID-19 has substantially changed my daily routine. No more dining in restaurants or using spa services. I’m spending more hours at home watching the stock market bounce up and down like a rubber ball. I only spend about five hours per week at the laundromat these days.

As a businessperson, I spend a lot of time following the COVID-19 news and the ever-changing guidelines, directives and rules, which I incorporate into my laundromat. I feel a heavy burden as I try to do the right thing for my employees and my customers. To date, I’ve posted written guidelines for my employees to facilitate increased sanitation of our facility. I’ve also posted written guidelines for my customers and employees to promote regular hand-washing and social distancing. In addition, I’ve repositioned the folding tables so that customers are no closer than six feet from each other when folding. My wide aisles and single-pocket dryers also effectively accommodate social distancing.

In March, my self-service sales were down 1 percent, compared to March 2019, thus breaking the uptrend we were on in January and February.

During times like these, I think it makes sense to circle the wagons and protect your assets to the extent practical. This is not the time for kneejerk reactions, such as deep discounts or new services that could sap valuable resources.

My best advice is to be patient with people who are more stressed now. Consider surprising your loved one with a dozen roses. It will be money well-spent. Also, find ways to keep your sanity – taking walks, working out in the yard, kayaking, bird-watching, etc. Stay home as much as practical and follow all of the CDC guidelines when out and about. Keeping yourself sane and healthy will allow you to operate your laundromat to the best of your ability.

John Henderson
Liberty Laundry
Broken Arrow, Okla.

Our priority as a company has changed in recent days. We have gone from a business that makes laundry as easy as possible for our customers, to a company that now strives to be as safe as possible for our customers and our employees. We are not in the people-pleasing business at the moment. We are in the life-saving business.

We have continued to remain fully staffed during this time and are still providing drop-off laundry services, albeit with some modifications to our procedures. We are asking customers to help by sorting, spot-treating and checking pockets beforehand – and bringing the differently sorted loads to us in individual bags, as we are transferring the customers’ dirty laundry directly into our washers with minimal contact. We then complete the order as usual. We are placing copies of the new guidelines into every drop-off customer’s finished order, along with a thank-you card.

Early on, we adopted the CDC safety guidelines for safe distancing, hand-washing, not touching your face, and so on. I also instructed our team to begin a vigorous regimen of disinfecting surfaces where our self-service customers have been.

A few days later, we began implementing the “Wash-Dry-Go” concept for self-service laundry. I had large posters printed at my local UPS store and placed them in the windows at all three of our locations, as well as printing them flyer-size with stacks at each location in English and Spanish, plus Burmese at one location.

I instructed my team to greet each customer coming in to make sure they understood our guidelines. Most of our customers were happy that we were being proactive in trying to keep them safe, but others were non-compliant and remained in the store despite our “suggestion” that they remain outside and take their clothing home to fold. So, within three or four days of instituting “Wash-Dry-Go,” we also removed the folding tables at all three stores, plus most of the seating. This cut way down on non-compliance, but we still get pushback from some unbelievers.

Financially, our numbers for the first two weeks of March were 3 percent above last year’s record-setting numbers. Then the pandemic was declared, and the last two weeks of March were 15 percent below the same time last year.

This made sense. Many of our customers have access to private washers and dryers and are choosing that route, rather than exposing themselves to risk in a public facility. However, we have a core group of loyal customers who absolutely depend on us to take care of their laundry needs, both self-service and wash-dry-fold. We are doing everything we can to continue to serve them.

Robert Maes
Express Laundry Center
Houston, Texas

We have found the coronavirus pandemic to have many similarities to a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Harvey which hit Houston – except in this instance the disaster is truly global in scope and will most likely take longer to resolve.

Once the CLA clarified with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that laundromats are an “essential service,” we made the strategic decision to keep our laundries open as a public service. By comparison, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the primary concern was capacity – how could we make our laundry available to the most customers in the least amount of time. In this instance, when the pandemic hit, the primary concern was continuity – how could we stay open to make our laundry available in the safest manner for both our customers and our employees.

