BRATTLEBORO—Paul Faust slips his mask on as two customers enter Trillium Home & Garden, his store on Main Street.
“Thanks for being open,” one of the customers says.
“It’s good to see you,” replies Faust.
That purchase took place on May 18, the first day when retail businesses in Vermont could reopen, providing they follow social distancing and other public health protocols.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott is gradually lifting the restrictions that his administration placed on the state in response to the coronavirus.
For example, businesses must arrange their space to allow for people to remain 6 feet apart. They must offer a hand sanitizing station, and all employees must wear masks.
Closing for two months during the pandemic has also challenged many small businesses, according to advocacy organizations. Although the federal government enacted several emergency funding measures, including the Paycheck Protection Program, not all businesses qualified for this funding or found it useful for their long-term needs.
Representatives of several business organizations say that, for Vermont businesses, questions also linger about what the future will look like and how they will replenish two months of lost revenue.
“The best word that I can give you is ‘uncertainty,’” said Morgan Nichols, the state director for Main Street Alliance of Vermont, a small-business advocacy organization with chapters in 11 states. “They are living in an uncertain time with a lot of uncertainty as to how they’re going to survive this.”
For Faust, this Monday marked two months to the day from when he first closed his doors as part of the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order.
“People are really tired of being cooped up and want to get out and interact socially,” he said. “And I think they have a new appreciation for their town and community and, I think, more than ever, people are really willing to help support one another.”
Faust said he made three sales as of early afternoon and believes that most of the community has yet to realize that downtown retail can reopen. Eventually, more people will come downtown, he added.
Down the street, Tansy Robertshaw, who has worked at Beadniks for seven years, said five customers had visited the store on her first afternoon back, and she’d made three sales.
“I did enjoy my forced vacation,” said Robertshaw.
As much as she loved spending time at home with her fiancé, Robertshaw added, “I’m glad this place was able to reopen.”
During Beadniks’ closure, Robertshaw said she noticed an uptick in online orders from its social media presence and website, which the store upgraded to support more online sales.
Ralph Ellis, owner of the Shoe Tree, described his two-month closure as “a staycation, but with a big rock hanging over my head.”
Ellis enjoyed spending almost two months outside digging in the dirt and cutting firewood, he said, but at the same time, the uncertainty attached to the pandemic weighed heavily.
March and April tend to be “iffy” months anyway for his store, he explained.
But as the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order stretched into May, Ellis said he began feeling nervous, wondering whether he should order inventory for the summer season.
The Shoe Tree had held a few of what Ellis called “curbside Saturdays,” where people could order ahead and pick up from the sidewalk. But most people need to try on shoes before buying, which made them hard to sell over the phone, he said.
Most of the vendors he works with have extended all their payment due dates, which will help.
Ellis also received funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which offers businesses loans to continue employment for eight weeks. The federal funds, administered through the commercial loan process at banks and other financial institutions, can also be used for rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.
If employees are kept on payroll for those eight weeks, the loan is forgivable.
Ellis said he applied for the program only after friends outside the area urged him to do so, because he didn’t know if he qualified. Ellis credits staff at People’s United Bank for their help making the application process relatively painless.
The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation spearheaded weekly webinars to help local business owners learn about efforts to support them during a sudden economic tailspin.
But, despite such efforts, the programs themselves were mired in confusion for a number of reasons, including the speed with which the federal stimulus legislation was passed and signed.
Even banks were awaiting instructions and guidance from federal agencies scrambling to put legislation into action. And by the time many of the details were known, the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funding was depleted.
More funding for the PPP was approved, and the SBA has resumed the application process, administered through local banks’ commercial lending operations.
Not one size fits all
A few downtown businesses remained open during the pandemic, permitted by the executive order if they were either deemed essential, such as Brown & Roberts, or if they could provide services while maintaining social distancing protocols, such as Everyone’s Books on Elliot Street, or several downtown restaurants, which offered curbside service.
When the big reopening day arrived on Monday, however, not every downtown business opened its doors, despite the easing of restrictions.
“Businesses have had to make monumental decision after monumental decision during this pandemic,” said Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.
