Marisa Mutty, Lead Planner and Development Specialist
Much has been written about financial aid and funding options for small businesses during the pandemic. Most local government and economic development entities have done their best to communicate the various options to local businesses. In some cases municipalities have provided their own funding where possible.
This next phase of recovery from the pandemic will include various levels of reopening businesses as states loosen stay-at-home orders. People will make individual decisions about how and when they return to their day-to-day lives. Beyond this immediate next step, we may see waves of tighter and looser restrictions. There may be recommendations over the next several months, as COVID-19 cases spike, dip, and move around the country in patterns yet to be fully understood.
As we move into the next phase of the pandemic and beyond, businesses will need more than cash. They will be looking to local leaders, economic development organizations (plus Chambers, tourism groups, and BIDs), and to each other for signals and assistance on how to move forward.
Through conversations with our client community and on the ground working with businesses in our own neighborhoods, we’ve put together some ideas on how everyone working in this space can help local businesses in the coming months.
Both customer-facing businesses (e.g. retail or personal services) and non-customer-facing businesses (e.g. industrial or office space) will need help with reopening safely and effectively. They’ll need to consider new physical layouts of their shops and shop floors. They’ll need to decide what safety measures their staff should take to protect themselves and their customers.
On the retail side, those who have never sold online will need help navigating how to set up and maintain an e-commerce platform. Indeed, a hybrid model of online and in-person sales will be critical for many businesses as social distancing, capacity limits, and varying customer comfort levels continue. Along with those changes comes a need to communicate clearly and effectively with customers. They will need to know about what the business is offering, and what precautions it is taking to make sure everyone is safe.
Local governments and economic development organizations with experience in disaster recovery are uniquely positioned to help businesses. They can offer ideas with operations logistics, communication with customers and clients, e-commerce, and safety guidance. And, importantly, they can help connect local businesses with each other to share best practices and resources to make this ongoing process smoother.
Coordination Among Businesses
Local businesses have an opportunity to work together throughout the recovery process. Local economic developers can help facilitate that. Businesses may be able to share ideas regarding the issues above. Local businesses with similar supply needs can join forces on bulk orders. This would work well if their demand is lower or their suppliers have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
Co-located retail businesses could team up to plan outdoor shopping experiences that allow customers to safely visit multiple businesses in one trip. Customers wouldn’t have to touch a door or get too close to other shoppers. Many efforts like this will be initiated and executed by the businesses themselves. But economic developers who know the landscape of their businesses can aid in making connections that aren’t yet known to the businesses, whether that is across industries or across town.
More Flexible and Creative Ways to Use Space and Do Business
COVID-19 has forced businesses to find new methods of operation. The likely slow, patchy economic recovery process will require them to continue to explore their options. What those businesses need from their local governments is the flexibility to do so. It is clear from public health leaders that outdoor spaces are lower risk for transmission of the virus than are indoor spaces.
So, local governments should proactively (and collaboratively with community business leaders) look at their zoning codes and other rules to determine where they can make temporary or permanent adjustments to accommodate more creative use of space. Local leaders and economic developers should also find ways to streamline the permitting process. Creative communities are even waiving or covering fees if possible.
Business operations may need flexibility too. For example, as the pandemic has caused restaurants to shut down, even those who offer curbside pickup and delivery may find themselves with excess inventory of ingredients and supplies. At the same time, the number of people seeking food assistance in the US is spiking. And, farmers are being forced to destroy crops and dump milk due to commercial demand drying up.
These weaknesses in our food systems could be mitigated, in part, if restaurants are allowed to sell grocery items, either in-store or for pickup and delivery. Such a shift could allow restaurants to support their usual supply chains and alleviate the burden on typical grocery stores. But, a streamlined and well-communicated process at the local level for restaurants to be permitted to do so is necessary for that to be a viable pivot.
With so much information circulating – both fact and fiction – about this pandemic, businesses and their customers need accurate and timely information from sources they trust. Local leaders and economic developers are in a unique position to share accurate information. They can also contextualize it to the local economy and community. Such sharing of information can be done through regular pushes to constituents, or by creating content for a wide variety of users that can be shared throughout the community as needed.
Strong, Public Support for Businesses Reopening Safely
Businesses and customers alike will resume activities at their own paces even once stay-at-home orders expire. Businesses will be working with different capacity limits, levels of contact between employees and customers, and requirements to wear face coverings. Indeed, many businesses may choose stricter policies than what is permitted by states. Already, we are seeing the effects of varied approaches and opinions, from physical altercations to verbal employee harassment.
Economic developers and local leaders should support businesses in their endeavors to keep people safe. They can do this by assisting in communicating what businesses are offering and how they plan to operate. They can encourage the community to take businesses’ policies seriously and be respectful of employees and other shoppers. And they can lead by example by following recommendations from public health experts to keep the community safe.