By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Pat Atwood, owner of artisan furniture shop Re-Imagined in Rockfish, is concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 response on her business – but it’s not only her own prospects that have her worried.
More than 40 artisans sell their products through the locally owned business, which isn’t considered essential, and has been closed now for weeks under Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders.
“It does hurt a little bit because we have 43 local vendors. It affects not just me, it affects them as well,” Atwood said.
Re-Imagined is just one of many local businesses that are shut down because of the coronavirus response. And she’s fortunate in a way, Atwood said, because her family and most of her vendors do have other sources of income. Her presence on social media has also allowed her to do occasional sales through Facebook marketplace, and “contactless” furniture pick-ups arranged by appointment with everyone involved wearing gloves and masks. The community has also been supportive of her efforts, sharing posts and spreading the word about the three-year-old business.
Some small businesses in Raeford, Rockfish and Hoke County have been hit hard, Hoke Economic Development Director Will Wright said.
“The ones that were forced to closed like beauty parlors, barber shops, they’re completely out of business until this is over,” he said.
Those stores depend on seeing customers, and currently have no way of bringing in revenue at all.
The last few weeks have “been rough,” especially on small businesses, Wright said.
It’s been a little over a month since doctors confirmed the first positive case of COVID-19 in North Carolina. Officials still urge people to stay at home, and say that social distancing is key to slowing the spread of the virus. But efforts are taking a toll on the economy, and on employees facing furloughs or layoffs.
More than 561,000 people in North Carolina – and more than 6.6 million people in the United States – have filed for unemployment insurance since the start of the coronavirus emergency. Exact unemployment numbers for Hoke County for the month of March weren’t available yet from the Division of Employment Security.
State officials are working to improve how quickly the application system can process new unemployment benefit claims, the governor said Monday. The system experienced strain due to the sheer number of claims filed at the same time.
“I know that every hour counts when you’re wondering how to pay rent or buy groceries,” Cooper said in a live-streamed press conference.
The governor took action last month to remove some barriers for unemployment insurance benefits, including removing the requirement that people must be seeking work while receiving benefits, and making it easier for businesses to help laid-off employees.
The layoffs are a factor in Hoke County, too, Wright said.
“A lot have had to lay people off,” he said.
There is help available for small businesses, but there have been some snags in getting access to that help.
Under federal guidance, small businesses can apply for loans through the federal Small Business Association (SBA). Those loans are “potentially forgivable” as long as they’re used for essential needs like payroll for employees or mortgage or rent payments, Wright said.
Some businesses that he’s spoken to are taking advantage of the available loans where possible. Most of the major banking institutions work with SBA loans for business customers. However, the amount each bank can give out is limited.
“The biggest complaint is most banks are only serving existing customers,” Wright said. The local banks in Hoke County he’s spoken with aren’t currently taking new customers for the SBA loans, the economic development director said. If a business doesn’t have an existing relationship with a bank, it could be difficult for them to find a way to access the SBA funds.
Some businesses worry that if the preventative measures must continue past a certain point, they may not be able to reopen at all, Wright said.
It’s a waiting game right now, Atwood said, but expenses like mortgage and insurance payments continue mounting even when there’s no or only little money coming in.
“A month or two may not hurt us horribly, but ongoing months I can’t just keep the store open and pay all the stuff that comes along with the business,” she said.
“We’re getting by and just praying that it ends soon.”
Re-Imagined had to suspend its fourth annual artisan fair, which was originally going to be April 18. They do hope to reschedule it later, with updates posted to the company’s Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/reimaginedlindsayhouse.
Businesses interested in getting a list of SBA and other resources can contact Wright by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.