BETHLEHEM — The Bethlehem Chamber has shared its recent survey’s results regarding COVID-19’s impact on local businesses with elected representatives at the town, county, state and federal levels, according to its president Maureen McGuinness.
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The survey’s purpose
“I’ve since had conversations with elected officials at the state level about what challenges local businesses are facing and with the survey’s results, we’ll continue to be in communication with elected officials from the local to federal levels,” McGuinness said. “We were gathering information to assist in mitigating the impact on local businesses and connect them with any available tools and resources they may need.”
Vince Crisafulli, a Bethlehem Chamber board member and the chair of its Government Relations Committee, said sharing the survey’s results with officials “is not a way to complain to them but just to say what the impact has been.”
He added that the survey’s results have made the chamber feel better informed as it began connecting business with local officials via virtual forums and written statements, and providing resources like how to apply for small business-oriented loans like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), if available.
For more information on the chamber’s resources and services, visit www.bethlehemchamber.com/government-affairs.
Crisafulli said the survey’s results are also meant to encourage local residents as well as town government to remind them to shop at local businesses, instead of always going on Amazon or to big box stores.
“For every $100 you spend locally at a locally-owned business, $68 stays in the community,” McGuinness said. “If you were to spend that same amount at a national chain, only $43 stays in the community. The local stores have the same people who sponsor fundraisers in town, kids sports teams and more.”
With the town government’s help, the survey was distributed to many local businesses, including non-chamber members, from March 25 to April 8. With 90 businesses responding, 86 reported a negative economic impact, 40 are in danger of closing, 40 have laid off employees and 31 have experienced supply chain issues, including increased prices on supplies and shipping delays. Surveyed businesses were found to have operated for 21 years on average. The businesses were assured their names and specific responses would be kept confidential.
McGuinness said the 90 businesses come from diverse industries and pointed out, “It’s very easy for people to picture businesses as just restaurants or retail stores. But in reality, we have a more robust business climate in town and I was pleased this survey reflected that.”
The surveyed businesses came from the following industries:
- Agriculture (3 percent)
- Construction (7 percent)
- Manufacturing (2 percent)
- Wholesale (1 percent)
- Retail (11 percent)
- Finance and insurance (7 percent)
- Real estate and rental (9 percent)
- Professional services (9 percent)
- Health care and social assistance (9 percent)
- Arts and entertainment (6 percent)
- Accommodations and food services (5 percent)
- Others (31 percent)
Business owners’ concerns
Robert Symmons, owner of Delmar-based Labbie Electrical Contractors which provides electrical services throughout the Capital District, said his family-owned business has been around for around two decades. “But we’ve been drastically impacted by the pandemic and we went from our typical work week of 40 to 45 hours, or 60 to 65 hours in summer, to pretty much not working all,” he said. “It was like a light switch.”
He understood why people wouldn’t want him and his employees working to install or repair in their homes due to social distancing and COVID-19 concerns. “For example, if I send one employee to a household, the issue is being close to the homeowner or their children,” he said.
Symmons said he and his two full-time employees have continually sanitized their equipment and trucks; if working, they also wear respirators, disposable shoe covers, gloves and masks as well as use disinfecting wipes and Lysol.
Symmons said in early April, he applied for a PPP loan — ranging from $30,000 to $40,000 — and a $10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) through the Small Business Administration. However, he has not received updates about each loan and when he found out PPP ran out of money on Thursday, April 16, he said, “It’s frustrating and I’m in a very tough spot now.”
He continued, “I know I could sustain for another month and a half without getting a loan and with no income coming in for now. I was really hoping the PPP loan would have come in and at this point, I have little faith for the [EIDL] loan too. I don’t want to but I may have to tell my two employees to go on unemployment in time and maybe I will also file for it myself.”
Jonathan Phillips — the fifth-generation owner of Phillips Hardware, a family-owned business since 1886 — said in addition to the typical products and services his business offers, he’s chosen to start selling new limited products like Clorox wipes, toilet paper and disposable gloves. He said he drives out to distribution centers to collect limited supplies and his business offers curbside pickup and free delivery.
“Regrettably, I can’t give away these things for free because I got to make some kind of dollar to pay our bills and we’re trying to rebuild the business up after we’re over this pandemic,” Phillips said. “I feel for my family and employees but it’s important for the general public to understand that brick and mortar stores and local businesses are losing business. I’ve been competing with Amazon and box stores, and now we’re hit by this virus and suppliers don’t always have supplies.”
He noted his business has received a few negative comments on Facebook as some people perceived their limited products’ prices as “too high,” compared to those on Amazon, groceries or box stores. While stressing he is not price gouging, Phillips explained his business needs to earn some type of money from those sales to try to stay financially viable and cover payroll and other important expenses. He encouraged concerned customers to call his store for price-related questions at 518-439-9943.
He brought up that not only does he drive to collect limited supplies, he is also mostly in charge of delivering ordered products to people’s doorsteps for free. “We’re running our own truck with our gas to do the free deliveries. We’ve been collecting customers’ contact information so that we can call to let them know we have a new stock of virus-related products like Clorox,” he said. “We need to make some dollars to offset costs and keep employees employed.”
Speaking of employees, Phillips said there is a minimum of two sales associates on the floor and customers are still allowed to come into the stores but must practice social distancing. “This time of year, we’d usually employ more people for the spring but with what’s happening now, we’ve stuck to our full-time crew and even my kids have picked up shifts,” he said. “I’ve been at work every single day and I’m very fortunate my employees still come in even with the fears of the virus.”
Crisafulli, who’s also the owner of St. Croix Tan, a 19-year-old tanning business with six locations across the Capital District, said it temporarily closed on March 21. “It was frankly horrifying and you don’t know what’s going to come of it,” he said. “It’s hard to deliver our services through the internet or an app, and there are not many ways we can creatively serve our clients in this environment.”
He expressed concern for a hypothetical situation: when he eventually can reopen, a potential government-mandated occupancy limit — restricting the number of customers inside the tanning salon at a time — may not be financially viable for his business. “Tanning is already a service where it’s been 100 percent about social distancing from the beginning,” he said. “When you enter the tanning business, you interact with a clerk for some time, then go to a private room and there’s a wall between you and the next person. Everything’s always sanitized for the next person. I’m hoping there’ll be recognition of that.”
Crisafulli also said the public should continue to recognize that not all local businesses are restaurants or retail, which are often places customers can easily go to and support by patronizing. “For my business, I think there’ll be a pent-up demand when this is over and people may want to use us to feel good or just want to go back,” he said. “But my larger concern is about how long until we can reopen and what kind of restrictions may come with that reopening.”
He concluded, “I’m excited to open back up and anxious to see what will happen. I think people in our business community are anxiously waiting to get back too.”