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As more workers stay home, small businesses struggle to adapt

Coronavirus takes toll on small business profits
Coronavirus outbreak takes toll on small business profits 02:19

Amazon said this week it would award $5 million in grants to small businesses near its Seattle offices where employees are no longer working amid the coronavirus outbreak — an offer local business owners say could provide them with some much-needed financial assistance.

The e-commerce giant's "Neighborhood Small Business Relief Fund" is intended for restaurants, food trucks, coffee shops and other retailers that rely on foot traffic. But that business is greatly diminished after an Amazon worker in Seattle tested positive for coronavirus, prompting the company to send the rest of its local staff to work from their homes.  

The Trump administration has proposed a payroll tax holiday and a $50 billion increase in low-interest Small Business Administration loans to business owners caught in the coronavirus slowdown. While politicians in Washington, D.C., debate what's best for Main Street, states, municipalities and large companies are stepping in to help support local small businesses bearing the brunt of public health officials' recommendations that Americans practice "social distancing" and stay home. 

Seattle restaurant owner Fon Spaulding of Kati Vegan Thai near Amazon's Salt Lake Union offices says she'll need financial help to keep her place open and her workers employed. "They closed office buildings and people are working from home, so our sales are way down," Spaulding said. 

The restaurant now makes about $150 during lunchtime, or 80% less than its usual $750 haul. Customers still trickle in for dinner, but she's already had to cut hours for some of her 25 minimum-wage workers. "If they're not making tips, they don't want to stay," she said. 

Trump announces extensive coronavirus travel ban 02:57

The city of Seattle and the state of Washington are also chipping in to help business owners and their workers who are suffering from the economic effects of the coronavirus. Washington Governor Jay Inslee is expanding workers' unemployment benefits and waiving financial penalties for businesses that pay their taxes late because of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the city is deferring businesses' taxes and utility bills to allow "small business owners increased flexibility during a period of financial duress caused by the COVID-19 outbreak."

Molly Moon, who owns nine homemade ice cream shops in Seattle, hopes these measures will ease cash-flow concerns generated by "erratic" sales of late. She expects to owe $90,000 in city, state and county taxes in the next two months — a sum that, if deferred, can be used to pay employees who might require help should they become sick. 

"Just deferring that and keeping that cash in our bank account so we can use it on paid time off and taking care of our employees is really helpful," Moon said. 

Other cities and states have announced their own measures aimed at helping businesses avoid becoming casualties of the coronavirus as case numbers rise. It has infected at least 1,000 people in the U.S. – eight times more than just a week earlier — while 32 people have died from the COVID-19 disease.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week that businesses experiencing coronavirus-related sales drops can apply for no-interest loans worth up to $75,000 "to tide them over." Small businesses with less than five employees can be eligible for grants worth up to $6,000.

Washington state bans large gatherings to fight coronavirus spread 02:03

David Alperin, who owns Goose Barnacle, a men's clothing store and art gallery in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, said he could use a cash infusion from the government. In the meantime, his business is operating with a skeleton staff. 

"Everyone is staying home and staying safe, which is smart, but it's a hard position for small business owners to be in. You don't want to tell people to come out of their homes to go shopping and get sick," Alperin said. "I hope the city figures out some ways to help."

On the flip side, the optimist in Alperin wondered if calls for New Yorkers to avoid mass transit, including crowded subway cars, could revitalize quiet neighborhoods like his that usually lose some shoppers to Manhattan.

"We're a community store, and if no one wants to get on the subways and people instead shop local, it could be good for me," he said. 

Opportunities knock

Other entrepreneurs see opportunities in schools and businesses telling students, teachers and workers to stay home and avoid close contact with others.

Liz Hamburg, president and founder of Candoo Tech, which provides in-home technology support for seniors, has reduced in-person visits because her clients are older and more vulnerable to the coronavirus. As organizations cancel events and urge social distancing, her company is helping seniors get comfortable using services like Apple's Facetime and Zoom conferencing to stay connected to their communities and loved ones — from the safety of their own homes. 

A religious organization in New York City recently enlisted Candoo to help its members tune into virtual meetings and classes. "They don't want them to meet in person so instead they are using Zoom conferencing and we are helping with that," Hamburg said. "So in that sense, it's a business opportunity."

Deanie Barth, co-owner of Centurion physical therapy, said some patients have cancelled their appointments at her company's midtown Manhattan studio close to major corporate headquarters and office buildings. That has prompted Centurion to quickly ramp up its teleconference services — an investment that could open up a whole new arm of business for her 11-person company.

"We can't just go on a Google hangout or use Webex. We have to pay extra for a HIPAA-compliant platform, but it's an investment that could pay off," Barth said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that restricts access to individuals' medical records. 

Still, she's concerned about her employees' well-being if patient numbers dwindle and staff cuts are necessary: "This isn't Wall Street — this is physical therapy, and everyone here needs to be working."

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