In both instances, we strategically viewed our business as more of a public service, which ultimately guided our efforts. A few weeks after Hurricane Harvey, we culminated our efforts with a LaundryCares Free Laundry Day, and I am certain we will do something similar after the coronavirus has peaked and the epidemic curve has “flattened.”

Because the outbreak will last longer than most natural disasters and tends to be a moving target, we have found flexibility to be the key to success. What may have worked as recently as a few days ago may not work going forward. For example, in Texas our governor was late in declaring a total state lockdown, so municipalities and counties made the first declarations. Given that our laundries are in multiple municipalities, we had to adjust according to the declarations for each laundry location and, in one instance, the county declared there would be no lockdown and then reversed the decision the following day with a total shutdown. In that case, some of our employees were literally pulled over by law enforcement on their way to work the day after the decision was reversed, because even the police were caught off guard.

Similarly, many of the CDC guidelines have changed in a short amount of time. Groups or gatherings were first limited to 100, then 50 and finally to 10. Face masks were first discouraged but are now highly recommended. The coronavirus was first thought to afflict mostly people over 50 years of age, but we have since learned half of all cases are under 50. At first, the virus was said to only be spread through “droplets,” but was later declared to also be aerosolized by simply talking. And more revelations are sure to come.

Staffing our stores also has required a lot of flexibility. After many of our commercial accounts shutdown because of this crisis, we had to retrain and repurpose our commercial work staff to attend to our self-service customers. We also had to ask our employees to temporarily be more willing to work at other laundry locations, depending on staffing needs.

What’s more, we gave every employee the opportunity to not work at our laundries if they were not 100 percent comfortable doing so. As a result, we are now paying all employees a $2 per hour bonus for their efforts during the pandemic. And, in some instances, we have paid employees overtime, again to achieve our goal of staying open as a public service.

Given that our overall laundry business is down solely because of the COVID-19 crisis, we hope to break even, providing this public service. We will rally for what we believe is the public good, while we wait for the global pandemic to pass and for our economy to recover.

Art Jaeger
Santa Clarita Laundry
Beverly Hills, Calif.

Being in a sensitive age group, my wife and I have taken the virus seriously from the start and have limited our movements out of the house. I have spent my time doing paperwork at home and directing activities. Thankfully, our children are now involved in the business, and they have taken over store operations.

We were able to have our early order fulfilled for soap, paper towels, sanitizer, Clorox wipes, disinfectant spray bottles, gloves and masks. As such, we have set personal protection guidelines for our employees, and they have been sanitizing the stores with new enhanced procedures and quickly adopted social distancing, limiting customers in the stores and asking people to fold at home.

I am proud our industry has been recognized as providing an “essential service” for our community. We don’t look at it simply as “businesspeople,” instead we understand that what we do is important to others and it is our intention to provide a safe environment for our employees and our customers. Each day brings new guidelines, and we must remain flexible and fluid in how we handle each new issue that develops. As long as it remains safe for our employees and customers, it is our plan to stay open.

Our employees have been sanitizing the stores on a regular basis since the beginning. We have placed signs in all stores limiting the total number of customers – allowing just one person per family into the store and requiring social distancing.

We ask customers to waiting outside after placing their clothes in the washers and then dryers, as well as requesting them to fold at home. In a couple of instances, we’ve encountered customers unwilling to understand the existing circumstances and have called for police intervention.

We accept the tremendous responsibility of having employees. We understand continuing to receive a paycheck is important to their families’ well-being. All employees have been instructed that they must remain home if they are unwell. So far, we have had two employees who needed to self-quarantine. One returned to work recently, and I expect the other one back soon. Thankfully, neither had the virus.

From the beginning, all employees had gloves, sanitizer, Clorox wipes and disinfectant. And now we also require all employees to wear masks.