Small businesses are not one-size-fits-all, she noted. Some have space that makes it hard to maintain at least 6 feet of space between customers. Some owners have their own health issues to consider, considering the continued risk of a highly contagious virus that has killed at least 54 people in Vermont and almost 90,000 people in the United States. And some owners feel anxious about bringing back their staff and maintaining a payroll and operating expenses given the remaining risks of operating a business in an economy where one in five workers lost their jobs all at once.
Bonin said that two downtown businesses have decided to close their brick-and-mortar storefronts: Body in Harmony, a fitness center on High Street, and Silver Moon Adornments, now online.
Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic on behalf of the DBA members has challenged Bonin, who said she straddles the line between optimism and frustration.
As an optimist, Bonin believes downtown Brattleboro will come through the pandemic a stronger and tighter community.
She applauds the businesses that found innovative ways to pivot their models or move their commerce online. One example, she said: the number of downtown businesses offering online gift cards has increased.
“COVID-19 accelerated the need to answer the question, ‘What does a thriving downtown look like in the changing world of retail?’” she said. “Innovation will come out of this.”
But Bonin said that, for most retail businesses, they operate on “razor-thin profit margins.” And, she pointed out, no deep safety net exists for small-business owners.
The unanticipated mass shutdown in March has meant an equally abrupt halt in their revenue streams, she said. Even what the community considers a successful small business will struggle when its revenue stops, she said.
According to Bonin, the retail stores and restaurants that could offer curbside pickup reported that they were bringing in only 20 to 50 percent of their pre-COVID-19 revenues.
“That means you’re not making it,” she said. “Curbside pickup was important, but it is not the answer.”
Bonin hopes to see more support for businesses at the state and federal levels.
In her opinion, federal economic relief, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, “has failed small businesses.”
Of the 100 businesses in the downtown, Bonin said just 20 percent have reported to her that they received any kind of federal grant or loan money.
This means that business owners have needed to dip into the expanded unemployment benefits, she said. Owners are choosing between paying for groceries or the rent on their closed storefronts with stimulus funds and unemployment benefits that should go to individual household needs, Bonin said.
“A business is one entity, and a person is a separate entity,” she explained. “The two different entities should get two different sets of economic relief.”
A positive development from the pandemic is the support business owners have provided for one another, she said.
Bonin has witnessed daily conversations happening on the DBA’s private Facebook group. The number of people participating on the page has doubled as business owners have offered support, answered questions, and directed one another to resources.
Everyone is trying to do the right thing
Leaders in the business community have underscored a key point: Now more than ever, people need to buy local, and consumer choices can make a huge difference in helping local retailers weather a traumatic blow to their enterprises.
Just because local stores have increased their online presence doesn’t mean they don’t need customers, said Kate O’Connor, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
O’Connor can speak directly to how the federal small business funds don’t work for all — as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, the chamber itself can’t access the Paycheck Protection Program.
The challenge with COVID-19 is that so much remains outside of the local community’s control, O’Connor said, noting that as head of the chamber, this lack of local control has challenged her firsthand.
A global pandemic also presents unique challenges, O’Connor added.
After Tropical Storm Irene devastated the region in 2011, the water eventually drained away, the community could assess the damage, and then come together with a plan to fix it, she said.
But no one can see a virus, she said. The community can’t see when it arrives or when it leaves. The invisibility of the challenge leaves so much unknown, she said.
“We don’t know when it’s going to end,” O’Connor said. “We need to be patient with each other.”
O’Connor has felt impressed by the new collaborations she has seen sprout among different businesses.
For example, one small bed and breakfast has a dining area that is so small that it’s hard to comply with the social distancing mandate, said O’Connor. When lodging reopens May 22, the innkeepers will supply travelers with vouchers to eat at a nearby restaurant.
Calling for more federal funding
From her home in northwestern Vermont, Nichols discusses the work of the Main Street Alliance and her concerns for Vermont’s small businesses, whose proprietors are worried about the pandemic’s long-term effects.
