Small businesses adapt, innovate in wake of COVID-19 restrictions

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Local restaurant J. Dawgs serves customers using a makeshift drive-through where customers order and employees bring their order out to the customer’s car. (Preston Crawley)

Leer en español: Las pequeñas empresas se adaptan a las restricciones por el COVID-19

On March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency, setting off a string of enforcements and restrictions, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s order to limit social gatherings to 10 or less people and to require food service entities to shut down dine-in service for two weeks beginning March 18.

“We have not made this decision lightly. I know this will disrupt lives and cost jobs, and for that I’m very sorry,” Herbert said in a statement.

Many restaurants have been forced to change and adapt quickly. Some have closed their doors temporarily — others permanently.

The words “essential” and “nonessential” have been thrown around in relation to business and facility closures. Many states and cities have deemed grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and gas stations as essential. But where does that leave the remaining “nonessential” businesses?

Most businesses are scaling back on their hours of operation and number of employees. Restaurants are waiving delivery fees, creating makeshift drive-throughs and bringing food out to customers waiting in their vehicles.

Some restaurants already suited to delivery and pick-up, like Provo’s Five Sushi Brothers, have taken most of these restrictions in stride. “We started our business only doing delivery and takeout, so when the virus hit, we were prepared,” said co-owner Jacob Chung.

He said he has several friends whose businesses had no choice but to shut down. Five Sushi Brothers had to temporarily close their Salt Lake location in response to various factors, including COVID-19 and a 5.7 earthquake in Magna, Utah, on March 18.

“We had to lay off all of our Salt Lake employees, which was very difficult,” Chung said. “This could be a very long-term effect.”

For companies not as suited to delivery as Five Sushi Brothers, the adjustment can be difficult. Using third-party services like DoorDash and Uber Eats can help, but those services take about 30% of each sale, Chung said. “Since margins in the restaurant business are already so low to begin with, this 30% might be too much for (businesses) to survive.”

Utah County and Explore Utah Valley launched a campaign on March 25 called Dine Utah Valley in an effort to support local restaurants. The campaign’s website lists local restaurants, their delivery and pick-up availabilities and ongoing specials and offers.

In an email announcing the campaign, commissioners Tanner Ainge, Bill Lee, Nathan Ivie and Explore Utah Valley President Joel Racker said Utah restaurants and hotels help fund museums, festivals, parks, trails and projects like the Provo Airport expansion through tourism-related taxes.

“We don’t want to lose any of these local establishments and encourage all to take advantage of these great offers and curbside pickup to the extent they are able,” reads the announcement.

Not all businesses affected by COVID-19 and federal and state restrictions are food-service businesses. Entertainment and shopping businesses are being hit just as hard, if not harder, and have fewer options.

Provo’s Good Move Cafe is not quite as suited to takeout and delivery as some restaurants. “We are very much a place to come enjoy being on site,” said co-founder Shawn Moon.

Patrons can order food while they pick from a wide assortment of board and card games to play.

Moon said Good Move Cafe has had to adjust the number of employees and cut pay for those remaining.

“It’s really not a sustainable situation, so we’re hoping things get back to normal sooner rather than later,” he said.

Utah’s emergency management division and the governor’s office announced Utah businesses are now eligible to apply for low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration.

“We recognize this loan program will not solve all of today’s economic challenges, but it will be a useful tool for businesses affected by COVID-19,” according to information found on Utah.gov.

Small Business Administration loans for COVID-19 related-issues can be up to $2 million per entity with repayment terms of up to 30 years and interest rates of 3.75% for small businesses and 2.75% for nonprofits.

Moon said tight margins make government loans less attractive. “Some businesses don’t make enough to service interest on a loan even when they get back to normal, so that’s not a viable solution to get through the crisis.”

Gov. Herbert released a task force plan called “Utah Leads Together,” on March 24. The plan aims to alleviate economic damage from COVID-19. The plan has three phases, urgent, stabilization and recovery, each taking 8–14 weeks.

Despite the hardships both the community and local businesses are facing, many are learning to adapt and innovate. Provo bookstore Pioneer Book sent out a message to all customers detailing adjustments the company is making to support social distancing and lessen the spread of COVID-19.

General Manager Scott Glenn and his staff update an inventory list nightly and encourage customers to text in their orders. Bookstore staff gather the order and either mail it or provide curbside delivery.

In his announcement, Glenn also provided a link to a 3D virtual tour of the store as well as a “store soundtrack” on Pandora. The store listed t-shirts, mugs and glass-case items on eBay for customers to purchase.

“Preservation of life and beating the pandemic is more important to us than selling books,” he said. “Layoffs may become an unavoidable reality for us, but we’re scrappy and fighting to keep our small team together. Our customers and their support will be key to weathering the storm.”

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