As the community focuses on social distancing amidst the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, the painful impact on local businesses cannot be overstated.
While bars and restaurants closed their doors to dine-in customers following Gov. Doug Ducey’s March 19 executive order limiting operations to carry-out and delivery orders; retailers who have remained open have seen a dramatic drop in sales.
One such local businessman is Jason Feinberg, who has operated Sher’s Clothing, a specialty women’s boutique with locations in Surprise and Sun City, since 1995.
He said his family-owned stores have seen a 75% reduction in sales over the past week as his mostly Sun Cities-based clientele have rightly focused on social distancing.
“The past few weeks were not too bad for traffic, but this week its very slow, not much traffic this week at all,” Mr. Feinberg said. “This is usually a very busy time of year and with the coronavirus, it came to a halt. We are hoping that things blow over quickly.”
He said the downturn has affected more than his bottom line as he and his employees adjust to the change of pace on the now mostly empty sales floor; but he understands concerns about keeping a safe distance are well-founded.
“It’s tough on my workers and family. I think everyone is scared of the uncertainty of this virus,” Mr. Feinberg said. “I understand the population in this area does not want to come out and I don’t blame them at all. They are at the highest risk and God forbid it starts spreading more here in Arizona.”
He said he hopes to remain open as long as possible and won’t likely close his doors unless required. Meanwhile, they’re using the extra time to keep the store extra clean to help avoid spreading the virus for those shoppers who do drop in.
“As of now, we do not have any plans to close unless mandated by the city or state,” Mr. Feinberg said. “With very few customers, we are spending the day cleaning and sanitizing the whole store and asking the customers that do come in to sanitize their hands with wipes and hand sanitizers that we provide.”
If needed, though, he’s prepared to close down in the interest of public health, Mr. Feinberg said.
“Not sure what the future will hold,” he added. “If the spread continues, we will close until this blows over for the safety of my employees and our loyal customers.”
The Greater Phoenix Area Chamber of Commerce during the week of March 16 surveyed Valley businesses to gauge the economic impact of COVID-19.
With 187 surveys returned, 83% of respondents were companies with 100 employees or fewer and 68% of those said concerns over the coronavirus outbreak are having a somewhat-negative to dramatically negative impact on their operations.
Meanwhile, 30% of businesses reported it was already having a detrimental effect.
“Companies are working to make sure they are working toward being protective and safe and they are also working toward making sure employees and employee families are safe,” said Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the chamber regarding initial reactions to the pandemic.
Top concerns identified by survey respondents were:
Mr. Sanders said local businesses are dealing with grim realities every day.
“What kind of bridge financing can we put in place to make sure business can get through until Small Business Administration loans are available?” he asked. “That is going to be a really important factor to a lot of businesses out there. There are a number of cities and counties around the country looking to fund businesses to help them make it through that bridge time period. I think those topics are being discussed at the cities and at the county level.”
Negative impacts will be hard to avoid, Mr. Sanders admitted, saying some respondents already anticipate layoffs among other drastic measures.
Asked whether businesses have had to lay-off employees or reduce salaries:
As in other communities, city of Surprise officials have already taken action to help local businesses weather the storm.
On March 20, they announced the launch of a banner program aimed at connecting customers with local restaurants, which remain open for delivery and pick-up.
The city’s Economic Development Department gave out four-by-four-foot banners with big white letters against a bright-red background reading: “Open During COVID-19: Pick-Up & Delivery Available” or “Pick-Up Available.”
The free banners sprung up along Bell Road and elsewhere in the community throughout the week, signaling relief for sequestered diners weary of home-cooking.
On Thursday, Surprise officials also announced its COVID-19 Business and Workforce Resources webpage, which provides a one-stop source for residents and businesses to receive useful information, including:
Also seeking to support local businesses across the West Valley and beyond, Independent Newsmedia, Inc. – parent company of Daily Independent – launched the “What’s Open” feature at its website: yourvalley.net.
The service, linked from the site’s homepage, provides a landing page with a list of businesses, which have remained open.
Charlene Bisson, Arizona Group Publisher for Independent Newsmedia, said the free service is aimed at helping local businesses stay afloat during these tough times.
“Independent Newsmedia launched ‘What's Open’ campaign this week to help with community awareness on how local businesses are operating during this national pandemic,” she said. “We’re offering complimentary posts on YourValley.net to keep your brand alive during this pandemic.”
Any local business can join the “What’s Open” page at the website, adding their names to the dozens who’ve already signed up.
Though its’ difficult to predict how long the economy will be affected by the coronavirus, business owners can benefit long term from continued public exposure, Ms. Bisson asserted.
“While Independent Newsmedia is also facing tough times ahead, it’s important to remember as in past recessions that you don’t want to lose brand recognition with your customers,” she said. “It’s been widely reported that increased marketing campaigns during economic downturns increases a business’s market share when the economy returns.”
Editor’s note: Terrance Thornton contributed to this story.