What’s going to happen to small businesses in the United States? The ones we frequent with regularity—or at least did until early March. The restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bookstores, shoestores, recreational outfitters, dry cleaners, florists, salons, spas. The places we take our kids to and tell our friends about, whose proprietors often become familiar to us, reliable and trustworthy, mainstays of most every community.
The Covid-19 disaster descended with such alarming force, catching a federal government that seemed to be almost willfully asleep at the wheel, that businesses had little time to prepare in any way for the cataclysm of sudden closure, Pfffft, zip it, unplug your registers, padlock the doors, furlough your employees, we’ll let you know when things can change.
Recent estimates from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce showed upwards of 50% of the nation’s 30 million small businesses were expected to be under closure orders or severely curtailed in April. That meshed dauntingly with this past week’s unemployment figures, which showed 20.5 million jobs lost in April alone, with the unemployment figure of 14.7% unmatched since the Great Depression.
Clearly, something of rare destructive power has been unleashed upon the world, requiring a massive and coordinated response. But will that response be sufficient, and will the collateral damage of that response wind up swallowing or altering beyond recognition many of the businesses that give our communities much of their character, color, and spiritual sustenance?
And if all that goes, what will happen to us?
Bill and Andrea Whittington have owned and operated The Blue Note Grill in Durham, North Carolina since Memorial Day weekend, 2010, so the plan was for this month to be one long anniversary celebration at their popular music hall/bar/restaurant in the downtown historic district. Live music every night, featuring performers who had been with them over the long haul. Drink and food specials, huzzahs spoken into microphones, big nostalgia and gladness, loud whoops and toasts.
And not unimportantly, no-doubt busy cash registers, continuing the recent trend when the Whittingtons enjoyed their best year ever in 2019 and were finally, according to Bill, able to begin salting away some money for the couple’s retirement (he’s 64, she’s 58). This was only after long years of toil building their brand as the hub of roots and blues music and a damn good place for ribs in mid-size Durham (population 275,000).
Enter the coronavirus.
Business had chugged along for The Blue Note from January through early March, despite the alarming new virus that had been setting epidemiologists’ teeth on edge since early winter reports started coming in from China, but which hadn’t much altered the lifestyles of the U.S. population, Durham’s included.
“This was looking like a banner year,” said Bill from the virus-free safety of a recent phone interview, “right through our first weekend in March. We’re always closed Monday, then Tuesday and Wednesday were fine, but Thursday the 12th we hit a sudden wall. By the 17th, we were shut down.”
The truth is that liberals own businesses, too, and conservatives want to live another day just like everyone else. And the notion that there is a binary from which we must choose—life or money?—is fake and absurd, because we make such decisions every day; it is built into the very fabric of our lives.
The 17th was also St. Patrick’s Day, for which every bar-restaurant in the western world stocks up in anticipation of a huge payday. But its loss was the least, or at least just the beginning, of The Blue Note’s challenges to its bottom line. And that’s not any metaphorical bottom line, either, but real, hard, black-and-white numbers on a ledger that determine whether a business, even one as venerable and beloved as The Blue Note is in a music-mad city, can survive this unprecedented time.
Prior to the shelter-in-place orders that shuttered the sit-down restaurant, bar and music sides of the business while still allowing for take-out food orders, the Whittingtons employed 34 people with an annual payroll of some $350,000.
Now, some 10-12 employees help with the take-out operation, which totals barely 20-25% of the business’s former revenues.
Also taking a hit: musicians with no place to play, no audiences to sing to. The $130,000 annual music budget now not going to them is not the kind of savings places like The Blue Note can afford.
Then there’s the business’s $9,000 in monthly sales tax payments now reduced to maybe one-fourth of that. Multiply that times all the other closed businesses generating zero sales tax and not flowing into city and state coffers, and we can all count on severe budget shortfalls that threaten to snuff out all manner of desperately needed government and nonprofit services.
Under the hastily cobbled-together Payroll Protection Plan from the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Whittingtons were able to borrow $78,600 to help with payroll and lease costs for April and May, a sum that will not have to be paid back provided they follow specific protocols in rehiring when business opens again. Those stipulations, however, are a moving target that the government keeps adjusting as further negotiations and pleas from affected businesses are hashed out in the nation’s capital.
