Small biz setback due to virus

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Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a $2.2 trillion economic relief plan last week to help offset some of the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Under that bill, sweeping loan programs for small businesses are established and most Americans making $75,000 or less last year will get a one-time check of $1,200 from the federal government. For every qualifying child age 16 and under, individuals will get an additional $500. 

That historic measure came as the economy has plunged during the pandemic – including for small businesses in Monroe County. 

“Having a small business, it’s scary,” said Julie Derr, owner of La Bella Rosa Boutique in Columbia. “You can’t have many bad weeks in a row, and we’re having several.” 

Under Illinois’ stay at home order – which was initially set to expire April 7 but has been extended through April 30 – all businesses deemed non-essential are closed to in-person customers, while some essential businesses like restaurants have restrictions on the services they can provide. 

Some business owners here, like Derr, are still offering their wares online in an effort to keep some income during this uncertain time.

“Online is not terrible,” Derr said of sales. “I’d love for it to be more, but we’d all love for it to be more.”

Other establishments have temporarily shuttered entirely, such as Bountiful Blossoms in Waterloo. 

Owner Shaundra Huebner closed her storefront before the stay at home order, shifting to only doing deliveries. When Gov. JB Pritzker announced the order, Huebner decided she would even stop that. 

“It’s not worth the risk of me possibly getting exposed to it… or passing it on to someone else,” she reasoned. 

Those businesses that have been allowed to remain open have also seen a decrease in sales in some cases. 

That is particularly true in the restaurant industry, Columbia’s Café on the Abbey in owner and operational manager Daniel Ball said. 

He said his business is seeing a decline of 80-90 percent in terms of sales. 

“That’s a huge decline for any business to take, and all businesses are taking that right now,” Ball noted. “We stayed open basically just to cover our cost. We’re not trying to profit.” 

Jeff Vogt, owner of JV’s Downtown Bar & Grill in Waterloo, also spoke about a decline in revenue even with carry-out options. He said this is particularly tough on businesses that can’t offer carry-out or sell their products online like bars. 

“This is going to be a long affair for them,” Vogt said. 

Across the board, businesses have taken steps to try to safely draw customers, such as offering daily specials or waiving delivery fees. 

Some have also tried to help others get through this difficult time by offering free meals and beverages to first responders and health care workers, in the case of Café on the Abbey, or sending free virtual flower arrangements to brighten people’s day in the case of Bountiful Blossoms. 

But business owners have also had to take harder steps to reduce costs, as Derr, Ball, Huebner and Vogt all said they had to tell some or all of their employees not to work for the time being. All four individuals said that is commonplace. 

“We just don’t have the volume (to pay them) anymore,” Ball said, noting he laid off about 80 percent of his employees commensurate with the loss in revenue. 

Some have even volunteered to not work during the pandemic to decrease their chances of getting sick. 

Regardless of why they are not working, that can put those individuals in a difficult place similar to their employers, though the business owners said the stay at home order has alleviated some of those concerns because people have fewer expenses when staying at home.  

Still, some people have made difficult decisions, such as one of Ball’s employees who cut their cable and Wi-Fi to save money. 

“Everybody that I’ve talked to or that I know is pretty much bunkering down,” Ball said. “Everybody is eliminating any unnecessary expenses.” 

With that happening in communities and industries across the area, Huebner explained that has a ripple effect in the local economy. 

“I feel like people really want to be able to support our community businesses, but sometimes that’s financially hard for them,” she said. “We’re not the only ones affected by this. Some people are not working and some are getting paid, but some are not.” 

Those who are working have newly crucial concerns, such as sanitizing and maintaining social distancing from customers and fellow employees. 

While the health of everyone is the priority of businesses, the new way of doing things comes with unforeseen problems both simple and complex. 

“Doing just carry-out is a whole new mind set with how to package it properly so that it travels well,” Vogt gave as an example. “You worried about that somewhat before, but your carry-out food business was only a small portion of your day.” 

More difficult challenges arise when it comes to ordering supplies.

For stores like Derr’s, she said she has stopped shipments from coming in, but she had already received many spring and summer items.

For places like Vogt’s, it is challenging for business owners to see a pattern and know how much food to order at a time where money spent on unsold food is particularly harmful. 

That is starting to change, however, the longer this continues. 

“It’s been very consistent, with Friday night being the biggest night of the week. I didn’t know we had that many Catholics in Monroe County,” Vogt joked. 

That uncertainty is a microcosm of the business climate overall, as several business owners predicted it will take some time for them to recover from this setback because people will not immediately return in full force when the pandemic ends – whether because of personal hesitancy or government mandate. 

“A year from now, we’re still dealing with this in some form,” Vogt assessed. 

Depending on how long measures as stringent as the stay at home order are in place, Ball said some establishments may never reopen. 

“If this is closed for two or three months, a lot of small businesses will not be able to get back open strictly because they do not have the cash flow,” he said after stressing everyone staying safe is the most important thing. “They’re not going to be able to afford it. What’s going to happen is they’re going to be so far behind on everything they won’t be able to open back up.” 

Still, the business community in Monroe County seemed optimistic that those who can reopen will receive the support they need to carry on. 

“I think it’s always going to be different from now on – how people do things – but hopefully we’ll get back to something that looks similar to the habits that we had before of going out and enjoying life,” Derr said.

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