“Shop local” campaigns bring attention to small businesses in communities across the nation at Christmas, but that mantra is beginning to resound as the COVID-19 virus is changing life on an almost daily basis for Americans.
Small businesses face the challenge of continuing operations as people are encouraged to take precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, such as avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people in a public place and social distancing of 6 feet from other people.
“We want to help keep small business doors open and to keep supporting them,” said Tammy Kinser, director of tourism for the Greene County Partnership.
While some stores and restaurants are closed or may close as the situation with the virus changes, there are still ways that people can support these locally owned businesses, Kinser said.
One option is ordering items online from a store, which could be shipped or picked up at the store. Some are offering free shipping, she said.
Some local businesses have found success hosting Facebook Live events about their merchandise. “We are trying to work with clientele to use social media like Facebook and have more of the Facebook Live events,” she said. “People can watch then or watch it later when they have time.”
The Tourism Department is planning to have Facebook Live events in coming weeks to promote businesses or places that could be visited with the recommendations about social distancing and avoidance of large groups.
Planned thus far are events at Esther and Ella Boutique, the Fairgrounds and the David Crockett Birthplace State Park, and ones have been conducted recently at Broyles General Store, Kinser said.
Another way individuals can help small businesses and independent restaurants is to purchase gift cards or gift certificates, she said.
“You can’t spend it now, but it does provide cash for the businesses,” Kinser said.
Several of the local restaurants have also closed their dining room out of caution, but are still open and accepting takeout orders, she said. Kinser encouraged people to call their favorite restaurant to see if they are accepting takeout orders.
Greene County is considered a “drive-to” vacation destination, and an important part of that draw is the community’s small shopping boutiques and dining options, she said.
When there is a pandemic like this one or a natural disaster, tourism and businesses such as restaurants, boutiques and speciality stores are the first group hit with a downturn of traffic, she said.
“But on the positive side, they also bounce back pretty quickly after it is over,” Kinser added.
The Tourism Department is distributing a “staycation” brochure that lists these type of tips and encourages people to patronize local stores.
SMALL BUSINESS CHANGES
Using social media more, such as the Facebook Live event, is one of the ways that Esther and Ella Boutique on North Main Street is trying to address the challenges the coronavirus is presenting businesses.
The boutique is relying more on social media, said owner Ashley Leonard. For example, Facebook Live provides the opportunity to showcase merchandise in greater way through video, she added.
The store is offering curbside pickup and delivery within 10 miles in Greeneville, she said.
“People have been very responsive,” she said. “We have a lot of curbside pickups and a few deliveries thus far.”
“We are still open for now,” Leonard continued. “We still have bills and employees to pay. We are taking it day by day. We ordered spring and summer stock last December and that merchandise is starting to come in, which has to be paid for.”
With the coronavirus concerns, she said cleaning and sanitizing within the store has increased.
Trying to follow recommended precautions is one of the ways daily operations have changed for Broyles General Store and Emporium.
Cleaning and sanitizing has become almost a constant task in the store, said owner David Broyles.
“I have had to learn to quit shaking hands,” he said. “I try to shake hands with all of our customers, and it has been hard to remember sometimes that we are not supposed to do that.”
Broyles said he plans to keep the store open as long as he can, particularly since it provides animal feed.
Business has been up in recent weeks as people have been buying more of the feed, expressing concern about supplies becoming scarce, he said.
However, he continued, he has talked with feed suppliers, who indicated they don’t expect any shutdowns of production facilities because the industry is considered essential by governmental authorities.
The store has also experienced a notable increase in the sale of garden seed, Broyles said.
“Customers are talking about growing a garden who say they haven’t had one in a while,” he said. “Maybe people are wanting to grow food after the situation with grocery stores recently.”
Many people have been stocking up on food and other items, leaving some shelves bare in grocery stores and leading many stores to modify their hours so employees have more time to clean and restock shelves.
“We have been seeing a trend though in the last few years of more people buying seed and saying they want to grow a garden out of concern about the source of food in stores,” he said.
With a recommendation for people to not gather in groups of more than 10, some local restaurants have closed their dining rooms, offering takeout service only, or made changes to how people are served. A number of fast food restaurants with drive-thru windows have closed their seating areas and are offering food through drive-thru only.
The changes are also affecting food trucks. John Price, who operates Top Dog Hot Dog, said he has made some alterations to operations to make things safer and keep large crowds from gathering in light of the coronavirus.
Price has rearranged the cart to have the grill farther away from where people order. He said he is also dispensing potato chips and drinks to customers. Previously, customers selected chips from a display on the cart and retrieved drinks from coolers beside the cart.
“As an industry, as local small business food handlers, we are all taking steps to ensure your safety but we are not compromising the quality you are getting,” he said.
Price said business has been good in the past few weeks, and he plans to remain open unless told to shut down. He has a handwashing station and wipes on hand to keep the cart clean.
At Hix BBQ, the dining room was closed this week and the restaurant is adopting a “car hop” approach in which customers pull into the parking lot, servers come out to take orders and then deliver meals to the vehicles. The restaurant also has a drive-thru window for call-in orders.
Other restaurants have closed. The owners of County Line Pie have closed it temporarily along with the restaurants they have in Johnson City and Kingsport.
Assistance for small business owners may be available in the coming weeks through loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday he has submitted a request for Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance to the federal agency.
Once a declaration is made, all Tennessee small businesses and nonprofit organizations that have suffered economic injury as a result of COVID-19 will be eligible to apply for disaster loan assistance of up to $2 million per applicant.
The loans can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable or other bills that cannot be paid due to the disaster’s impact, according to a release from the governor’s office. Interest rates for the loans are 3.75% for small businesses and 2.75% for nonprofit organizations.
The SBA offers loans with long-term repayments in order to keep payments affordable, up to a maximum of 30 years. Terms are determined on a case-by-case basis, based upon each borrower’s ability to repay.
More than 94% of Tennessee’s private sector business establishments have fewer than 50 employees. This represents 151,500 businesses that employ more than 1 million Tennesseans.
Ken Little contributed to this article