“We’re a pay-as-you-go business,” says Bill, “so we use March revenues to pay February bills. When revenues stopped in March, we had to start dipping into savings, and I can tell you this: We would not be open today if it wasn’t for the SBA loan and a tremendous outpouring of support from the community that has greatly increased our take-out business.”
Still, there’s “open” for a take-out food business that doesn’t come close to paying the costs of operation, and then there’s “open” in the larger, sustainable sense of packing the place with diners and bar patrons and music aficionados who enjoy no-cover music on weekdays and then pay $10-$30 for ticketed events, usually on weekends, while noshing ribs with collards and fries on the side and beers and wine and bourbon to wash it all down.
And it’s that latter style of “open” that will be an essential requirement if The Blue Note—and businesses like it across the land—will survive even through 2020, much less over the long haul.
At the moment, restaurants are limited to take-out-only stipulations as the state manages a “Stage 1 Re-opening” that has allowed certain other businesses that had been totally closed since March to resume services. Provided the virus numbers don’t suddenly surge again, a “Stage 2” would commence in another 2-3 weeks. That would allow for a “limited” re-opening for sit-down restaurants, exact contours currently unknown, though the chatter so far is that it might be in the range of 25% of former seating capacity. That limit would allow for the appropriate social distancing that epidemiologists suggest is a key aspect of limiting viral transmission.
How soon after that an expansion to 50% capacity would be allowed depends strictly on what the virus numbers will say.
As for 100%, back-to-“normal?”
There’s zero guarantee that will ever happen in a circumstance where the questions so dramatically exceed anyone’s capacity to provide answers. For all the Whittingtons’ experience as business owners and corporate managers before that (they met at Toys R Us and married 27 years ago), Bill offers only this:
“It’s mind-numbing. Our business model has been turned completely upside down, and we have had to rethink everything we do. It’s like we are back to our first-year start-up days, with everything hanging by a thread. And we are planning in the dark. No one really knows what is going to happen.”
Making things worse is that both the bar and the music sides of the business figure to remain shuttered for a good long while yet, and those are ultimately indispensable not only from a revenue standpoint, but also from an atmospheric one.
Will people even come to eat at restaurant tables where the adjoining bar is off limits and the formerly happy, loud and thriving music stage is dark?
Where they’re at least six feet and maybe more from fellow diners, given that 75% of the tables have been removed?
Where the waitperson approaches the table with mask on, takes your drink order, then conveys it to a masked bartender who has no actual bar to tend, since no patrons are allowed there?
Where the waitperson later brings the food out on a tray from which you lift your own plate and set it on the table?
“We’ve got to make you feel safe and comfortable that we’re taking care of you,” says Whittington. “But I admit it seems surreal, like a movie that I don’t have a vision of yet. It’s a lot to think about.”
One thing we do know is that human beings, even more than most all other mammals, are highly social creatures, and a huge part of why we go to restaurants and music halls rather than make dinner at home and listen to our Spotify playlists night after night (and since March, …after night after night after night…) is because we like being shoulder to shoulder with others, smiling and clapping and laughing and tapping our toes with them, sharing the joys of food and drink and culture hard up alongside them, drawing on their own excitement and joy to enhance our own, to make us feel we belong to something larger than ourselves.
Places like The Blue Note hit all these marks at once, with almost incalculable benefits to people’s well-being and a culture’s health.
Surely we have all noticed that with restaurants and music halls in general, the more crowded they are, the more crowded they get. Is there a sadder sight in the restaurant world than walking by a place with a lone couple in a corner booth at peak hour, the wait staff standing and staring blankly, the bartender discreetly scrolling through her phone?
Yesterday’s New York Times carried a story about relative virus transmission risks in different types of locales—restaurants, gyms, stores, salons—and what one can do to limit risk. This was not an unrepresentative response in the Comments section: “Other than outdoor activities I will rejoin society when they have a vaccine. See you later folks!”
The breeziness of that sentiment aside (millions of workers in health care and food production and groceries who help ensure this person’s survival don’t have the option of removing themselves from “society”), if it were followed en masse, it would lead to utter devastation of the world economy and human misery on a scale not seen since perhaps the Dark Ages. Are we prepared to endure that as we wait for a vaccine most scientists say won’t be here for 12-18 months, if ever? (Some recent reports suggest “never” is a possibility with a virus this complex.)