We have spent significant time making sure our employees follow the new procedures for their own and our customers’ safety. We’ve had to find new sources for supplies, as we can no longer get into the stores we normally utilized or they’re limiting the amount we can purchase. We’ve also spent time making sure we can restock the supplies we require to maintain a safe environment for everyone.

In addition, two of our stores are now closing earlier, as business typically stops by 7:00 p.m.

During the final week of March, the stay-at-home orders began to take greater effect, as adults and children were no longer going to work or school, respectively. Accordingly, they had less clothes to wash and found less need to face exposure at the laundromat. This has resulted in approximately a 20 percent reduction in our self-service revenue. All of our stores experienced higher wash-dry-fold revenue in March and, as expected, our home delivery service added its most new customers and enjoyed its largest monthly revenue in March.

We have notified customers of the availability of our home delivery service. And we’ve also made people aware that our service is now contactless, as they can leave their clothes and we will return it with no personal contact.

Happily for us, we’ve converted our stores to ozone washing and have been able to demonstrate the benefits of ozone to our in-store and home-delivery customers with research that ozone washing has been proven to kill viruses similar to COVID-19. In fact, we even received a request from the Simi Valley Police Department, which wanted us to use our ozone system to sanitize their officers’ uniforms.

Sally Anderson
Super Clean Laundromat
Southbridge, Mass.

We are an essential business. People must stay clean to remain healthy, and many don’t have other options than the laundromat to clean their clothes. I feel it’s our obligation to stay open, as well as to keep our attendants employed as much as is feasible.

We’ve gone from a partially attended laundromat to an unattended one. We’ve also stopped accepting wash-dry-fold and drop-off drycleaning orders. In addition, we’ve removed all of our seating, along with all books and magazines. And we’ve turned off the televisions.

We’ve removed many of the folding tables and place signs on the remaining tables encouraging customers to fold at home. Moreover, we clean and sanitize the store twice a day.

Social distancing is the new policy. So, we’re asking all customers to come in small groups and not to linger in the store.

With no wash-dry-fold or drycleaning business, we’re hurting. Our self-service business is down, but it’s hard to get a complete picture of the extent of it at this point. Also, our vending machine revenue is down sharply, due to no snack and beverage sales.

The best advice I can give is to stay open and promote social distancing.

Amy Doody
Amy’s Laundry
Woodbine, Md.

We are in the service industry, so I am so thankful that we are able to serve our community. I am so glad that I still have a job. Personally, I’m reading state and federal law and SBA documents so that I’m not relying on other people’s interpretations. We have to make sure that we’re adhering to the changing laws. I’m also relying on the CDC and the WHO for information so that I’m basing personal and business decisions on facts.

To assure our customers’ health and safety during this time, we are sanitizing every control board, handle and cart after each use. Soap dispenser lids are left open once a machine is sanitized so that we know which machine needs our attention.

Also, additional outdoor seating has been provided. Signs are posted asking customers to wait in their cars or on outdoor benches until their laundry is complete. We have timers for our customers to take with them, so they have no doubt when they should come back in.

We’ve always provided cleaning wipes, hand-washing stations and Purell – and, of course, we continue to do so now.

For employee safety, we have always used hospital-grade disinfectant, gloves and dust masks for when we sort laundry and clean. That has not changed. In addition, hand sanitizer has been added to the employee area. If employees are uncomfortable working, I will take their shifts and hold their positions open for them.

Our wash-dry-fold business has been hit very hard and is currently down 60 percent, while our walk-in business is down 27 percent.

If wash-dry-fold customers are concerned, they can call when they are in the parking lot, and we will bring in their laundry, weigh it and return to them with a receipt. In addition, we’ve quietly begun to provide free laundry on a case-by-case basis to those who have found themselves suddenly unemployed and are still waiting for their unemployment checks to arrive.

