I’m a health care worker with high involvement in patient care, situation updates, and contingency planning at my hospital, and I have a small business with people depending on it as their only source of income. This situation has been a constant balancing act of trying to protect the health of our staff and our patrons while simultaneously trying not to put them into a financial crisis. I’ll just touch briefly on the health points that I think might be relevant. There seem to be two (before) we get back to “normal” (whatever that will look like now):
Vaccine – efficacy is not a problem, safety is. As is mass production once safety and efficacy are proven. It’s going to be a long while (18 months seems to be a pretty conservative estimate) before a vaccine (if one is even developed – this is not a given) is widespread enough to provide us with enough confidence to get back to “business as usual.” No small business is making it that long under the current economic situation.
Herd immunity is when enough people have been infected and recovered to allow them to function in the world as normal and kill off the spread of the virus. The longer we social distance and keep the economy closed down, the more damage we do to it, but we slow the spread and don’t overwhelm the health care system. If the case count is accurate, we are a long way from herd immunity (60-80% of the population infected). If other models are more accurate and the true case count is in the 10’s of millions, we’re closer to herd immunity and might be able to reopen businesses sooner with fewer health consequences. The longer we can delay by social distancing, the more we can learn who to protect and how to protect them. If we delay until an economic breaking point and are forced to reopen with a low true infection rate, we still get the surge that overwhelms our health care system, just at a later date. I think it’s going to spread until we reach herd immunity, and that point is going to come before we get a viable vaccine. We don’t even know if recovering from an initial infection provides long term immunity, although what I’ve seen seems promising.
The best option seems to be reopening in waves, and that’s the strategy we are trying to use. We are considered essential, but we still chose to close down for about two weeks with the initial safer at home order. Now we are reopening for to-go purchases just a few days a week while taking precautions to protect our patrons and staff.
Last week was our first week of being open with limited hours. Festival season was always big for us, and our sales last week were only about 12% of what they were the same time last year. On top of that, to-go beer has a very small margin compared to someone coming in a sitting around drinking a couple of pints. This strategy also reduces tip amounts for our staff, which was a majority of their income even though we pay most of them above minimum wage.
Our current situation is not viable for long. Short term, we have canceled/postponed all unnecessary expenses, we moved product out of and shut down one of our open air coolers to minimize utilities. It’s very unfortunate that this hit right after the two slowest months of the year, so our reserve wasn’t as high as I’d like, but it was still enough to get us through our remaining fixed expenses in April. We are currently trying to liquidate our inventory to get as much of May’s expenses covered as possible.
We have applied for the EIDL, which supposedly puts up to $10,000 in your bank account within three business days, and heard nothing. It’s been over a week. We’ve also applied for the PPP through three different avenues – our bank, Regions, our federal credit union, Enrichment, and Lendio via Heartland, who supposedly shops our information around to many different lenders. We’ve heard nothing on this front, either. If we do receive these, they are only short term fixes, which circles back around to the vaccine vs. herd immunity. Will we see a second wave of infections, or will we see businesses closing despite these government assistance programs because this drags on too long?
As of now, once this passes, our employees will come back. Who knows what a month or two months from now will look like? We sent a layoff letter for all five of them when we initially shut down and had them apply for unemployment. We are also fortunate enough to be in a position to personally supplement their income. I have asked them to let me know if they need additional financial assistance during this transition period, and so far they say they are doing “surprisingly well.” Hopefully we’ll hear something about the PPP soon and get them back on a full payroll.
One concern I have, both now and once this passes, is that a lot of our regular customers were other service industry workers. The concern now is that, while the call from the community to continue to support local is great, a lot of the people who regularly supported us are no longer able to do so and shouldn’t be doing so right now. Later, if a lot of these people can’t or don’t come back into the downtown service industry, we’ll lose some of our regular customer base.
A final interesting point that has come to our attention from other Casual Pint owners is “COVID shaming” of businesses. We have not experienced this, but it has crossed my mind. Apparently, other owners (out of state) have experienced this and are concerned that their being open during this time will lead to a loss of patronage and a negative stigma around their business in the future.
Dale Mackey of Central Collective
The Central Collective has been closed for private and community events since March 12 when we were first encouraged to start social distancing. Even when the CDC recommendations allowed for gatherings of up to 50 people, it seemed to us that the safest bet was to close up and avoid taking any unnecessary risks. Of course, as an event space, once we realized that gathering with people was not going to be safe for some time, we knew we were going to have to get creative if we were going to stay connected with our community.
We’ve pivoted to projects and online events where we can safely stay in touch with folks, help support local artists and makers, and raise a little bit of money to sustain us during this time. So far, we launched the Good Sport Box (a mystery box filled with art and products made by Knoxvillians), hosted a live online First Friday art reception, and this Sunday we hosted a virtual Easter egg hunt. It’s been challenging at times to stay optimistic when we’re unable to function during what is normally our busiest time, but hosting these kinds of events and being able to collaborate with other small business owners has kept our spirits up.
Luckily for us, our five employees who help us staff private events do not depend on us for their livelihood but rather just work 1-4 shifts each month for a little extra cash. In fact, they’ve all reached out to US to ask if there’s anything they can do to help during this time, and many have participated in our virtual events (shout out to Dave, Reid, Amy, Katie, and Holly- best staff ever!)
While not hosting events essentially means shutting down our source of income for an undetermined period of time, we are lucky in many ways. We own our building so, while we are naturally still responsible for our mortgage, we aren’t paying rent on a space we’re not using. We are a “lean” business and have fairly low overhead other than our mortgage and all of the supplies we keep on hand for events are nonperishable.
So we are able to hunker down for now and wait things out. We definitely feel the severe impact of not being able to operate and we do have our worries. Our hearts really go out to businesses who have higher overhead and more employees who depend on them. We have applied for the SBA forgivable grant and, as it turns out, we only qualify for $1000 relief as I am the only full time employee that I listed in my application. Any amount helps but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we’re losing.
As things slowly return to normal, group gatherings will be the last thing to return, I think. This means that even as people start to go back to work, restaurants open up with limited seating, and other parts of society start to feel normal, it’s very possible that we won’t be able to safely host gatherings until there’s an accessible vaccine. That’s a pretty daunting thought, but one that we’re trying to prepare for. But our staff will be able to return as soon as we can safely open our doors, and we CANNOT WAIT for that day to arrive.