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COVID-19

Despite imminent federal aid, small businesses are desperate

Kimberly Adams Mar 27, 2020
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Many small businesses are struggling during the COVID-19 slowdown. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Despite imminent federal aid, small businesses are desperate

Kimberly Adams Mar 27, 2020
Many small businesses are struggling during the COVID-19 slowdown. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Congress passed the $2 trillion COVID-19 aid bill Friday afternoon, which means that there is some help coming from the federal government for small businesses.

But for the last couple of weeks, those small businesses have been scrambling to make payroll, sort out which staff they can keep on — and which they can’t — and figure out some way to keep money coming in.

While Washington has been working out this deal, a lot of small businesses have been hanging on by a thread. Like Kate Fryer’s beads, wire and accessories shop A Bead Just So.

Fryer usually makes her money from classes or birthday parties. Those just aren’t happening now.

“I’m trying to get my inventory loaded up on my website, which I’ve never done before. It’s a brand new, really intense process,” she said.

Here in Washington D.C., some restaurants are frantically shifting from bar and dining room service to carry-out and deliveries. Mark Kirwan, who owns two restaurants in the area, has been doing deliveries, but not alone. His mascot, Jack — a playful, Italian mastiff puppy who’s bigger than most full-grown dogs — has been going along.

“At times like this, when you’re in the doldrums, I just look at him and his face and it just brings a bit of warmth into you,” Kirwan said. Warmth he’s needed after laying off his staff. He figures he can only hang on for another month or so. 

“There’s some days we’re doing $300 [or] $400 in sales compared to $15,000 to $20,000,” Kirwan said.

Other small businesses are pulling in even less. Shobha Tummala, who owns a chain of hair removal salons in Maryland, D.C., and New York, said she’s making a little off online sales and gift cards, but it doesn’t really make a dent with rent almost due.

“We would have to sell $100,000 worth of gift cards for it to make a real significant difference,” Tummala said. “That’s not going to happen.”

Tummala laid off her almost 100 employees last week in a series of video conference calls.

“I wanted to see everybody. I wanted everybody to see me,” she said. “They rely on me to take care of them and so it can get emotional.”

The new aid package could help people like Tummala cover rent and expenses. But without customers, even that will only go so far to keep companies in business. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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