Isolation strains small businesses

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Isolation strains small businessesAs critical industries struggle to continue services during Gov. Newsom’s executive order for Californians to stay at home, those deemed “non-essential” battle for their very survival.

Last week’s “shelter in place” directive (covid19.ca.gov) ordered Californians to stay in their homes, making allowances to leave only to perform vital tasks (banking, food purchasing, prescription filling, etc.)

The link from the governor’s office also makes provisions for workforce in communications, public safety, health care, energy, defense, food service, transportation, banking and a few other industries to continue working, but even within those sectors employees have been directed to work from home wherever possible.

With schools and many daycare centers closed, families now adapt to the challenges of caring for and educating children at home while juggling remotely the performance expectations associated with their employment.

But an estimated 20 million Americans — and potentially thousands of residents in the Indian Wells Valley — have been laid off or seen their hours reduced as stores, bars and other services grind to a halt.

The government has released packages that promise aid, but many business owners are expressing concern about whether that assistance will reach them in time to save their businesses and employees.

Others are asking whether proposals will even help at all. The Small Business Administration is offering low-interest loans, but entrepreneurs would have to incur debt at a time when they are unable to produce revenue — creating a financial burden they cannot be sure to carry forward.

There are some provisions for wage-earners, as employers of small businesses are now compelled to provide mandatory paid leave for everyone — again, creating a cost for employers that compounds obligations while revenues have dried up.

Even essential services workers, however, are feeling the squeeze, and wondering how long they will be able to survive the pressure.

“Fortunately, we are considered essential. In fact we have two ambulances in our bays right now,” said Tina Warren of Rusty Warren Automotive.

“We are busy right now, and we are busy next week, but none of us can see what the impact will be after that. We usually have things booked out for three weeks, but that’s no longer the case. As people get laid off, and start deferring work wherever they can, I think a lot of businesses are going to start seeing a downturn.”

Warren said that staffing becomes a challenge as well, since vulnerable individuals — including those who dwell with high-risk people — are sent home.

“I’m still trying to get my head around paid leave and unpaid leave, and who qualifies for what. And there’s no guidance for any of it,” she said.

“Then you have these fears that, after spending years building up a strong team, this kind of disruption puts everything at risk. Even if we make it through, we can’t guarantee that everyone on our team will come back when this is all over. Everything is in flux.”

She said that she has received great support from her customers, who express appreciation in Warren’s heightened procedures for cleaning and sanitizing in the shop while continuing the same quality of service.

“But because we are not sacrificing quality or safety, everything takes longer,” said Warren.

“I know there are a lot of people in our community who have the option of staying home, and getting a paycheck no matter what. Thats just not the case for all of us. And it’s even worse for services that are forced to close. This is going to hurt people. That’s the reality of it.”

Local businessman Aaron Podell has been caught up in dual vices. “Business owners are maybe 1 percent of the population, so I think it’s hard for people to understand that, even before a crisis, you are already making daily sacrifices to get by.”

With the closure of Square Print, his revenues are compromised but his financial obligations remain the same. However, he is allowing that personal pain to soften his demands as a property owner.

“I own the One-Three Nine Center, which has 13 renters in there,” he said. “I am definitely expecting the tenants to struggle with rent, and will be working with everyone on a case-by-case basis to make sure we can all survive this.

“I get both sides of this. And I think as a whole landlords have a reputation of being unreasonable.”

If landlords cannot make concessions right now, he said, “That is the biggest underlying problem I see for small businesses.”

Podell said that he anticipates hiccoughs as people find their ways through the present crisis, “but we can make a commitment not to make hardship any worse for the renters.”

It may make the difference whether these businesses are able to open back up after the lockdown is over, he said.

“I don’t want a short-term gain that ends up with a long-term failure.”

Other businesses are quietly making the decision to maintain operations by seeking the grey area in the definition for “essential” — the only option they see that allows them to keep feeding their families, and those of their employees.

“This has been incredibly hard for our members,” said Tim Smith, executive director of the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce.

He has revised the chamber website to include links for support to business owners seeking guidance on paid leave, tax assistance and furloughs. The Employee Development Department has been leading the local charge in interpreting new and existing rules, but “people have important questions that no one has offered clear answers for.”

Smith said that he is also concerned about the actualization of funding promised to struggling businesses.

“I have one member who applied for an SBA loan, and was declined. There was no grounds for the denial — it’s not even clear whether his application was reviewed by a live person or whether his entry into an application form triggered an automatic denial.

“But in the mean time, he has payroll, equipment loans and other operating costs that still have to be paid while he is closed,” said Smith.

“If the owner of an established business can’t get a loan, people are starting to question why they are going through the process. And if it’s too complex for an experienced person to navigate, what about our workers who are dealing with inexperience or language barriers or other challenges?”

He said that he believes that some entrepreneurs will decide that continuing to operate in the face of an economic lockdown is a smaller risk than watching their livelihood crumble.

“I am hoping that at some point, we see a fair path for moving forward before our economy is in shambles. I understand the need for caution in protecting our community from this virus, but the consequences of closing everything down is just going to end in a different form of ruin for some people.

“We have a very difficult situation to navigate. These are not just unknown waters — these are dangerous waters.”

Pictured: Signs like this crop up at stores, salons, bars and other businesses all over town. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-03-27