Congresswoman Haley Stevens held a virtual townhall with Lakes Area business owners on May 8 to understand the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses.
It’s part of her Listening, Engagement and Action Tour, and was the third virtual business roundtable the congresswoman has hosted. On May 1, she hosted a similar roundtable with small business owners from Milford, Northville and Farmington.
The call was held in partnership with the Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Typically, discussions are coordinated with local chambers of commerce or other economic development organizations who have a good handle on the local business landscape and can find a representative group of business owners.
“I can only imagine how hard it is for all of you right now, trying to be people that are doing what you’ve always done,” Stevens said. “You’ve devoted your life’s work to these enterprises that you run and to be looking at what we’re looking at with all the uncertainty…is very uncomfortable.”
“I’ve got my notepad out, I’ve got my top lieutenant [District Director Colleen Pobur] and we’re here to listen and see what we can pick up. Every one of these [calls] has been entirely meaningful, and it was particularly important for me to get with all of you in the Lakes Area.”
The variety of participating businesses included restaurants, retailers, occupational therapy and a dance studio, among others.
“Eight weeks is not enough”
Several businesses on the call had already received Payroll Protection Program funds, but voiced concerns of monies depleting before their business is permitted to fully reopen.
A Walled Lake retailer used funds from the Payroll Protection Program (P3) to recall her staff, but is now concerned that money will be gone before they are able to generate new business.
“We sell floor covering, so we need people to come into the showroom and look at samples. We need to send out our guys to measure, we need to send our installers out. Well, because of the shutdown we cannot do any of that,” she said. “We took our people off unemployment, they’re getting their paychecks, but nobody is working. I almost wish we could’ve froze that money…until we were able to bring some people into the showroom. It’s going to be gone before we can even generate more business.”
Stevens told business owners that she is taking a role on the proposed Paycheck Guarantee Act, introduced by Congresswoman Pramila Jaypal last month. Amongst the top items the bill would cover include 100 percent of wages for workers earning salaries up to $100,000, keeping workers enrolled in employer-sponsored benefits, and cover essential business expenses like rent.
“I saw PPP as triage, we need to move to the next phase here,” Stevens said. “We don’t want to sit here and see every business in our community struggle. It’s nice to get this for the weeks that you get it, but we need to do the extension. We need to continue with the next phase here on this. We want you to see this bill we’re working on, we know we need to do more.”
Restaurateurs on the call say they have been struggling switching to a carryout only business model, and say small margins don’t leave much room for profit.
“It’s been a challenge to reinvent ourselves overnight. We’re not built for a carryout restaurant; I’ve got 8,400 square feet and nobody to sit in it,” a Commerce restaurant owner said. “We can’t even open until [May] 28th, allegedly, and I don’t think that’s going to happen after then. I think we’re in this for many, many more months. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be sustainable, not just for us but for all the restaurants around us to continue paying rent, to continue paying mortgages if we have to operate at 25 percent.”
Another Commerce restaurant owner echoed the same comments, adding he has lost staff due to concerns of the virus. For employees who are willing to work, the business isn’t there to call them back.
“How many people are going to be okay with going out? That’s my number one thought every day when I wake up,” he said. “When this is all over, how many people are actually going to go out? What’s the normal going to be? That’s what I’m worried about.”
Many business owners say they have had to get creative with ways to continue to serve customers and sustain employees.
A Wixom retailer who had recently purchased a second location in Flint just before the virus hit says he has had to layoff nearly 90 percent of his staff.
While he’s received a P3 loan and a grant from Oakland County, the majority of his sales are business to business.
“We’re primarily a business to business operation; restaurants are a huge business for us,” he said. “It’s kind of scary to see this keep expanding because those businesses that we depend on are in a tough situation like we are.”
Laura Bolyard, executive director of the Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said this is just a snapshot of what area businesses are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think what we’re hearing from our businesses, we all know this, but the quicker we can get back to work the better. We need to do it safely, but we’re hoping we can start easing these things back in,” she said. “Thank you for hearing from us and allowing some of our members to share their stories.”