VSResponsiveness has been the name of the game for companies over the past year or so as they struggle to survive what has been billed as a temporary economic recession that would help save lives from a deadly virus.
But now, more than a year after the COVID-related closures were enacted, some business owners fear the economic impact will be anything but temporary.
In March 2020, with fewer than 100 cases of COVID-19 in the state, Oregon’s economy came to a halt. Unemployment has skyrocketed into double digits, and restrictions intended to curb the soaring spread of the virus have made some business models obsolete – from downtown Portland to the vast swathes of the Klamath Basin.
With Governor Kate Brown’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” executive order, restaurants were unable to provide on-site dining, entertainment venues were completely closed, and retail operations had to limit the number of meals. number of customers in their store. It all had to do with the idea that the closures were needed for a few weeks, which then bled in a few months. Emergency orders and “lockdowns” across the country, originally written to last 60 days, have since been extended by more than a year.
Despite the unpredictability, most businesses in Klamath County have survived the pandemic. But business owners and local officials know we’re not out of the woods yet.
Klamath County Chamber of Commerce director Heather Tramp said that while the past year has been difficult, she is worried about many local businesses in 2021. Many will have to start repaying loans from life-saving emergencies granted in 2020.
“I’m actually more worried about this year than last year because all the loans are coming due, as the ramifications of rent moratoriums and non-payment of bills emerge,” she said. “As this continues, it becomes more and more difficult. People have used up their savings. A lot of our small businesses, their personal assets are tied to their business assets, and so over time it has been more difficult to make the various payments that they have received. And it puts their life – everything in their life – in danger.
According to Klamath IDEA, a nonprofit organization, businesses in Klamath County received more than $ 89 million in CARES funding in 2020. Some of that funding includes grants that do not have to be repaid. But there are still plenty of loans, like the Federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan, for businesses that were losing revenue during the pandemic, and the Paycheck Protection Program, which has prompted businesses to keep their paychecks. employees. Lake County businesses have received nearly $ 13 million in COVID relief funding.
Mike Angeli, owner of The Ledge, has seen the ups and downs of 2020 at his independent outdoor store in downtown Klamath Falls.
Although it experienced a rush for its products like kayaks and hiking supplies, backlogs in the supply chain have caused it to go weeks or more without being able to restock the shelves.
“You’ve seen hiking, camping and outdoor sports explode,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and it’s the most (interest) I’ve ever seen, increased tenfold, in 36 years… it became overwhelming with the amount of stuff people instantly wanted.
Once he saw the cleaning regimen he should be implementing at his nearby climbing gym, he decided to focus his time and money on the store. The gym was already struggling before COVID-19 hit and it didn’t have to fire anyone.
Businesses have been creative over the past year to make ends meet, despite restrictions that limited certain business sectors. From curbside service to delivery to redesigning the business model, Angeli wasn’t the only one to shake up its operations to stay afloat.
Due to the unpredictability of shipping, he has changed the way he buys his inventory. He expects to have to do so over the next few years as the pandemic continues to increase and decrease across the world.
“I took the lead as best I could, as much as I could afford, and warehoused and stocked as much of that – to meet customer demand,” he said. “But the demand still exceeded what I had. And I was ahead of a lot of people in my area because I had planned.
If there were any industries that saw their activity increase during the pandemic, Tramp estimated those were home improvement stores, outdoor outfitters and garden stores.
While the slow reopening process is underway, the increased capacity of many retail businesses has been welcomed. However, Tramp said a limited reopening taking effect on days’ notice created staffing issues for some businesses in Klamath County. She noted that school hours and daycare availability also impact staffing and outcomes.
Klamath County’s unemployment rate is still struggling to rebound after the sharp rise in spring 2020. According to the state employment department, the county has recovered about 50% of the 2,730 jobs lost last spring, this which means that about half of them still need to be completed. . The sectors hardest hit over the past year have been recreation and hospitality, education, health services and manufacturing. In Klamath County, the leisure and hospitality industry said it lost 660 jobs over the past year and 220 jobs were lost in public education.