Whittington estimates The Blue Note may be able to survive a year at most under partially open conditions, though he’s not certain he and Andrea want to sustain the effort to take it out that far. “We’ve had to ask ourselves: Do we really want to go through this all again, like we’re starting all over?”
For the moment, the answer is yes, but then what? What if they’re allowed a 50% opening this summer, business limps along, then cooler weather in fall leads to what most epidemiologists suggest will be an uptick if not full resurgence in virus numbers come winter, and it’s back to take-out only?
And not just for the Blue Note, either, but for the currently closed art museums, sports arenas, symphony halls, group travel, fishing excursions, gem and dog and cat shows, Little League, soccer leagues, every festival and mass gathering of every kind?
Churches? What, no more live church?
Group hikes and runs?
Four-on-four pickup basketball games at the local park?
The idle but amiable chatter known the world over at bars, with friends and strangers alike?
Gone for years?
It’s unfortunate that like so many other things in this hair-trigger political culture we seem to be forever mired in, the virus has created fault lines dividing liberal from conservative. Liberals are ostensibly pushing for extended lockdown, economy-be-damned, with conservatives ready to party like it’s last summer, and so what if millions die?
These binaries are largely caricatures, of course. The truth is that liberals own businesses, too, and conservatives want to live another day just like everyone else. And the notion that there is a binary from which we must choose—life or money?—is fake and absurd, because we make such decisions every day; it is built into the very fabric of our lives.
“What is an acceptable loss of human life?” is a question we answer whenever we decide we simply can’t afford hospitals in rural settings, clinics in every neighborhood, more ambulance services, more medical schools, and more research funding for countless conditions that kill human beings the world over but not at the same rate as heavily funded and thus more heavily lobbied cancer and heart disease.
If money were no object and not one human life is worth losing just for money, we’d have at least an urgent care clinic on every corner and a nurse in every home. That would surely save a lot of lives!
But of course, that is ridiculous, so we determine what a reasonable cost-benefit ratio will be, and accept the simple fact that we can’t afford to save everyone, all the time.
So: How many lives are we willing to lose from the coronavirus in order to save all the good that flows from a healthy economy? If any of those lives are people I love, the obvious, very human answer is “None!” But that too is absurd, and anyone suggesting we delay re-opening the economy until the coronavirus is obliterated from the face of the earth is not living in the real world.
Some people always die so that many others can live—or at least not live in a kind of world so bereft of anything but fear and misery that they’d just as soon not live at all. Every war and freedom struggle tells us this in the starkest possible terms.
So if we can back off the finger-wagging and histrionics—“You conservatives don’t care about people; You liberals think money grows on trees”—we can get down to the serious work of making the sober assessments required to help us better determine what would be the greatest good for the greatest number, while fully understanding that we won’t get it exactly right, that nothing is perfect, there is no absolute safety, that every choice to go one way has negative implications for another, and that people will die whether we bar economic activity forever or re-open the economy next week, next month or next year.
One valid point the Re-open Now forces make, however ineloquently, is that the flu, which killed some 35,000 people in the U.S. last flu season and 61,000 the year before, doesn’t lead to mandatory business closures and a hard brake on the economy. And though the coronavirus has done so for the very good and clearly elaborated reason that it can possibly cause millions of deaths and overwhelm our health care system, it cannot close down the economy for too long without catastrophic consequences as well.
The huge, looming, tortuous question though: How long is too long?
The data we will have to monitor and the calculations we will have to make on an ongoing basis will require great dexterity on the part of decision-makers and all of us. Along with an understanding that we can’t have it all—can’t enjoy a flourishing economy that puts no one at risk, can’t lose countless lives because we ignore a virus tearing its way through our population.
There will instead be trade-offs, risks, compromises, lingering questions that need to be asked and answered or put off till later, again and again. Along with grievous losses no matter what we do.
Hopefully we will get it more right than wrong. The one thing we will not get is perfection.
I don’t know about any heaven above, but I do know it does not exist on this earth below, except for brief and fleeting moments, as when food and drink and music and dancing at The Blue Note lead to laughter that echos off the walls and makes life feel precious and joyous and full of the love that settles everything down and is the answer to all our deepest longings and needs.
Well, they feel fine. Do you?
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Coronavirus photo, magnified, by Radio Alfa https://www.flickr.com/photos/radioalfa/
Collage, food and young women photo courtesy of the Blue Note Grill https://www.thebluenotegrill.com/
Saxophone player by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/