“We are hearing over and over again that they’re being creative and resilient to try and find a solution for now,” she said. “But in looking at the long-term impacts of this COVID pandemic, there’s a lack of clarity of what that runway is going to look like for the survival of their business.”
Main Street Alliance of Vermont represents more than 700 small businesses around the state. It lobbies on behalf of small businesses and supports policy changes around healthy communities and economies, such as creating a robust child care system, paid family leave, and tackling racial and economic inequities.
Since March, the organization has tried to support businesses by connecting them to federal or state resources and by “lifting up their stories,” she said.
Nichols said she recognizes that some of the federal emergency funding programs “are working for some; they definitely aren’t working for all.”
Some businesses are faring better than others because they were able to make adjustments to their business model.
Others, said Nichols, struggle because they lack technical assistance, or are frustrated by the rules around how the federal funding works such as loan forgiveness for the PPP.
She added that some of the ways the federal emergency funding is structured don’t work for small businesses as it relates to their wages versus fixed costs.
The U.S. House passed another round of stimulus funding last week, but it faces Senate Republican opposition and a veto threat from President Donald Trump, noted Nichols, who considers Vermont lucky that its federal legislative delegation understands what’s happening on the ground and will advocate on the state’s behalf.
As much as she understands why the state is reopening the economy slowly, Nichols also worries that businesses won’t be able to survive at a slower pace — for example, restaurants operating at 25 percent occupancy.
Such businesses need more federal financial support, she said.
Moreover, she said that she has heard from businesses that personal protection equipment — specifically, thermometers — necessary to protect workers is difficult to procure.
Businesses are taking on greater health and safety responsibilities in a time when their ability to pay for those responsibilities is reduced, she said.
“How do we support businesses financially to be able to weather this storm, in a position that puts health and safety first and gives them the resources to make those choices, so that as things are opening they can do so in a safe way that doesn’t put them at a more of a financial burden?” she asked.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and especially in Vermont, we are an incredibly interconnected supply chain,” she said. “And when one business or one event closes or is cancelled, the ripple effects are really far reaching,”
Like Bonin and O’Connor, Nichols also noted that Vermont’s small businesses operate with small margins.
“Particularly for those towns where a lot of their revenue is tourist driven, it’s never more important for us to buy local as much as possible,” she said.
“Frankly, in a state with a small population, the community business economy is completely dependent on the extra visitor population,” said Nichols, who said she has felt bolstered by the creative “grit” of businesses and the communities that support them.
The Main Street Alliance is advocating for multiple policy changes to support what the organization calls “pandemic resilience.” These measures include direct financial support to small businesses and funding for states and municipalities to provide public health services.
The organization is also advocating for workers to draw unemployment until supportive health systems are in place. Such systems include testing, child care, and schooling.
Finally, the organization wants the federal government to create mechanisms to remove systemic racial and economic inequities such as investing in programs that serve communities of color.
All COVID-19-related programs should also be evaluated “for potential to produce racially disparate outcomes and adjusted to promote equity,” she said.
Taking it slow
Meanwhile, in the recently reopened stores, proprietors are adjusting to address consumer apprehension about a return to shopping.
At the Shoe Tree, Ellis said he wanted customers to feel safe coming into his store. Everything gets disinfected, he said.
“It feels good to be open again,” he said.
Pointing to Beadnik’s hand-sanitizing station, Robertshaw said her team is ready. They are still figuring out the details in the guidance issued by the state around store occupancy numbers, so they will be monitoring customers closely.
“I hope people will eventually start coming back into the world of non-isolation,” she said. “It’s nice to see people.”
Faust said that his fellow business owners in other states that have already resumed retail operations have told him that their customers did return, eventually. He expects business will slowly pick up as people feel more comfortable venturing out.
In the meantime, he feels optimistic for a “trickle-down effect.”
And he said the state’s measured response to the pandemic and its slow approach on lifting the emergency orders could be good for business, and the economy in the long run, by giving customers the confidence that the virus is under control. That, in turn, could mean that people will want to move here, or vacation here.
“One way or another, they’ll come to Vermont,” Faust said.
“Vermont did so well [managing] the virus.”