Small businesses face the most challenges from COVID-19

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BRATTLEBORO — While the local economy is feeling the hit of the coronavirus pandemic, no blanket statement can cover all businesses.

"You can't say, 'It's down the tubes,'" said Kate O'Connor, executive director of Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. "You can't say, 'Oh it's great.'"

Some businesses never had to close during the pandemic as they were deemed essential. Grocery stores "had a hearty business right when it came down," O'Connor said.

"It's the smaller shops that are having the most problems," she said.

After 20 years at High Street, Silver Moon Adornments closed in April due to financial uncertainty. Patti Newton, store owner, is still providing services and selling items online.

"I had to make some really hard and quick decisions about the future," she said.

John Short said he shut down Short Computer Repair on March 20, thinking it would be temporarily, but then the storefront was permanently closed and he switched to a model where he will meet with customers in different ways. He said he applied for every kind of assistance available but was essentially told because he has no employees, he was not eligible.

"I've spent almost every day for hours on the phone trying to get better answers or help," he said. "I would have been fine if I received any assistance, but with absolutely no income and rent overheads looming, I sacrificed my apartment just to try and justify staying open on Elliot Street, but the looming debt was just too much for me to justify keeping the storefront open."

Body in Harmony, which offered fitness classes on High Street, closed during the pandemic and all of its equipment was moved into storage.

"We have no immediate plans of reopening at this time," said Deena Chadwick, owner. "We are hoping things might change in fall of 2021, and will reevaluate at that time if it would be in our best interest and our customers' to reopen again."

Kristin Cassidy, owner of Bodhifit Studio, just announced she would be closing her yoga studio on High Street but would continue offering online classes.

"Due to the tenuous pandemic circumstances and other situations beyond my control, I had to make this very grueling decision," she wrote in a July newsletter. "Bodhifit turned 10 years old on the Summer Solstice June 20, 2020. It has been a dream made manifest and one of my greatest joys in serving up the wise, ancient practice of yoga and yoga philosophy to all of you — the extraordinary community the has graced the studio for all these years and make up the family that is Bodhifit."

Subway on Main Street also closed its doors. A sign in the window says the space is available for rent.

"People are trying real hard to keep going," O'Connor said. "I know people have decisions they have to make."

Some establishments are offering curbside pickup, delivery or online sales or a mix while others have reopened with occupancy guidelines set by the state. O'Connor anticipates more places will start figuring out ways to work with the restrictions.

Vermont Country Deli on Western Avenue is getting back to full staffing levels including student employees. Tracey John, general manger, said she looks forward to having a strong summer.

"It's definitely been an interesting three months," she said. "We were humbled by our customers' kindness when things first closed down and we stayed open. We found ourselves becoming this neighborhood store, which felt great."

John said her business had flour and yeast when bigger stores were sold out. Social media was used to communicate with customers.

Vermont Country Deli is "very close to our usual sales right now, which feels good," John said. Her team is now navigating how to have more customers in the store while keeping people at a safe distance from one another.

"Most customers are really polite and conscientious, which is helpful," John said.

Kobey Shwayder, owner of Vermont Vermouth on Brown Court, worries whether his business will make it to the fall. That is the earliest he said he can hope to return to more stable restaurant sales, and he does not anticipate any help coming from the state or federal government.

After working on starting the vermouth-making business for a couple of years, Schwayder began getting sales in February just before establishments were ordered to shut down.

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"My business is in serious peril because my business plan relies on bars and restaurants ordering my products," he said. "I am doing some sales to individuals out of my production facility and at farmers markets but that volume doesn't make enough to cover my rent. Although restaurants and bars have started opening up, they are all in survival mode, and tell me that they are working through their current stock of products before even considering buying anything new."

With no employees or previous year sales to compare to, Schwayder has been unable to tap into any federal or state aid. He also does not want to take on any further debt with more loans. Without a regular paycheck, he also cannot get unemployment or pandemic-related assistance. He said he is "burning through my personal and business savings pretty quick."

Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., which leases Schwayder space, delayed rent payments for two months and helped him get some interest-only months on his business loan. But this month, he will go back to his regular rental rate and start paying back rent.

Schwayder also takes issue with regulation and enforcement in Vermont. He said the state takes 75 percent markup on his sales.

"Vermont says they want to bring in young people and new businesses to the state," he said, "but they make it very hard to do so, at least for alcohol businesses."

Stephanie Bonin, executive director of Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, could not offer a reaction that would encapsulate how all businesses are faring through the pandemic.

"Every sector has different regulations and rules from the state," she said. "And so where we've seen a lot of success at DBA is making sure like businesses are talking to each other."

As an example, she spoke of businesses with dressing rooms. They can share information about standards for operating.

Success can be found when people use "creative energy and make changes in order to still stay relevant," Bonin said. She described downtown parklets as a "great example" of how the town is acting as a partner to the business community: jersey barriers were set up in parking spaces to allow for outdoor dining and artists have been invited to help improve the aesthetics.

Some businesses were able to qualify for federal assistance and some were not, Bonin said. She noted the Paycheck Protection Program "really only works if you reopen the stores."