During this time, we’ve also increased our advertising budget, with our new ads centering on the fact that we are open, clean and safe.

We all need to remember that we’re in this industry to serve. Our patience and kindness toward others has never been more important. I have expressed to the women who work with me that they need to check their opinions and fears at the door, and make kind reassurance an essential part of their current job description.

Taki Pantazopoulos
JPA Management, LLC
Braintree, Mass.

I’m also in real estate and the hospitality industry, so I have my hands full of issues, as you can imagine. I own a laundromat that’s located in one of our retail centers in Hyannis, Mass. I took it over when the previous operator retired, and it’s been a gem.

Our laundromat is unattended and strictly self-service. Since the outbreak, we’ve posted large signs in multiple languages outlining social distancing guidelines and other ways to stay safe. We’ve also stepped up the frequency of our cleaning services.

Thus far, business has been about the same for this time of year. However, I anticipate a drop off. If people aren’t working, they’re not going to need to clean their clothes as often.

Our hours of operation are from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. We considered extending the hours to provide early birds or evening owls more options at quieter times, but it just didn’t feel safe to do.

More than ever, laundry owners need to keep their stores clean and brightly lit. Wash your windows and surfaces frequently. Have plenty of signage in multiple languages, explaining to your customers the best ways to stay safe while in your store.

Ed Ellis
1 Clean Laundry
St. Cloud, Fla.

There have been a few sleepless nights, worrying about my family, my staff, my business and the country as a whole. I believe laundry is an essential service. Many of our customers don’t own washers and dryers and rely on our service for clean clothes. Those with home units also need our service to wash those bulkier bedding items – especially now if a family member is ill.

To keep everyone safe, we’ve suspended our wash-dry-fold service, reduced our hours and limited the number of customers in the store to 10. We’re also asking customers to wait in their vehicles as their clothes wash and dry, as well as requesting that they fold at home.

We’ve removed 90 percent of the seating, taken 20 percent of the laundry carts off the floor and made half of our folding tables inoperable. Our attendants sanitize everything – machines, carts, tables and door handles – after each use.

Our attendants are supplied with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and are instructed to keep a safe distance from everyone. We’ve placed a folding table in front of our counter with the shelf facing outward so that customers cannot use it, and it furthers the separation between guests and attendants.

The situation is very fluid. Government rules and stay-at-home orders have impacted every fabric of our society. We’re currently applying for loans to keep from having to furlough our staff.

Business is horrible right now. Wash-dry-fold orders paid for my attendants’ salaries, and that business is down 100 percent, by our own choice. Our self-service business has dropped 65 percent to 75 percent. Unfortunately, we’re in a service area where many of the services have furloughed their staffs. With no income, they don’t have money for laundry at this time.

My advice to other owners is to pray – and to look for ways to cut costs. Always keep your store clean and sanitized. Maintain a positive attitude, and remember that people are stressed now, and they tend to behave rudely and defensively when they are afraid. I stress to my staff – if someone is rude or verbally short with them – to just let it go. After all, we might be the only smiling face they see today.

George Clark
EZ Wash ’N Dry
Arlington, Texas

At my business, we’re just taking it one day at a time. Self-service sales are off more than 20 percent, and our wash-dry-fold business is down by more than 50 percent.

Overall, we’re very blessed in the laundromat business that we are an essential service. People may not be doing their laundry as much as they used to, but they still need to do it.

I’m trying to keep all of my staff working and remain open during our normal hours – which I have been able to do so far. I’ve applied for a PPP loan, but I have no idea as to when I will receive those funds. I don’t have a high degree of confidence that this loan will come through; I guess I’ll believe it when I get the money.

Beyond issuing our staff protective masks and gloves and promoting social distancing, we’ve also supplied paper towels, gloves and spray bottles with cleaners for our customers who wish to further wipe down the machines, in addition to our normal cleaning schedule. However, it’s become difficult to replace those cleaning supplies.

