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CT Small Businesses Brace For Extended Shutdowns That Could Kill Their Livelihoods

CT Small Businesses Brace For Extended Shutdowns That Could Kill Their Livelihoods

Hartford Courant, April 2, 2020

By Chritstopher Siner

For Chris Lombardo, the bills and frustrations are mounting daily since he and other Connecticut barbers and hairdressers were ordered shut last month by state government intent on halting the spread of the coronavirus.

The owner and founder of Lombardo’s Barber Shop in Southington has seen his income vanish and he’s at a loss figuring out what else he can do to support himself and his two sons, 5 and 11 years old.

“I think they did the right thing,” he said of state officials’ order to close. “At the same time, I’m out of work. I went to school for this. I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Owners of small businesses everywhere have similar worries. The brunt of government orders to shut is falling hard on small, family-owned businesses. Many may never recover, even after the pandemic passes.

For the economy, the stakes are high. Small businesses create two-thirds of net new jobs and account for 44% of U.S. economic activity, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

An assessment by the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group for small businesses, said the “magnitude of disruption now on the small business sector is profound.”

Small businesses are increasingly and negatively affected by the coronavirus outbreak and rising numbers of small businesses anticipate they will be affected if the outbreak spreads to their immediate area in the next three months, the NFIB said.

Federal and state officials have responded with financial help. The Lamont administration announced recently a $50 million state aid package with no-interest loans available to Connecticut businesses and nonprofits with 100 or fewer employees. The loan amounts are up to the lesser of three months operating expenses or $75,000.

"The real focus here is immediate liquidity and flexibility for our smallest businesses because we realize how hard hit they are,” said David Lehman, Connecticut’s economic development commissioner.

In addition, federal legislation would spend $350 billion to help small businesses, defined as fewer than 500 employees. It would help businesses make payroll and cover other expenses from Feb. 15 to June 30.

Small businesses may borrow up to $10 million, which is limited to a formula related to payroll costs, and can cover employees making up to $100,000 a year. 

Hate, but understand back to top

Some businesses have not been shut, but are forced to limit operations. Florist Paul Lumia in Southington, for example, is making do with curbside business.

“I hate it, but I understand it,” he said of the government-ordered change in his business, Nyren’s of New England. “I’ll probably lose Easter [sales]. I hope I don’t lose Mother’s Day.”

Weddings have been delayed and funerals scaled back, robbing Lumia’s business of large floral orders as social distancing prohibits gatherings among friends and families. May, with Mother’s Day on the second Sunday, is his biggest month and no one knows if the coronavirus will be on the run and life will return to anything approaching normal by then.

“I think I can make it through,” Lumia said. “The question is how much it will cost me. Tens of thousands. I wake every night and ask is this a bad dream?"

Garden centers were deemed essential and were spared government-ordered shutdowns. Lehman said the Lamont administration considered the industry’s predominantly outdoors business and the critical nature of the next two or three months for garden centers to do business.

In what’s become a rare sight in a landscape of shuttered businesses, customers on a recent Sunday were visiting Woodland Gardens, a Manchester garden center, looking at shrubs and garden supplies such as mulch and top soil.

Leon Zapadka, owner of the family business that has operated since 1939, benefits from an outdoors business that may be more impervious to the virus than interior sales outlets. Another advantage is that customers are eager to begin spring cleanup and working in their gardens.

Zapadka said 70% of gross dollars he makes during the year are spent by customers in April, May and June. He worries how long the pandemic will last and what the impact will be on consumers’ behavior.

“If it’s one month, I’m probably OK,” he said. “If it’s three months we’ll probably not be able to recover. We’re in never-never land. People ask, ‘How are you doing?’ I don’t know."

The pandemic is hitting businesses in ways that have nothing to do with profit and revenue. Operating for six years, Lombardo’s Barber Shop has become, as many barber shops do, a community center.

“It’s a place where people come together to talk,” Lombardo said. “People aren’t able to do that.”