Will COVID-19 be fatal for ‘non-essential’ businesses?

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 23rd of April, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, a special episode dedicated to answering your questions about COVID-19.

BASHAM: Right. You asked, and so we’re answering! Last week we put out a call for questions for WORLD’s medical correspondent, Dr. Charles Horton. He’s been combing through all of those and later today you’ll be able to listen to his answers.

So you’ll find a special episode devoted totally to medical questions and answers, and we’ll release it in our feed of The World and Everything in It this afternoon.

EICHER: Yes, a special afternoon release. Be sure to check your feed for that later on today. Alright well, coming next: essential businesses.

More than 90 percent of people in this country have been under stay-at-home orders for the last month, if not longer. That has upended seasonal sales expectations for many businesses—at least those not considered quote-unquote essential. But those restrictions are about to start easing.

BASHAM: Texas aims to be among the first states to allow businesses to reopen. It will roll out its recovery in phases, starting with retail outlets. They can reopen tomorrow as long as they can deliver orders to customers waiting at the curb. 

But is it too little, too late—particularly for small businesses? Here’s WORLD reporter Katie Gaultney.

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: For 45 years, Logos has sold Christian books out of its storefront in a cute, candy-colored shopping center in the heart of Dallas. Customers filter in from the sidewalk to browse, while regulars chat up longtime owners Rick and Susan Lewis.

LEWIS: For us, Easter is almost as big as Christmas. It’s a huge season and a very important season in our faith. And usually we’re packed, and we do a lot of business. So it was very, very different this year.

That’s Susan. She’s still taking orders by phone, and some customers have intentionally overpaid to help them out. Still, she estimates the bookshop is making just 10 to 25 percent of its usual spring sales. The decrease in traffic started with an emergency order from Dallas County on March 23. It was reinforced statewide on April 2.

Lewis wondered if Logos could have kept its doors open, disinfecting regularly and only allowing a few customers in at a time. And what makes a business “essential,” anyway? Or, as Susan put it… 

LEWIS: I guess it makes another question, essential to who? Our customers say that we are essential to them, to their wellbeing, to their spiritual journeys, to their state of mind, to their happiness and, and many other things.

Scott Pearson is a business professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University in south Florida. He said small businesses will be particularly affected by the upheaval, since many don’t have the easy access to capital that larger businesses have.

PEARSON: Such a large portion of our employment in this country is from small businesses. So if those small businesses go under, then that’s a lot of employment that goes under as well. 

The Lewises think they’ll rebound once stay-at-home orders are lifted. But others may not. Julie Norine and her husband own Dallas-based photography business Matt & Julie Weddings. They’ve had to cancel or postpone all their photography sessions through May 20th at the earliest. They’re unlikely to make up for lost income later in the year, since every shoot rescheduled means that future date is unavailable to other would-be customers.

NORINE: I would say 50 percent of the yearly income would be a conservative number. 

Norine is frustrated because, like Logos, in any other year this would be a busy season for her business, with weddings, senior portraits, and outdoor family photo sessions. Plus, photography can be done from a safe 6-plus feet away. Pearson said lawmakers should consider broadening their standards for which businesses should close.

PEARSON: Essential and nonessential is not the only criteria. There’s safe and unsafe. And if we believe that a 6 foot distance is sufficient, then certainly there are jobs that one could do without violating that even if they happen to fall into somebody else’s perception of what’s nonessential.

Expanding the criteria for what kinds of operations can continue would be a lifeline for a lot of small businesses. Lauren Bell runs a residential remodeling company in North Texas. To comply with local regulations, she’s said “no” to some opportunities and delayed others. She’s counting on Small Business Administration loans, like the Payroll Protection Program, to get her business through these leaner months. And she’s praying for provision.

BELL: Just honestly praying that the Lord would provide in whatever way He chooses, trusting that regardless if we can work or not that He will provide…

From county to county, state to state, rules may be applied differently, adding to frustration among small business owners. Dallas County required high-touch businesses like salons to close early on. But until Texas expanded that order to cover the entire state, Dallas residents could drive to neighboring counties for haircuts.

Craft stores, too, were initially forced to shutter in Dallas, although some remained open. Customers had been shopping for homeschool materials and crafts to keep suddenly homebound children occupied, plus supplies to make face masks.

But then County Judge Clay Jenkins sent police to serve a cease-and-desist order to a Hobby Lobby store in North Dallas. At a news conference, Jenkins said he was trying to protect the public.

JENKINS: It’s a slap in the face to the businesses that are following this order that a few outliers are putting the community in danger.

Public outcry prompted Jenkins to walk back the craft store order last week.

While so many businesses had to close, big box hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s remained open with no restrictions. The thinking is, homeowners need quick recourse if their refrigerator dies or a pipe bursts.

But one Lowe’s employee in Fort Worth told me most customers aren’t shopping for those kinds of essentials. For the first couple weeks of the economic shutdown, district manager Matt Inman saw customers panic-buying things like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, gloves, and masks.

Inman: Then after week three, people were getting stir-crazy, and it was anything that could keep them sane at home. So it was like, “You know what, my wife’s been telling me to fix the faucet for the last three years. I’m going to fix the faucet. I’ve been wanting to paint my house and I’ve never had time to paint my house.” That’s actually my biggest seller right now, paint.

Weighing individuals’ rights against public health is a balance. Some Americans are wondering if we’ve sacrificed our economy over health concerns. But Pearson said it’s not that simple.

PEARSON: I hear people saying, “People over profits,” so we can’t really pay attention to the economy until we solve the medical crisis, that’s a false comparison. Just last week the United Nations came out and suggested that as a result of the economic downturn, there may be hundreds of thousands of children that lose their lives. And we don’t think about that as an economic impact. But it’s real.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Katie Gaultney in Dallas, Texas.

(Photo/Logos Christian Bookstore)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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