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Black North Carolina business owners adapt to financial uncertainty amid pandemic

Pandemic's "cataclysmic" impact on small businesses
Pandemic's "cataclysmic" impact on small busi... 01:36

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.

Patrick Williams, 45, had just become one of four business partners at Pier 34 Seafood & Pub in Goldsboro, North Carolina, when the restaurant was forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pier 34 had only been open for four months in March and was doing well, Williams said, bringing in roughly $20,000 per month.

Once North Carolina issued a stay-at-home order, the restaurant halted indoor dining. And while Pier 34 continued to offer take-out and delivery options, in the nearly two months that the restaurant was closed, the team saw its earnings cut in half. Like many small business owners, Williams and his partners dipped into personal savings for expenses like food distributor costs and salaries for their five full-time employees.

Though his restaurant, Pier 34 has reopened, Williams is still using personal funds to help keep it afloat. Patrick Williams

"By any means necessary we were going to assure that our staff was paid," said Williams, who also has other jobs. Though the restaurant has reopened, Williams is still using personal funds to help keep the restaurant afloat. The restaurant can stay open for another six months at its current revenue levels by "cutting it hard," Williams said, but his team would have to decide whether it was worth it to keep the business going.

Two-and-a-half hours away in Winston-Salem, Geek in Heels owner Shalisha Morgan said she cried when the stay-home order forced her to shut down her electronic repair kiosk in the Hanes mall. Morgan, who started fixing electronics as a side gig in 2013, had been operating out of the mall for over a year. She told CBS News that she had just begun to recover from a slow period when the pandemic worsened.

"Last summer when sales declined, I lost my apartment and me and my children were homeless. And I had to make a decision, do I keep my home or do I keep my business? And I chose to keep my business," recalled Morgan. "When I had to close at the mall, I had some anxiety because I did not want to lose all that I had regained."

"I knew no Superman was coming in to save me, and everyone felt like I did"

Morgan said longstanding inequities for black- and minority-owned businesses made it hard for her to succeed before the pandemic. She has found it difficult to access capital and has been turned down for loans.

"As a black woman in tech, I'm not the tech that these wealthy angel investors want to invest in," said Morgan. "They'll give all of their money to white businesses with one or three white gentlemen who either went to Ivy League—or not—for their tech startup company that hasn't even started up."

Keeping business going amid pandemic 01:14

As the pandemic persisted, Morgan applied for the Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster loan (EIDL) and other Paycheck Protection Program loans. She also joined a Facebook group, where small business owners would ask each other questions about the loan application process and share general information. Morgan said members of the group grew increasingly frustrated as delayed responses from the federal government left owners feeling uncertain and undervalued.

A Brookings Institution report using data from the Census Bureau's Small Business Pulse Survey shows only 50% of small businesses that applied had received their loan by May 2 — a month after the PPP launched. Morgan pivoted to curbside repair services throughout the state.

"I worked seven days a week for as many hours as I could, doing what I needed to do because I knew that no Superman was coming in to save me and everyone felt like I did," said Morgan. 

Shalisha Morgan repairs a computer in her car during coronavirus pandemic. Shalisha Morgan

Equipped with PPE and sanitizing wipes, Morgan would text clients when she arrived to their residence and retrieve their zip-locked devices from the front door or mailbox. She'd set up a sanitized work station on the customer's front porch, or fix devices inside her car from the driveway. Morgan said she would only conduct in-home visits if necessary and only first thing in the morning or the last visit in the evening, so she could go home and change her clothing before seeing other clients or wrapping for the day.

The tech guru expanded her services to include Zoom lessons. For tele-working families, Morgan could set up dual-monitor screens and show clients how their children could use iPads for homeschooling.

"I was offering a lot more personal one-on-one concierge services, but I also felt like I was putting myself in harm's way, being that I have two children," said Morgan. "But I had to make a decision: do I sit at home and not bring in any income—because I went through my 401(k), I went through my savings last summer when I was suffering with sales—or do I get out there and work? So I chose to get out there and work and I found that what I did is essential."

Economic gains amid a pandemic

Morgan was making about $5,000-$7,000 per month, seeing 50 to 60 clients at her mall kiosk. But from the end of March through April, Morgan said she brought in $9,000 and performed more than 100 client repairs. Though she was spending more on travel costs driving to multiple cities — sometimes hours apart —Morgan lowered her prices because she "didn't feel right" charging clients the same rate at a time when people were losing jobs and couldn't really leave their homes.

She feels blessed to have increased her income during this time but said it's been difficult to watch other women and minority-owned businesses struggle.

In June, Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act, to make it easier for small businesses to access loans and have more time to use the loans. The SBA issued a new rule Wednesday that expands eligibility for PPP loans to include small business owners with criminal records, a group that the ACLU notes is disproportionately Black and Latinx.

Morgan eventually received an EIDL advance and approval for a PPP loan. The mall has re-opened but she wants to equip her cart with plexiglass before she returns. She hopes to hire another employee so she can continue her curbside services once she re-opens. Still, she adds that the pandemic has reassured her of her value.

"…If it was not meant to be, this would be the time that I just would've folded," said Morgan. "This has really shown me that I'm built to last and I can go as far as [I want] to go with Geek in Heels."

On Wednesday, Governor Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina will remain in the second phase of re-opening for at least another three weeks. Residents are now also required to wear face masks in indoor and outdoor public spaces, where physical distancing of six feet from people who don't live in the same residence isn't possible.

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