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Commerce, tourism, economic leaders preparing for coronavirus’ impact to businesses

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Leaders of the Rowan County Tourism Development, Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Commission are using surveys and providing resources to businesses to gauge and prepare for a big hit to the local economy due to the coronavirus outbreak.

A devastating average of 80% of jobs have been lost in the county’s tourism, lodging and service sector already, which comprises more than 2,000 jobs, according to James Meacham, the director of the county tourism development authority. The 80% figure comes from what impacted businesses have directly relayed to his organization, and it mirrors what the state and the nation are seeing right now, he said.

The National Restaurant Association estimates that between five to seven million restaurant jobs will be lost over the next three months.

“I don’t think 30 days ago anyone was expecting a virus would shut down the economy,” Meacham said, adding that it’s “tough because just 30 days ago, businesses were booming and you couldn’t find workers.”

It’s still too early to fully assess the full scope of economic damage, but Meacham estimates a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the county’s tourism sector alone.

Elaine Spalding, president of the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, cited a survey from the U.S. Chamber when saying that 74% of employees see employers as their most trusted source of information right now. Though, 64% of small businesses don’t have an emergency plan in place, according to the survey.

Spalding said the local Chamber of Commerce has been advocating for various programs to help support Rowan County businesses affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and its associated state-mandated closures. For example, the chamber has talked to businesses about utilizing low-interest, federal disaster loans from the Small Business Administration as working capital, if needed. Last week, the SBA announced its disaster loans would provide up to $2 million in assistance during this time. The interest rate is 3.75% for small businesses without credit available elsewhere. Businesses with credit available elsewhere are not eligible. The interest rate for nonprofits is 2.75%.

Additionally, the Rowan Chamber has provided members with suggestions on how to continue buying local during this time to support businesses. Those suggestions include purchasing gift cards, keeping subscriptions, purchasing items now and scheduling a pick-up time for a later date as well as ordering food to-go or with curbside pick-up.

Spalding added that another suggestion for businesses during this time includes alternating the staff that works at the office and the staff that works from home.

The Rowan Chamber released a survey on Wednesday to gauge how local businesses may be suffering. Responses for what the government could do to help included payment for missed income, COVID-19 testing for everyone and financial assistance in the form of cash flow, tax breaks and grants.

Additionally, out of the 34 businesses that had responded by deadline, a majority of those, 15, reported experiencing no changes at this time. For those who have, changes mostly include altered hours and employees telecommuting.

The most requested resource was cash flow.

Rod Crider, president and CEO of the county’s Economic Development Commission, said his organization sent out an initial survey Tuesday that serves as a “temperature check” to see what local manufacturing businesses are expecting. The survey only included a few questions about whether the companies were still hiring and if they anticipated any layoffs.

Only 15 companies responded, but two-thirds of the respondents reported that they anticipate a negative impact to their business. Further, 25% expect layoffs, with the majority of those layoffs involving less than 10 people, Crider said.

The commission plans to follow up with a more detailed survey, created in conjunction with other national economic departments, to better assess how and in what ways the companies anticipate being negatively impacted. It will also seek to assess any fears from customers and employees, the supply chain and how the community can help during this time.

Using this information, Crider said the economic development commission is putting together lists for companies still hiring, which includes Chewy and Snow Joe. Additionally, the commission is using a tool developed by Salisbury-based Global Contact Services to connect employers in need of workers with employees who have been laid off because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Meacham said the tourism development authority has primarily been focused on what people need during this time. The organization is working to provide the lodging, service and restaurant sector with unemployment information and tools for small businesses to use in hopes of only short-term job loss rather than long-term systemic job loss. He added that his organization will provide additional marketing to encourage travel once it’s safe to do so in an effort to revitalize the tourism sector.

“We need to step back and be people as opposed to officials and heads of agencies,” Meacham said. “No one’s to blame, and it’s beyond everyone’s control.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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