However, some industries have already rebounded. As of December 2020, the Klamath County construction industry had increased by 160 jobs from the previous year.
Klamath County’s unemployment rate in January 2021 was 6.8% compared to 5.7% in January 2020.
The unemployment rate in neighboring Lake County is almost equal to that of last January of 4.5%. South-central Oregon regional economist Damon Runberg noted in his jobs report that “Lake County remains one of the communities least affected by COVID-19 layoffs with employment levels down only 2.2% from last January.
The statewide unemployment rate is 6.1% for February 2021 and the state recovered 46% of the jobs lost when the COVID-19 recession hit in April 2020, according to the employment department of Oregon.
Global virus, local impact
Darin Rutledge, director of the Klamath Falls Town Center Association, acknowledged that the rough road for the past 12 months had been for the small business hub of Klamath Main Street.
Still, he said terrible predictions last spring that one in four businesses would shut down during the pandemic have not come true, especially in Klamath County.
“Small business owners are resilient,” Rutledge said. “They have become innovative. They are really good at adapting. “
Although a handful of downtown businesses have closed in the past year, others have sprung up in their place, filling storefronts that have been empty for years. Rutledge highlighted how the pandemic has fostered entrepreneurship and pushed business owners and workers to find ways to make ends meet.
“Just as businesses adapt, so do individuals,” he says.
He said that so far Klamath County is on track to start even more businesses in 2021. He partly attributed this to a difference in attitude in 2021, compared to the difficult times that came before.
“It seems more temporary (to many) than the 2008 economic crisis,” he said.
Officials in the region said the majority of businesses closed permanently during the pandemic have struggled since the virus arrived and COVID has accelerated closures that were likely already underway.
Tramp was impressed with how the community escalated when COVID-19 restrictions first hampered businesses. She noticed that the focus was on local shopping and eating – and it had immediate effects. She does know, however, that a year later that energy can wear out.
“I know the people who normally eat out two or three times a month would eat out two or three times a week just to help businesses,” she said. “And eventually, it becomes more difficult for ordinary citizens.”
Some sectors that particularly suffered were personal services, such as hair salons, nail salons, tattoo studios, massage therapists and other independent contractors.
Klamoya Casino has closed for months at a time as cases of COVID-19 increased in the region. General Manager Joseph Quiroli noted that even when the casino was open, there was much less traffic in the casino. He attributed most of that to the much tighter family budget this year and a decrease in international visitors to the area for nearby sites like Crater Lake National Park.
“If some of these basic needs aren’t met, you’re unlikely to go out and do things,” Quiroli said. “People worry about their next paycheque, they worry about paying the rent. Their discretionary dollars are not really available. “
At the Crater Lake Junction Travel Center, general manager Michael Thompson said business had been a wash over the past year. Tourism in the area was down, including to Crater Lake. However, trucking traffic in the area was on the rise, he said.
The travel center remained open most of the past year, except for a few 24-hour closures after positive employee tests were confirmed. Thompson said that at the request of the federal government, they have remained as operational as possible to service freight traffic and keep their shelves stocked.
Thompson noted the challenge over the past year, as many customers refused to wear masks or threatened employees who were only doing their jobs and trying to follow the rules.
Another unfortunate circumstance that boosted business at the travel center was the Two Four Two Fire, which set off about 10 miles north of the travel center. The casino and hotel served as an emergency site for the Red Cross, which increased businesses but also put stress on their operations.
Tramp noted, looking into the summer of 2021, that while emergency business loans have been a lifeline for many to keep the lights on, there is still a lot to be understood at the state and federal levels in terms of allocation and receipt of aid. .
While Tramp says she hears every day how tired people are from the lifestyle changes caused by the virus, she urges people to be kind to the waiters, cashiers and other employees who are doing their job. work and try to make a living.
Angeli said the pandemic reminded her of the importance of connecting with those around her, especially her clients.