In addition, we’ve posted the signage mandated by our city, and our attendants are encouraging customers to start their laundry and then wait in their cars.

My goal has been to keep the same staff and hours of operation, as we provide an important service to our community.

Regarding fellow laundry owners, keep your stores clean and require your employees to wear personal protective equipment, as it helps put your customers more at ease. Also, perhaps have your attendants talk with your customers about the steps we all can take to help prevent the spread of this virus. Personally, I haven’t put up more signs than what has been mandated by the city. I believe it’s more effective for the store’s staff to greet customers and explain what we’re doing.

Kathleen Demetsky
Coronado Laundromat
Naples, Fla.

We have two entrance doors to our laundromat. However, since the outbreak, we’ve locked one door so that customers have to come through just one main entrance. In addition, we’re allowing only 10 customers in the store at one time and strongly encouraging six-foot social distancing through our in-store signage. We’re also prohibiting the use of our folding tables during this crisis in order to move customer traffic through the store more quickly and safely.

During this time, I’ve sewn face masks for our employees, as well as for our customers to use once inside the laundromat.

Additionally, I’ve reached out to our local water authority, asking that laundromats in the area receive a discount on the price of water. As “essential” businesses in our communities, we must provide a sanitary service for our customers. We can’t recycle water like car washes can. I think all laundromat owners should plead this case to the water authorities in their areas. It’s about time we take a stand.

John Gimbrone
Laundry Time
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Personally, I’ve been spending more time with my family. The whole house has been purged, and the honey-do list will be completed soon. That part of my life is awesome.

As for running an “essential service” during these times, it scares me and makes me happy. I’m happy to continue operations so that my employees have work, but I worry about their health and the impact on the business overall.

Business is down right now. Our commercial accounts are down 90 percent. Self-service laundry is down 40 percent. And wash-dry-fold, vending and games are down about 98 percent.

We’re trying to adapt by shortening our business hours and ramping up our pickup and delivery service. As a promotion, we’re offering a free roll of toilet paper to each family using this service.

Owners need to look for the positives. If you’ve run your business correctly, this likely is just a bump in the road. If you haven’t, take the time now to plan for the future.

Michael Finkelstein
Associated Services Corp.
Danville, Va.

Let me just say thank goodness for the Coin Laundry Association. At the onset of this crisis, there were a lot of mixed messages. We were getting messages from the federal government, the president and the individual states. And, at times, these messages weren’t crystal clear.

For example, the government came out with its list of essential services. However, in some states, laundromats were considered “essential” and in others they weren’t. I operate in Virginia and North Carolina – and initially laundry was viewed as “essential” in Virginia, but not in North Carolina.

Fortunately, I forwarded this information to CLA President Brian Wallace, who – through past lobbying efforts and other legislative involvement – was able to get this situation quickly clarified, keeping laundromats open for business in both of those states.

Right now, our business is down, due to the shelter-in-place restrictions. However, we’re still open and operating. In fact, we had a woman come into one of our stores the other day who had three weeks’ worth of laundry. She said she just couldn’t wait any longer.

So, maybe customers are going to spread out their trips to the laundromat, but perhaps there also will be pent-up demand that will hit once this whole situation begins to loosen.

When the crisis first hit, I spoke with my financial advisor, as well as my bank, and was able to secure a line of credit, if needed. So, I had a Plan B. Therefore, I chose not to apply for SBA funding, because I felt there are other small business, such as restaurants, that can’t be open.

I’m still paying my bills and making payroll. My thought was to leave that government money for those businesspeople who can’t be open right now and are laying people off.

At the moment, I’m just letting my communities know that I’m open for business and doing all of the right things to keep everyone safe. At the same time, I’m preparing for better days ahead.

Laundry owners should be prudent and cautious. Service your community and your neighborhood. Do the things you do every day. Make sure you’re keeping your stores as clean as possible, and customers will remember that you were there for them during these hard times.

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