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"We're not at break-even yet": Black-owned businesses in Florida on road to recovery amid pandemic

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of residents of some of the biggest battleground states in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Fitzherbert Harry, 35, is a physical therapist in Maitland, Florida. The St. Thomas-native had been running his small business, Harry Physical Therapy and Wellness, for a year when the coronavirus hit. His small team of three contracted therapists, wasn't ready for the sudden plummet in patients. As the pandemic worsened, Harry's 25 clients dropped to just three. And what would usually be seven patient visits per day, turned into seven visits per week.

"There was a big widespread panic among the patients," recalled Harry. "I got text messages, phone calls, and they're in tears, like we have no idea what to do, we just want to stop with everything for now."

Harry was able to begin providing telehealth services to some of his patients via Zoom. But because his older patients struggle with balance, some of them were not able to utilize this service because of liability concerns. Harry said that his business could sustain for another few months at its current level of productivity before needing to turn to unemployment or other streams of revenue.

Fitzherbert Harry, 35, runs Harry Physical Therapy & Wellness near Orlando, FL. His clientele skews older and some patients became afraid to have physical therapy sessions amid pandemic

"We are getting a few clients but we're not back to where we need to be," said Harry. "We're not at break-even yet. We're just on a slow, slow rise at this point."

Unemployment figures and monthly jobs reports have defined the economic impacts of the coronavirus on small businesses across the country. A Monmouth University poll published in June showed that 3 in 10 Americans reported that someone in their household had been laid off from work due to the outbreak. While this figure has dwindled since April, 35% of those surveyed also reported losing income because of a decrease in work during the pandemic. Many black and minority-owned businesses fall into this category.

The Center for American Progress suggested in April that businesses in Black-majority neighborhoods were already losing billions of dollars in revenue per year compared with similar businesses in non-Black-majority neighborhoods even before the pandemic. The group also suggested that the economic fallout would disproportionately impact communities of color, in part because of "long-endured occupational segregation, economic exploitation, and employment discrimination."

CBS News spoke with black-owned business owners in Florida who said that while the pandemic has highlighted systemic inequities that already existed for black and minority-owned businesses, it's also forced them to adapt quickly to keep their businesses alive.

"It's been a sink-or-swim situation and we've decided to swim"

Glenn Jones has been the chief executive officer of Ensure Financial Group in Lakeland, Florida for the past 15 years. His daughter, Jahlinda Jones, is the chief operating officer. 

Jahlinda Jones, chief operating officer of Ensure Financial Group, in Lakeland, Florida Jones family

Before the pandemic, Glenn Jones said their small insurance agency of less than 20 employees, was performing 90% of its operations externally. The team hosted financial literacy seminars every Sunday, to crowds that boasted more than 50 people per seminar. But when the pandemic hit, their roster of four dozen clients dropped to just three people, and their profits took a nose dive from an average $30,000 per month to $6,000.

The core demographic of the agency's clientele also happened to be among the most vulnerable population for COVID-19: seniors. Glenn Jones said all of their operations had to halt because his team didn't want to put senior clients at risk even with social distancing measures.

The unexpected nature of the pandemic forced EFG to immediately tap into its contingency fund. Jahlinda Jones said the team was looking for assistance because businesses like theirs were "working with everyday people" and everyday people were losing their jobs.

"Then there was just this shift and [we said] we're not going to stay here, so how can we fix this issue?," Jahlinda Jones recalled. "It's been a sink or swim situation and we've decided to swim."

  Glenn Jones, CEO of Ensure Financial Group, leads financial workshop with the Bartow Police Department before COVID-19 pandemic Jones family

According to a McKinsey & Company survey conducted in May, more than 40% of minority-owned small businesses added new services to support their communities and employees during the pandemic. EFG transitioned to digital interfacing, a move that Jahlinda Jones called "a complete paradigm shift." Amid dwindling customers and profits, the team had to spend more money on digital advertising for social media, and their workload increased as large group seminars were replaced with dozens of individual client Zoom meetings.  

But Jahlinda Jones said the pandemic also paved a way for EFG to fortify existing relationships with other businesses because the pandemic "made everyone wake up and recognize small businesses and how we have to work with each other in order to sustain."

Systemic racial inequities for black-owned businesses underscored by pandemic

Ensure Financial Group and Harry Physical Therapy & Wellness both had to make tough decisions regarding employees and while they didn't have to let go of anyone, both businesses had to cut hours.

EFG and Harry PTW relied on loans provided through the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established by the CARES Act to help small businesses sustain and keep their workers employed. EFG received the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which provides up to $10,000 of economic relief to businesses that are experiencing temporary difficulties during the pandemic, according to the Small Business Administration.

Harry received a $3,500 PPP loan, but maintained that because his business is his main source of income, he had to tap into his family's personal savings to stay afloat. Even though his wife works, he said it's been a financial strain.

Recent international protests have sparked calls for an end to systemic racism that some black business owners say they've experienced firsthand. Harry said it was already difficult for small black-owned businesses like his to thrive.

"We're being hit with a double whammy because before the pandemic, it was still difficult as a business owner to go out and network, and go to doctors' offices and get business," said Harry. "From my personal experience, I was being judged before I was even talked to or before they even knew who I was."

Glenn and Jahlinda Jones, said they can sense an "awakening" within the community, where clients have been more interested in supporting black and minority-owned businesses like theirs in light of recent demonstrations.

"We want to serve every customer with the same integrity, the character and the value that we can bring to their family," added Mr. Jones. "But the awakening that, yes, you have some social responsibility to support businesses that are in your community, that also look like you—black and brown-owned businesses—there's nothing wrong with that narrative."

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