Small businesses during Covid-19 pandemic

Clara Marie Warren (left) and Gracie Peacock wait on a customer at Eagle Eye Outfitters on Wednesday.

Local small businesses are already feeling the brunt of a statewide public health order mandating social distancing and barring dine-in services.

Several local retailers and restaurants have been forced to temporarily close because of the spread of the coronavirus, while others are trying to stay afloat while staying updated on information that could help them.

The Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce is trying to encourage small businesses that have been affected by the new, rapidly spreading disease, while keeping them abreast of available aid.

“We’re going to get through this thing. Better days are ahead,” chamber President Matt Parker said. “We have a sign outside the chamber encouraging people ‘eat local and shop local’ and trying to push those messages that are important now more than ever.”

The chamber serves 1,130 business community members across Houston, Geneva and Henry counties, a majority of which are considered small businesses.

“We understand that this is a time of difficulty for them,” Executive Director Dean Mitchell said. “It’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort over here, trying to get information out to businesses to connect them with resources provided to them.”

Eagle Eye Outfitters owners Mark and Susan Anderson have already applied for disaster relief from the Small Business Administration while the spread of the coronavirus has severely hurt the retailer’s sales and caused uncertainty for what’s ahead.

“Sales as a whole, we’re doing 75% to 85% less than what we’d regularly be doing,” Mark Anderson said. “We have a staff of 75 employees. We’re trying to maintain those and keep all those employees. That’s the most significant challenge we have.”

Eagle Eye remains open with modified hours and shopping opportunities to generate some revenue to pay vendors and maintain its payroll, but that continues to be a challenge.

“There’s the challenge of social distancing — getting people to understand that you can still maintain that 6 feet in a 25,000-square-foot building. That’s been difficult,” Anderson said.

Before the coronavirus outbreak became a concern in the United States, Eagle Eye had already placed orders for spring merchandise, so the store is fully stocked.

“Really from a shopping experience, if you walked around the store, besides a lot more cleaning going on, you couldn’t tell anything was different,” Anderson said. “The ladies at the register are wearing latex gloves, but our inventory is already here.”

Eagle Eye workers are utilizing social media and PayPal to make sales while offering a curbside pickup option and a private shopping hour to give patrons more opportunities to shop. Anderson said he’s hoping to have its website back online soon.

Helping others

His wife, Susan, is working with the chamber to get out information about the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan application process by participating in Facebook Live events directed at the small business community.

“It’s a tough environment. The economic impact is real,” Parker said. “When is this going to end? When is the time we’re going to start getting back to normal? That’s the big question.”

Parker said the immediate impact is being felt by restaurants, bars, smaller retailers and hotels, while manufacturers are tied into “essential services” although that industry could soon be affected as the coronavirus impact could lead to problems sourcing and importing raw materials.

Ray’s Restaurant co-owner Christi Peterson is also looking at how the longtime Dothan business, coming up on 50 years old next month, can benefit from loan assistance as she navigates the ever-changing rippling effect of the coronavirus.

“We’re doing the best we can,” she said. “We’re going to take advantage of what we can in the way of help.”

Peterson said she’s staying in contact with the SBA to stay attuned to the resources being offered, although the website has been difficult to manage as it’s been overloaded with unemployment filings — something Peterson is familiar with.

“It’s affecting us a lot for sure,” she said. “We’re probably seeing about a third of our customers. Of course, sales are smaller because they’re grabbing biscuits and smaller menu items and not sitting in and ordering whole plates.”

The family restaurant has had to cut back its wait staff temporarily and is wading through the uncertainty, considering if temporarily closing would be the best course for it at this time.

“We don’t know whether to get more inventory or call it quits until we get more information,” Peterson said. “We don’t know if we’re going to be closed longer.”

While restaurant owners are in limbo, they are still faced with bills.

“You still have to pay those whether your doors are open or not,” she said.

Bills, water, electricity, invoices from suppliers, various types of insurance, internet and phone service, payroll, and taxes are some of the incoming line items that must be paid.

“It could be detrimental, not knowing where things are going to lead, being such a small business,” Peterson said. “It could very well be devastating depending on how long people have to stay in. You could lose customers because of it. They may not come back up after the doors open back up if the doors open back up.”

Financing, Parker said, is an important tool for business owners to consider while low-interest loans are being offered to businesses being affected. Parker says “affected businesses” are subject to a broad interpretation. As long as they’ve had to make changes because of the impact, they will likely qualify.

Key opportunities

There are three “buckets” of opportunity for small businesses being affected by the public health emergency available on the federal, state and local levels.

The first opportunity small businesses can apply for now is the SBA economic disaster relief loan which provides loans of up to $2 million with an interest rate of up to 3.75%.

The second opportunity includes some regional or local loan programs. Businesses can look into the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission Revolving Loan Fund, which provides loans to small businesses and industries needing gap financing. The loan’s primary goal is to create jobs. The loan amount ranges from $10,000 to $125,000, but is limited to 33% of a project cost and $10,000 per job, according to information on the chamber’s website.

The Dothan-Houston County Microloan Program also has loans available from $4,000 to $20,000 up to a maximum 90% of a project’s cost.

The chamber worked the business community with federal delegation to push for the third opportunity to be a major part of the third stimulus package: SBA 7(a) loans. The chamber will be able to provide more details on as soon as Congress passes the bill, but the provision will provide an opportunity to get low-interest financing from local financial institutions.

Anderson has already pre-emptively begun the paperwork to apply.

Online resources

There will be a webinar via Facebook Live on Thursday at noon hosted by the chamber and Personnel Resources to provide more information for the human resources aspect of business management.

Another live event is scheduled for Monday at 11 a.m. to discuss loan opportunities like the disaster relief loan program and local loans.

There also is a Facebook page the chamber created for “Coronavirus Dislocated Workers of Southeast Alabama Works” with information about employers who are hiring.

The chamber’s website for coronavirus resources (dothan.com/coronavirus -resources/) is being updated with the latest information available about the Department of Revenue, tax filings, unemployment resources, state and federal declarations, and information about supplies for the healthcare industry. Chamber staffers also are fielding calls from people and organizations trying to provide assistance and are encouraging everyone to continue to pitch in to try and make a difference in the community.

Mitchell and Parker want the business community to know that they are up-to-date on available resources and staying attuned to the situation as it evolves to keep the local community informed on best ways to face the challenges ahead.

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