Hard-hit small businesses grapple with ‘new normal’
The nation’s annual Small Business Appreciation Week is held around this time each year and, coincidentally, couldn’t have come at a better time this year.
While the true economic fallout from the Coronavirus Pandemic won’t fully be known for months or years, the effect it’s already had on small businesses is readily apparent — as of May 4, more than a million North Carolina workers have experienced pay cuts or layoffs due to social distancing and “stay home” orders.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, more than 99 percent of all businesses are small businesses, totaling around 30 million establishments across the 50 states. They’re your neighborhood bars, bookstores and restaurants. They’re gyms and salons, farms and auto shops, even churches and museums.
In the coming weeks, North Carolina will embark on a three-phase plan designed to gradually reopen many shuttered businesses as various safety metrics are reached. First it will be businesses that sell clothing, sporting goods and housewares. Later, it will be restaurants, bars, gyms, churches and entertainment venues. After that, capacity increases will be allowed until eventually, all returns to normal.
But that “normal” will likely never be the same as pre-COVID normal.
“I believe that we’ll be taking precautions that we haven’t taken before, similar to businesses that are currently open,” said CeCe Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.
Hipps has already been in consultation with a number of local small businesses and mentioned a number of changes — how debit cards are physically handled, how people await their turns in doctor’s offices, how employees protect themselves against acquiring or transmitting infectious diseases.
“I really believe people should keep precautions in their minds, if not for themselves then for others,” she said. “It’s about respect for others. This virus needs to scare us and we need to take it seriously, but we also need to reopen our businesses in a safe manner.”
Hipps said she’s working on a reopening guide in conjunction with both the North Carolina and South Carolina chambers of commerce, and hopes to have it available this week.
“The guide will be very industry-specific,” she said. “We’ve used the CDC and local emergency departments as sources. Opening a restaurant is not the same as opening a mechanic’s shop, for example.”
Still to be determined are guidelines pertaining to large gatherings — an important part of the fabric of Western North Carolina’s culture and small business economy.
“We are a festival-driven community. How this affects events like the Apple Festival and the Church Street Art & Craft Show, those are things we won’t know until later on,” she said.
Overall, small businesses in Haywood County are taking a cautious approach even as some of them clamor to reopen.
“From talking to businesses, I have noticed that they don’t want to open up too soon. They want to be careful. They don’t want to be responsible for spreading the virus in their places of business,” said Hipps. “They’re thinking through how they are going to reopen and how to do that safely.”
Macon County EDC to host webinar on reopening
The time to prepare for a post-pandemic business environment is now, according to the Macon County Economic Development Commission. To that end, the Macon County EDC will hold an online virtual town hall designed to help employers navigate complex issues like “stay home” orders, phased re-openings and best practices for when things return to normal. The webinar is free, but registration is required.
• Date: Wednesday, May 6
• Time: 2 to 3:30 p.m.
• Registration: www.bit.ly/scctownhall0506