A Business Concern

Update: Without leaving their homes far away from me, friends saved the day yesterday. Dan fixed my phone, which used 10 percent of its battery in the last 24 hours rather than 90 percent. Matt (whose birthday is today) not only improved the sound on my computer, but it quit running non-stop. Best of all, Lynn finally got her teeth! Pita chips after nearly 10 months. That’s heaven on Earth right there.

unemp 0720

Just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. At least not during a pandemic.

Heather, a teller at my bank, once worked for about a year at Pat’s. Our politics were at opposite ends of the spectrum, although her skill sets came in very handy the day Bob left a loaded handgun on the toilet tank. (He was asked repeatedly not to bring weapons into the shop, but our requests were ignored.) Heather and I thus have taken different approaches to the Time of Corona.

Heather, who is still 90 percent (or more) convinced this is all a hoax, is genuinely distressed over the economic harm that has come to the valley’s businesses and quite indignant on our behalf that we had to shut down at all.

“I think it’s most important that everyone stay safe,” I ventured, then, as she started with the “yeah, but” hoax portion of the conversation, asked if I’d told her about Fortino’s relatives, dead from this threat that is real. She conceded that there is this aspect of it, which makes this whole thing hard.

I am laying the blame squarely at Republican feet for this particular piece, as enhanced unemployment benefits run out tomorrow — the same week that unemployment ticked up after “dropping” (the numbers of newly unemployed who file for the first time each week remain truly staggering) for something like 15 straight weeks.

I’m actually going to agree with Republicans that $600 per week over and above your regular benefit can be a lot, and probably the system, broken as it is, would work better if those benefits were pegged to the money people were making before they got laid off. Assuming money got to everyone who needed it in the first place.

What really would have worked best, suggested by both a Democrat and a Republican, would have been for the government to pay somewhere north of 70 percent of salaries for employees to remain at their jobs, even though people were sent home. Lock the country down for as long as necessary rather than imagined deadlines like Memorial Day, and then take up a cautious re-opening, with most people still at their jobs.

But that’s not what we did, and we reap what we sow. I’m afraid we’re continuing to sow seeds of economic hardship as all the temporary assistance programs for businesses run out. The thinking is that the unemployment uptick is just starting, as people get laid off a second time when Paycheck Protection Program funds run out. What’s making some of the newly unemployed angry is that they were laid off, hired back while the additional $600 weekly unemployment bonus was available, and are now again out of a job as that money disappears.

The reason they are getting laid off again isn’t so much that the PPP funds have expired at businesses; it’s that those funds sustained businesses short-term on the assumption that regular business volume would return. But it hasn’t.

For some businesses, like the bar down the street, it’s because they’ve barely been allowed to be open, and within days of re-opening, the state closed them down again due to surging germs. Local restaurants are complaining about the 100 tables they’re not turning each day due to reduced capacity.

[Here’s how wrong I can be: I thought the safest places to eat in town were Firebrand and McDonald’s, and McDonald’s just voluntarily closed its doors because at least three employees have tested positive. As Kara pointed out, just because people are practicing safe behaviors at work doesn’t mean that follows through to their off time. But still.]

My barber reports it’s been slow since he re-opened, but he may have skewed his own data by shifting locations, to a cheaper rent that actually ought to feature higher visibility but maybe renders him invisible to people used to going to his old location. However, I’m guessing some large portion of the problem is customers like me, who are taking more time between cuts, embracing their inner ’70s when you knew it was time to get your hair cut once your bangs dropped below the bottom of your nose. (Bangs. I remember those.)

A lot of people right now are not willing consumers of in-person services and goods. It doesn’t matter if a restaurant is open at 5 percent or 100, I am not ready to eat inside. I’m not even enthused about eating outside. I realize others, the ones crowding every patio and deck in town, don’t share my concern, but I imagine there’s a legion of unseen ex-patrons who currently are not frequenting their favorite eateries.

At Pat’s, I try to figure out by the day how we’re doing. I got my PPP loan later than many folks, but the original eight-week time frame ended earlier this week. Even though I now have an additional 16 weeks to spend the money, there’s only $1,000 left, and it will be gone by Aug. 1. Then we will be on our own, unless we can qualify for a new round of assistance from some organization that got $25 million from the state (really from the feds, who gave the money to the state, which is now giving it to businesses with fewer than 25 employees).

My goal, when this started, was to keep everyone employed. That has only sort of worked out, but that’s due to choices made by the employees themselves: Fortino left; Gilly cut down her hours; and Vann, who started a mere two weeks before Lockdown, had already planned to take one day off each week to spend with his daughter until she starts kindergarten (which might be in 2023, at the rate the virus is going).

Their choices have made achieving my goal easier, although I now think it would have been completely unachievable but for assistance, from the feds, the city and private sources like our landlord’s rent discount. Even with some of this booked as income (the PPP is still classified as a loan), we are down for the year. June was down significantly.

But just as I think we’re running out of viability, another job comes through the door. Event organizers are figuring out virtual events, or modified live events. Our retail, which is not our bread and butter, last week was comparable to any summer week.

So I never know what to say when folks like Heather, whose genuine concern I appreciate and value, want to know how we’re doing. Okay, I guess is the short answer. We’re still there and working, and I’m still bringing money to Heather to put in the bank.

But unless the Republicans in congress can set aside their sudden concern for bleeding red ink (not a concern when they passed a tax cut for millionaires, but now when it involves the livelihoods of the lower and middle classes it suddenly is) and work with Democrats, preferably on a long-term solution but I know I’m completely dreaming there, and unless a responsible national response is put forward on the virus front, every day is going to be a crap shoot at Pat’s.

Just because businesses want to be open doesn’t mean customers will rush back to embrace them. There need to be tools, best deployed at the national level, to provide for both business re-openings and a feeling of security for customers.

Good luck with that, huh?





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