Many Washington business and commercial establishments struggled to open their doors to the public and their own workers yesterday.

Generally, only the large department stores, food chains and utility companies were modestly successful.

Some companies failed to open while others gave up after a few hours, partly because of fears about potential robberies. Some companies did not try at all but virtually all vowed to try again today -- and said they expect to succeed.

Cancelled or delayed business transactions, lost retail sales and income for part-time workers was estimated to approach $100 million.

For the retail trade alone -- one of Washington's major private businesses -- the "rough guesstimate" by Leonard Kolodny, of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, was that at least $50 million had been lost -- some of it forever. Monday was supposed to be the biggest sales day of the year, with a tradition that started many years ago in local stores and spread to other cities -- George Washington birthday promotions.

Kolodny said his estimate included loss of sales, salaries, advertising and spin-off enterprises such as companies that sell to retailers. The Board of Trade figure represents only 65 percent of the area's retail business, and excludes restaurants and car dealers -- indicating that the potential loss would be greater.

Said Woodward & Lothrop President Waldo Burnside: "If the weatherman had been against George Washington's birthday, it couldn't have killed us worse." He said the department store firm's lost sales would be "a very substantial amount." Although most large stores were open yesterday, the volume of sales did not begin to make up for what had been expected on Monday. Some stores did report good business, and Crumpets, a Wisconsin Avenue restaurant, reported that it closed Monday at 8 p.m. only because it had run out of doughnuts and milk.

A big seller at Crumpets, "which was really ironic," according to manager Sossie Gillespie, was -- ice cream.

Around town yesterday, the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade was forced to postpone a sort-of "coming-out" party -- the first open meeting of its board of directors and at a site away from the board. This major effort at opening up to the public the board's activities, scheduled for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, was postponed indefinitely.

But the Macke Co., of Cheverly, a food services and vending corporation traded on the New York Stock Exchange, went ahead with its long-planned annual meeting of stockholders at a downtown hotel. Ten people showed up.

The first problem businesses faced yesterday was an absence of workers. With the Metro subway system snowed under and buses running infrequently, Riggs National Bank Chairman Vincent C. Burke Jr. called regulatory officials at 7:45 a.m. and said he would be forced to close his bank -- the largest in the area -- because of an "emergency."

Bank closings are a rare event, the last having occurred after assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. But Burke said, from his home on a Maryland street that had not been plowed, that he had no choice given the absence of transportation.

Even so, Riggs employes turned up at 14 offices where customers waiting outside were served before all doors were shut by 9:45 a.m. In Maryland, Gov. Harry Hughes ordered area banks to close and most financial institutions that did open early were shut by noon -- including American Security Bank and Perpetual Federal S&L.

Thomas Owen, president of Perpetual, said the biggest number of employes at any branch was four and that some had only one, so all remained closed. The downtown headquarters was opened but later shut, partly because of fears that police were so fully occupied elsewhere that the S&L could be an easy target for would-be robbers.

Although federal government workers had another day off yesterday, few stores and huge shopping malls attracted many customers. The prospect last night was that Washington birthday sales promotions would continue at least through the first President's real birthday, on Thursday, and through next weekend, in an effort to recover some lost retail volume.

An exception to the slow business was Mazza Gallerie, in Northwest Washington, where the big Raleigh's and Neiman-Marcus stores were crowded with what sales persons said was a "surprising" number of customers -- apparently nearby residents whose streets were impassable because of snow.

Several merchants said there was some concern about looting. The Peoples Drug Store at 1425 G St. NW, with an entrance on New York Avenue, too, was letting in new customers only when another customer left. Spokesmen said there had been some problems with looting and that they were regulating the number of customers in the store at any one time.

Ann Conlon, of Bloomingdale's at Tyson's Corner, said about 11 a.m., "people who live off Route 7 are starting to drift in." Conlon, a public relations officer, said she spent the morning selling lingerie because many employes did not show up.

All Giant Food stores were open yesterday, said company spokesman Barry Scher. Some stores were so crowded -- but short staffed -- that only about 20 customers could be allowed in at a time, Scher said.

Major stores -- Bloomingdale's, Garfinckel's, Hecht's, Lord & Taylor, Montgomery Ward, Raleigh's, Sears and Woodies -- expect to operate at normal hours the rest of the week.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that despite a smaller staff, all its usual press runs were made Monday night and all papers were to be delivered by yesterday afternoon. The paper does expect losses in advertising today and Thursday but expects to pick up additional advertising on Friday in anticipation of weekend sales, a company spokesman said.

A spokesman for The Washington Star said it experienced no change in advertising and it is working with a normal schedule.