(opinions) local businesses

A sign on the door of Souvlaki informing customers of new policies enacted in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, March 18, 2020.

It’s hard to uncouple the running of a small business and the potential for risk. It’s a bit like starting a new crop in a community garden — you’re hoping the members of the community will foster your growth, watering you and tending to your other needs. The Blacksburg community has nurtured such Main Street staples as Fringe Benefit and Souvlaki for decades, making it possible for subsequent generations of students to enjoy their fruits. But what happens when the community is sent indoors, creating obstacles for the necessary upkeep and watering that these businesses need?

The COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated such a scenario. In efforts to preempt the spread of the virus, Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech, recommended the Virginia Tech student population go home on March 11, significantly thinning out the town’s population.

“Blacksburg seems summery right now in terms of the population,” said Cody Thompson, co-owner of Zeppoli’s. “There are still some kids who want to be here but it’s still less than 20%.”

Thompson, like most of us, said he couldn’t anticipate an event like this coming, so initially, it was jarring for him. 

“The economy’s done so well for years we kind of planned in case it took a turn for the worse, but nothing like this where the bottom completely drops out and we have to change our whole mode of operations,” Thompson said. “We pride ourselves on our hospitality, serving people at their tables and making connections ... but now we’re just doing takeout and delivery so it’s way different. But in terms of operations, we’re getting more used to it and understanding that it’ll be another month or two ... we’re changing things operationally to suit a takeout only requirement.”

Throughout the call, Thompson seemed optimistic, rolling with the punches and making the most of what he could in an unfortunate situation like this.

“Luckily, students weren’t our main customer base,” Thompson said. “We still get a lot of professors or locals who have more disposable income than students anyways, but we get on Instagram and try to see who’s still here and offer deals because students don’t want to cook every night anyways.”

It’s not just restaurants, though; Gov. Northam’s stay-at-home order and similar actions taken across the country have crippled small businesses. As CNBC reported, this month alone has resulted in an over 1,000% increase in layoffs at the hands of small businesses just to survive the economic fallout.

“We laid off students who were going home anyways, and anyone who was here and still needed to work, yeah, we had to cut their hours, but we’ve been doing everything we can do (to) give them as much as we can,” Thompson said.

Thompson reminded me that takeout orders are a good form of support and help channel some money to those employees who were previously working full-time. But there remains the question of what to do for those businesses who don’t have takeout revenue to lean on. This question is largely still unanswered. 

The CARES Act, the coronavirus stimulus act that was recently passed, helps in part by offering loans that will in time be partially forgiven, but these things also take weeks to enact, a time frame that can make a difference. In some scenarios, like with Wells Fargo, banks have already reached the limit of applications that can be taken for loans.

On March 24, Yelp announced they were partnering with GoFundMe to create donation pages for all the businesses registered on its app — a decision that has been rolled back amid controversy. The problem with Yelp’s decision was that they automatically opted these businesses in to fundraisers without asking their consent. It’s almost condescending, in a way, telling all these businesses that they indeed needed this charity without knowing their situations. 

Small businesses in the Blacksburg area have not taken too kindly to this decision either. Nail Bar Blacksburg posted a photo of its GoFundMe donation page on Facebook with the following text: “Yelp has created thousands of accounts during COVID19 crisis asking for donations … We don’t like Yelp’s ‘I can do what I want to your business without permission’ attitude at all!”

Zeppoli’s received similar treatment from Yelp. Thompson commented on the situation during his phone interview.

“There’s like a small business Facebook group, and we were all in agreement that it was not cool to do that and to say it lightly,” Thompson said. “I guess there could be good intention there, but at the same time GoFundMe takes a cut of that, Yelp takes a cut of that, and if I really wanted to it would only take three minutes to create a donation page for my restaurant.”

Thompson also made note of some more useful ways people could support the restaurant if they so choose.

“You have people in the community posting about it, saying ‘Donate here, donate there’ and we’re like, ‘Wait, if you want to do that, just buy a giftcard to the restaurant or go to the restaurant or send them money,” Thompson said.

So what are the most effective ways to help out those businesses in your community in their time of need? I’ve surmised that it is key to check up on your favorite local businesses and keep up to date on their goings-on. I found out from my work on this article that almost all of them have a Facebook page and are easily reachable through that. Beyond that, many, like Zeppoli’s, are creating special deals during this time to help their business along. Find out what those are for your favorite restaurants. 

More than ever, now is the time to be cognizant of the drivers of our local economy. Keeping them at the top of our minds is the most important step in helping them through this lockdown and this pandemic. I’m not saying anyone needs to go out on a limb to support all the businesses in Blacksburg, but being aware of how your favorite ones are doing during this trying time can help immensely.

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