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Vermont Hempicurean secured a loan through the program. Owner Scott Sparks also invested in search-engine optimization and marketing to boost online sales, which he credits with saving his business.

Owner-operated businesses without staff are what Bonin called "a gap" in the federal and state relief funding. Vermont's new economic recovery grant program for small businesses requires that one or more employees are not the owner and live in Vermont.

Some businesses have not been willing to reopen due to a feeling that the age of the owners or their employees would put them at significant risk. PPP would not be good fit for them, as they must commit to keeping an average monthly number of full-time equivalent employees on staff.

Bonin said her group, the chamber, BDCC and the Small Business Administration have spent a lot of time trying to support businesses in "getting any dollars that are out there to ensure their success or alleviate the negative ramifications."

Dan Yates, president and CEO of Brattleboro Savings & Loan, said his group processed and funded 236 PPP loans to businesses in its market — primarily Windham County — for a total of $16.2 million. He anticipates the program may be extended to Aug. 8.

NOW OR NEVER

To help local businesses as a consumer, Bonin suggests pausing before purchasing an item online and making "the extra effort to go out and buy it in our community."

"A difference of two sales a day is huge for the businesses in our community," she said. "It's really now or never in terms of clearly stating what you want your community to look like through your dollars."

Planning for the future can be very challenging right now, as rules are constantly changing. But Bonin expects to see some innovative ideas this summer.

"People, their wheels are turning and creativity is flowing on how to take the physical distancing rules and make fun, interesting things happen," she said. "We all need that. Downtown is definitely not just about commerce. It's about community connection."

Businesses may be operating at reduced hours for many reasons, Bonin said, citing limited staff and revenue. She sees owners running businesses and testing the waters to see if more hours or staffing will be needed.

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Bonin recalled one store owner saying, "You're working twice as hard for half as much business." That might entail more frequent hand washing and disinfecting or dealing with different flow of business.

Everyone's Books has long taken orders via email. But within the last seven or eight months, the business began handling sales through its website.

"We're really grateful it was set up before the pandemic," said Nancy Braus, co-owner of Everyone's Books, "because we've had so much online traffic since the pandemic shutdown. I don't really see how we would have survived honestly."

Although it was difficult at times to keep up with all the online sales, the store is now going back to a more normal balance of walk-ins, phone orders and email orders. Braus said she thinks people are doing more reading now and that is especially true of books related to racial justice, following the protests related to the killing of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis.

"We're so grateful people are so excited about something we've been committed to for a very long time," Braus said. "We're very happy about that. It's definitely been amazing."

One of the store's biggest challenges has been not knowing when books will be shipped. Previously, staff had some kind of sense of when things would arrive.

Braus is unsure if publishers are not hiring, employees are not working or if employees have walked out.

Titles related to racial justice in high demand have long waits right now, Braus said, but "we're doing our best to provide the things people want." She described having a loyal following where community members want the store to succeed.

During the worst part of the pandemic, some members of a group that gets discounts on items opted out of the cheaper price tag to help Everyone's Books. The store has been a fixture in downtown since 1984.

Braus said she is "very worried" about whether the downtown will bounce back as online ordering is made to be so easy and small businesses have not received as much assistance from the federal government. She expressed concern about having restrictions on occupancy during the winter holidays, a time where she depends on having a large number of people inside the store.

"There's nothing like this I could imagine and I just hope we can get through it without too terribly much craziness," she said. "I think there's going to be an awful lot of chaos before things are really set right."

Her store tries to make the shopping experience as convenient as possible for the customer by offering deliveries and curbside pickup at the rear entrance.

"We're working double hard to find some workarounds and things just to make sure we are actually able to do the job and to make our community feel like this is something that they want to keep functioning for a long time," Braus said. "That's the best we can do."

O'Connor, from the Chamber, said she thinks Vermonters are lucky to live in a state with such a low number of coronavirus cases. She believes people feel more comfortable going out than in other places.

Receiving daily calls from out-of-staters who want to visit, her first instinct is to be inviting. But for now, she has to see where a person is coming from to check whether a 14-day quarantine will be needed before they can spend time out in the community, as the state uses case counts from counties to determine that.

The Love Brattleboro marketing campaign initiated by the chamber and DBA with town funds is set to resume. Northern Vermont regions will be targeted.

"We're an easy drive — come for a day, come for a couple of days, hike, shop, dine," O'Connor said. "We're hoping that will help."

Aid in attracting visitors downtown was needed before the pandemic. Now, the issue appears to be worse.

Since Windham Regional Commission set up pedestrian counters downtown, preliminary data showed average daily trips to the east side of Main Street were at about 400 for June and less than 200 for May. That compares to about 1,000 in both October 2018 and June 2017, nearly 1,400 in July 2016 and about 1,700 in October 2014.

Preliminary data for average trips to the west side of Main Street show the figure to be about 300 in June 2020. That compares to about 900 in both September 2018 and June 2017, about 1,200 in July 2016 and nearly 1,800 in October 2014.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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