Some businesses are lucky enough to be able to function as they transition from office to remote locations. But as the virus continues to spread, the impact COVID-19 has and will continue to have will last longer than the actual virus itself.
According to Stephen McAllister, Executive Director of the Eastern Region for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber’s CEO Tom Donohue sent a letter to the Trump Administration and Congressional leaders urging assistance for businesses and workers on Monday. The letter includes a three-policy plan to help mitigate economic effects of COVID-19. These policies include temporarily canceling payroll taxes, relaxing small business loan requirements and, lastly, expanding credit facilities for medium and large businesses.
“Our top goal at this time is to work with the president and Congress so no individual and no business goes bankrupt simply because of a disruption in revenue during this crisis,” McAllister said in an email.
McAllister added that these three items would ensure that businesses have increased liquidity, access to financing and the ability to pay their employees as they weather the temporary loss in revenue from the virus.
Lauren Slocum, president and CEO of the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has begun to work remotely. They have two remote office phones and each employee can communicate through emails. The Central Chamber, a resource for local businesses, is offering businesses and employees guidance on how to respond to the changes the virus has caused.
The Chamber has already published short videos on their Facebook page regarding communicating during a crisis, staying in touch with clients or employees as well as tips for working from home. She added more videos would be incrementally produced and that the Chamber is open to submissions on what topics may be helpful to get some information on.
The changes made to everyday life really haven’t been seen before. But the Central Chamber’s goal is to inform businesses on how they can still work in these conditions.
“If they have the ability, and they know it, to work off-site, they should make sure that it’s functioning and it doesn’t need an update,” Slocum said in their introductory video.
The success of functioning online is dependent on the technology employees have. If a company or employee has insufficient equipment, working remotely may crumble just as it becomes the temporary solution. Slocum said in their introduction video that the Chamber can suggest IT providers if a business requests a referral.
When natural tragedies like hurricanes or blizzards hit, there’s usually a protocol. There’s typically also an accompanying timetable of when its effects will deteriorate. But with COVID-19, the nation is incrementally creating this protocol. And the virus never seen before doesn’t have an end date in sight.
“We need to take it seriously and yet, we need to overreact,” Slocum said.
Fred Reinhardt, president and CEO of Greenwood Credit Union, joined Slocum for a video on finances. Reinhardt said GCU has plans in place to help those in need and offered advice for someone who is faced with an inability to make their monthly loan payment.
“I think the best thing that anyone should do is to reach out to their lender,” Reinhardt says in the video. “Don’t bury your head in the sand and wait for the lender to call you after you’ve missed a payment or two. Be proactive, reach out to the lender. In most cases, lenders are interested in helping.”
Slocum said there are a few businesses in the area that have shifted their normal practices to provide new services to people in the middle of this pandemic. Governor Gina Raimondo announced Monday that dine-in services at restaurants are prohibited in Rhode Island except delivery and promoted take-out and drive-thru.
PB&J co-owners Patti Bacon and Bill Landry have elected to find new ways of providing food for their customers. Bacon said their Warwick restaurant has been open for only six months and was typically a dine-in establishment. Since the governor made her announcement restricting restaurants, Bacon and Landry added a delivery service for orders within three miles and have made use of the drive-thru window they hadn’t previously used.
Bacon noted she saw precautions of social distancing in effect on Tuesday when four customers came in for their take-out orders but waited in four separate areas around the store until their food was ready.
R|Evolution American Bistro, a Pawtuxet restaurant, wants to cover all the bases when it comes to precautionary measures. Owner Dean Scanlon said a core group of five employees is staffed inside their restaurant that they keep locked to prevent anyone from wandering in. Scanlon said when they receive orders they ask the customer to let them know when they are on the way over and unlock the door when they arrive. As they sign their receipt, the customer can use a cleaning wipe for their hands on the way out. Then, Scanlon said, an employee will wipe down the pen, table and door handle.
Scanlon also said they are monitoring the health of the employees as well. When they show up to work, their temperature is taken on a thermometer with disposable slipcovers. Employees are also required to wear gloves, wash their hands and disinfect surfaces when necessary.
As for selections, the restaurant recently began to offer over 20 family meals that feed four to six people. Scanlon said they may intermittently run out of food items, but they have a freezer full of other options while they wait to restock. They ask for at least four hours of advanced notice for their take-out options.
The National Restaurant Association is also launching a campaign to encourage customers to order take-out from local restaurants.
Slocum said the companies taking the biggest hit are retail, trades and hospitality. The latter includes restaurants, but also catering and event-planning services as well. Aside from the actual hospitality business itself, the entertainment industry suffers alongside it as performers rely on venues to make their money. Slocum said many entertainers are sole entrepreneurs and their craft is their lone source of income.
McAllister noted that manufacturers are in an industry where they have to be present at work. As the distancing guidelines are communicated, these practices are being put into the workplace.
“Having people on the shop floor is essential to every manufacturing company. These companies must provide safety for their workers while also maintaining operations,” McAllister said. “Manufacturers must now look for new ways to complete their work using a workforce that does not have the ability to work remotely.”
McAllister added that there might be a shift to a seven-day workweek for some businesses so the same amount of work can be done overall, but fewer employees are clustered together at a time. Companies are also seeing measures taken to prevent transmitting the virus.
“[The measures] include maintaining six-foot distances between employees whenever possible, leaving internal doors open so fewer people touch the handles and creating zones on the shop floor that workers must stay within, while others are cleaning the plant between shifts,” McAllister said.
For Dr. Peri Mutewera, a Warwick dentist, said her office has narrowed appointments to emergency treatment only. In a statement from her website, patients should expect a call rescheduling their appointments. The closure is in accordance with what the American Dental Association requested on Monday.
“We take the health of our patients and staff very seriously, and in an effort to help curb the community spread of COVID-19, we feel that this is a crucial step to take at this point in time,” Mutewera’s website reads.
Some companies have tried to capitalize on people working from home. Office Depot sent some customers on their email list advertisements for preparation of working remotely. They offer a tech bundle including computers, printers, headsets and webcams to tailor to those who aren’t yet equipped to work from home.
The worst-case scenario for employers has been a reality for some businesses, Slocum said. Layoffs have been occurring with some businesses that haven’t been able to keep stable finances because of the virus. Slocum said some business owners who have never had to fire employees before are devastated that they had to deliver that news.
“These are just unprecedented times,” Slocum said.
For now, there is no definitive end in sight to the effects of COVID-19. But most statewide plans in store are in effect until March 30, with time to revisit and revise plans based on what happens day to day. And for the immediate future, the Central Chamber is taking that daily approach.