Small businesses scramble to adjust in a COVID-19 world

Some have closed, others have changed models, and all hope things get back to normal sooner than later

CLARK COUNTY — The spread of the novel coronavirus continues to hit area businesses like a ton of bricks. 

Following Gov. Jay Inslee’s order that restaurants and bars close to dine-in customers last week, businesses across the state were left scrambling to adapt. Many will now have to adapt further, as all non-essential businesses are ordered to shut down for at least the next two weeks.

One of the first major events to announce a cancellation was Vancouver Brewfest, which made the call shortly after Inslee ordered a ban on all gatherings of more than 250 people. The popular Esther Short Park spring event would have drawn far more than that in April.

This sign in the window of a Woodland Subway restaurant is similar to many all over Clark County in the midst of a viral pandemic. Photo by Mike Schultz
This sign in the window of a Woodland Subway restaurant is similar to many all over Clark County in the midst of a viral pandemic. Photo by Mike Schultz

Michael Perozzo, founder of ZZEPPELIN, a Vancouver-based marketing and branding company, says word the event might be canceled started even before the governor’s order.

“It was before the coronavirus deaths occurred in Seattle, that we were starting to get a sense of fear of gathering in public places,” he says.

With spring brewfest already pulling in barely enough people to make it profitable, Perozzo says it was pretty clear any fear over the outbreak would likely mean a loss of revenue for the charitable event.

“It’s not that we thought the festival was going to spread coronavirus or that we were scared of the disease itself necessarily, although it is a serious disease that should be taken seriously,” Perozzo says. “It was more, if there’s enough folks afraid of coming or choose not to come, all of a sudden, those charities lose out.”

But as the cases and deaths mounted in the Seattle area, and governments stepped in to ban large gatherings, Brewfest knew they’d made the right call.

“Every day, it seems like more and more,” he says. “That was the right decision, though it was a difficult one.”

Not even so much for breweries and vendors, though they do lose out on a possible revenue source, but for local charities that benefit from events like Brewfest.

At least they’ll have a chance to recoup some of that in August, hopefully, when Vancouver Brewfest’s biggest event happens.

But other charities may not be as fortunate. Perozzo says they also had to make the difficult decision to push back MS Fest, which helps to raise money for Bike MS, a multiple sclerosis charity.

“It’s really the obvious choice to make at this point. Particularly, that festival draws a lot of beer loving people, but it also really speaks to and draws in the MS community,” he says. “Folks who have multiple sclerosis and are in that higher risk category of folks that, if they were to contract this virus, their risk of mortality is a lot higher.”

Restaurant industry hurting

While many area restaurants have worked to remain afloat with take out menus and delivery, others have made the decision to shut things down completely for now.

One of those is Mighty Bowl, a popular Thai food restaurant with locations in Hazel Dell and Vancouver, and a popular food truck.

“We gave it our best. We gave it our all. We did all we could to stay open for as long as we could. We believe it to be too high of a risk to continue to be open,” wrote owner Steve Valenta on the company’s Facebook page Saturday. “Thank you to our staff of 24 for giving and giving and giving to stay open. You’re quality people that I’m so proud to be working alongside.”

Before closing, Valenta helped use up food by giving away free meals to PeaceHealth Southwest employees on Friday, offering half-off bowls, and then selling off their remaining produce on Saturday.

While many restaurants remain in business, having scrambled to introduce take out or delivery options to keep at least a semblance of revenue coming in, others don’t have that luxury.

Brian and Bre Woodhouse own Northwest Liquid Gold Taproom in Orchards. While they do serve a limited food menu, they decided it didn’t make sense to pursue a take out menu.

The couple has four employees, and can’t afford to pay them during the shutdown.

“Basically, what I told my staff is that there’s food in our refrigerators that’s going to go to waste unless you guys eat it,” says Brian. “So I’ve given them free rein if they’re hungry, or they don’t have groceries or something that they need, come to the bar, and cook yourself something to eat.”

Other businesses have stepped up to help restaurant workers displaced by the closures. Beaches and Main Event are offering free meals to restaurant workers across the area Monday and Tuesday. Just bring your most recent payroll stub to prove where you work, and you can get something to eat from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day.

But it’s not just food establishments feeling the pinch. Retailers across the area have closed, including all of Vancouver Mall, with no set time to reopen. While the state and federal government have already made it easier to apply for short-term unemployment benefits, a growing number of people are worried about paying rent come April.

Lea Graves was forced to close down her salon business, Main Street Studio, and says she’s not sure how long the business could survive in a shutdown.

“I work week to week, and I’m very booked out,” she says. “I’m booked until June right now. And so, even when I do go back to work, it’ll be great, but it’s gonna be an overload because everyone’s gonna have to reschedule.”

Graves says her landlord has been willing to bend, so she’s hopeful expenses can be cut in the meantime. But even so, it’s a terrifying time for her.

“Being a small business, we don’t have paid time off,” she says, “we don’t have sick leave.”

The Small Business Administration last week approved a disaster declaration from Gov. Inslee, freeing up low-interest loans for many affected by the shutdown. Meanwhile, Congress continues to debate a $1.8 trillion federal stimulus package that could include forgivable loans for small businesses closed during the outbreak.

The Woodhouses just hope the help comes in time, and doesn’t create new hardships once they are allowed to re-open.

“I perceive there being a major hangover in terms of retail business, long past the end of this coronavirus issue,” says Brian. “But especially for the families and people that also rely on that as their primary source of income. They’re not going to have the money to afford their groceries, their bills, let alone the ability to go out and spend on a luxury like entertainment.”

Those realities explain why President Donald Trump repeated several times during his press conference on Monday that “we can do two things at once,” in referring to getting businesses back up and running, while still working to suppress the COVID-19 outbreak.

The administration said last week it was seeking a 15-day ban on large gatherings in order to “flatten the curve,” but the president said Monday he is hoping areas with few cases can begin to bring businesses back online while still keeping vulnerable populations safe.

“America will again and soon be open for business — very soon,” Trump said. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

Pressed about whose advice he would lean into when making decisions about encouraging businesses to reopen, the president said he would listen to all of his advisors, but that there needed to be a finite amount of time for the economy to remain shut down.

“If it were up to the doctors, they’d say let’s keep it shut down … for a couple of years,” Trump said. “We can’t do that.”

While some workers will sit back and hope for unemployment insurance, or a government stimulus package that helps pay their bills until this blows over, others will likely move on.

After all, major retailers and Amazon have announced hirings expected to total at least half a million people, and they want to move quickly. So motivated workers currently looking for income will likely have options.

That could leave restaurants that were forced to lay off workers with a quandary when the shutdowns are eventually lifted. Will they have lost long-time employees to other industries? And, if so, can they win them back.

If you are a small business facing a shutdown, or you have been displaced from your job during this crisis, you can find more information about available resources at the following websites.

Washington State Coronavirus Response page.

Washington Department of Labor and Industries.

Washington Small Business Disaster Loans information page.