The COVID-19 pandemic has hit many small businesses hard. I’d like to share a bit of our experience. I am the co-founder of B&E’s Trees, a specialty maple syrup farm. The majority of our sales come from events, nearly all of which have been canceled. Our retail partners are mostly independently owned gift shops and markets. Since the pandemic hit, many of our calls to these stores have stopped being returned. We’re afraid many of them have gone out of business, or are just barely holding on.
When the pandemic hit we had about a week to reimagine our open house. We had to be creative, and though we couldn’t do everything as we wanted, or as we had in the past, we made it work. Our events were hosted virtually and we established a “Name-A-Tree” program where folks could name trees in our forest to connect with the farm. It wasn’t the same as in-person events, but we got great support from our community near and far. In turn, we made a priority of supporting our staff in these challenging times.
Access to the PPP loan made it possible for us to keep paying our staff in the short term, even as our sales suddenly dropped away. This not only helped us keep our business operational, it kept our amazing, hardworking staff from becoming unemployment statistics. With so much chaos, it gave them some short-term stability. The initial PPP program, although flawed, was an example of what is possible when “we the people” come together.
We are lucky to have a great relationship with a local bank that helped us through the PPP process. Many other business owners, particularly in disadvantaged communities, don’t have a banker who will take the time to connect them with the resources they need. We received this loan not because our need was greater than others, but because we have support from institutions in our community. It is important when designing relief programs to make sure they are accessible to everyone who needs them. Ignoring the inequitable access to resources worsens the segregation of opportunity that underpins much of the injustice in our nation. We know better. Now it is time to do better.
When we applied for the PPP program, we all anticipated Covid-19 would pass in a few months. We could not imagine the length and severity of this pandemic. According to Brookings Institution data, over a quarter of small businesses are at risk of immediate shutdown and over half are vulnerable to severe disruption or shutdown. Jobs are being lost and businesses are closing not because people planned poorly or didn’t work hard, they are being lost because of a pandemic unlike anything we have seen for over a century. This is a new situation, and we need creativity and cooperation to make it through.
Programs like the PPP kept people employed and small businesses running in the short term. Now it is time to consider the long term. The choices we make now will shape our economy and society for generations to come. If we do nothing, or respond weakly, we are opening up the cracks for more businesses and families to fall through. As jobs are lost, fewer people will be able to shop local, closing even more small businesses and creating a downward spiral. Insufficient action sets us up for a lifetime of struggle.
But this isn’t the only way forward. We have to start talking to each other. This can’t be about red vs. blue, this has to be about all of us versus the pandemic. What America looks like after this virus largely depends on the choices we make, both as individuals and in our policy. Despite the odds, I’m fighting to remain hopeful in this chaos.
We can use this as an opportunity to really put our resources where our values are—supporting the businesses that support our communities, our families, our environment, the best of ourselves. We need to create a comprehensive policy that puts people first. We can find ways to keep folks engaged in the workforce while tackling some of the big problems we are facing. We need to, whenever we can, buy from the businesses we believe in. We need to actively seek out communities who face barriers and discrimination, and make sure everyone has access to opportunity. Just as we had to identify and build new sales avenues to survive, diversity in society builds resilience, which makes us all stronger. We need to give small businesses a fighting chance of survival, so we can keep serving our communities. When this pandemic passes, society will be different, no question. Different in what way depends on us.
Bree Breckel is the co-owner of B&E’s Trees near Viroqua and a member of the Wisconsin Main Street Alliance.
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