Small business owners across the United States, finding themselves wedged between a rock and a hard place, are struggling not to become the latest casualty in COVID-19’s march from sea to shining sea.
Some are shuttering their businesses, some are scrambling to repurpose them to try and tough it out, while other small business owners and employees are finding themselves having to choose between keeping their businesses healthy or themselves.
While most people are safely sheltering in place during the pandemic, many workers, like at cleaning services, must still work outside the home to earn their daily bread.
“For us, the fear of having no money coming in can outweigh the fear of getting COVID-19,” said Gladys Hamil, manager of MurrMaids Residential Cleaning Service, a small, Hispanic-owned and staffed housecleaning service operating in Orange County, California.
Working in a pandemic that is already disproportionately infecting Hispanics according to Los Angeles County statistics can be a challenge. Cleaners have to keep working when their income takes a nosedive and government programs are slow to pick up the slack to help put food on the table for their families.
“Those of us who can stay home, do,” Hamil told Xinhua. “But that’s not possible for everyone.”
MurrMaids staff and their clients prioritize safety, despite the difficulties and added expense of COVID-19 protocols.
“We and our clients are super safety conscious now, so our staff wears masks and gloves and maintains correct social distancing. Some clients are still nervous — especially those with small kids and elderly parents in the house,” Hamil said. “You need to be compassionate about people’s fears.”
MurrMaids has already had cancellations that have brutalized its business and raised the worry of how to make ends meet for its hardworking staff.
“We used to clean four or more per day five days a week. Now we are down to less than half of that,” Hamil said. “That’s a real worry for everyone.”
Restaurants, from “white tablecloth” gourmet venues to mom-and-pop eateries, have been particularly hard hit. Rise N Shine Cafe in Shadow Hills, Los Angeles, a small business owned by the Ratz family and run by a mother-daughter team, Sharon and Melinda Ratz, is trying to come up with innovative ways to survive the lockdown and stay in business.
“Our business dropped 50 percent and we went from dine-in to take-out pretty much overnight,” daughter Melinda told Xinhua. “We are using the down time to renovate, prep for reopening, repainting and hanging partitions inside.”
They have been in business for 18 years and served a lot of first responders from local police and fire departments who can’t get enough of their hearty plates of American and TexMex fare.
“They are not just customers,” Melinda said. “We have a lot of friends in our community and hate to see everyone struggling. We are trying to bring a little light into their lives, especially the first responders who are used to eating here all the time.”
They are considering doing “car-hop” service so people can eat off 1950’s style window trays in their cars in the parking lot or putting up big tents outside so people can sit six feet (1.8 meters) apart while they chow down.
Another industry feeling the bite is pet services. Right Fluff operates outside of Washington, D.C. It is owned and run by the founder, Marcela Santos, who went from owning a thriving dog-walking, cat-sitting, and pet-care business to having to make a COVID-19-inspired hard pivot into the grocery delivery service.
“Our pet care business went hand-in-hand with the travel industry, so we were hit really hard by the pandemic,” Santos told Xinhua. “There’s not much need for pet-sitting when no one is traveling and everyone is working from home.”
A level-headed and resourceful young woman, Santos took just a weekend to grieve the loss of her pet business, and then got down to figuring out how to move forward and survive.
Now she is making ends meet with grocery delivery, prescription pickup and pet supply delivery services, with the occasional drop off of sick pets to the veterinarian. Her company now also features staff members on its website with other skills to offer, such as one employee who offers tutoring in French and another who is also a talented graphic designer.
Like many of the really small businesses, Right Fluff has had little success getting government grants or loans. “We’ve applied for every kind of assistance there is, but other than a little Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money, none of the other programs even answered us,” Santos said.
“My number one goal is to make sure everyone has a job to come back to,” Santos said.
“It is frustrating to see the delay on critical and necessary changes to the flawed Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that will make the program more functional for small business owners who have received PPP loans,” said Amanda Ballantyne, executive director of the Main Street Alliance, a business advocacy group that represents over 30,000 small businesses, in a recent press release.
Before the pandemic, small businesses typically accounted for 44 percent of U.S. economic activity and created two-thirds of net new jobs, according to the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration, noting that small businesses are the lifeblood of the U.S. economy.
But now, mid-stream in the COVID-19 outbreak, multiple reports and polls are painting a far grimmer reality.
A total of 54 percent of all small businesses report that they have closed or expect to close temporarily in the next 14 days, according to a poll released in April from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Fortune 500 insurer, MetLife.
he CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey conducted from April 21 to 27 among 2,200 small business owners across the country reported that 72 percent of all small business owners say their businesses will be permanently affected by the outbreak, due to decreasing consumer demand for their products and services.
With U.S. consumers accounting for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, if they won’t — or can’t — keep spending, it will trigger a domino effect leading to more closures.
There are government programs trying to help, but with no central leadership coordinating the effort in Washington, D.C. and many confusing qualifications, exclusions and contradictory rules for each program, only 45 percent of U.S. small businesses have even tried to apply for them, revealed the CNBC’s recent survey.
Ballantyne warned that the loss of small businesses will have a multiplier effect on employment and the economy, predicting additional waves of bankruptcies coming down the pike, a matching rise in unemployment, and supply chain breakdowns.