What Government Agencies Can Do Now to Help Small Businesses Cope with the COVID-19 Crisis
By Emily Nonko, FUSE contributing writer
Small businesses across the country are reeling from citywide shutdowns to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. According to a Goldman Sachs survey of more than 1,500 small business owners, only half will be able to operate up to three months in the face of store closures.
Other sobering stats: 96 percent reported their businesses have been impacted by COVID-19; 67 percent were unsure how to access and apply for emergency funding; and 75 percent felt they had no voice, or lacked a strong voice, in the policy-making process.
Finding immediate solutions is critical with these unprecedented challenges now facing small business owners, their employees, as well as government agencies within cities, counties, and states. Government-backed emergency loans take time to distribute, and there’s growing hesitation to take on loans by business owners operating on tight profit margins, so it has become critical for civic leaders and business owners to work together on more immediate actions.
FUSE fellows in the field are working alongside government partners to help avert economic decline in their communities. They’re sharing insights and best practices based on their own work, as well as learning from other cities and counties.
In an effort to help agencies respond quickly, FUSE is gathering those insights and resources and sharing them with civic leaders. Here are 10 ways to address the urgent needs of small businesses that government agencies can do now.
Identify sources for direct cash infusion
Many small businesses will urgently need cash infusions. To help, government agencies can identify existing loan or grant programs that can be repurposed to meet these immediate needs. Some cities have already taken action. The office of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced it will make $1.5 million in grants available to small businesses affected by the outbreak. San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development will issue emergency grants up to $10,000. And in Kansas, GO Topeka — part of the economic development agency Greater Topeka Partnership — tapped private donors to provide up to $2 million in grants for its HOST Relief Program.
Connect with business owners through virtual town halls
Hosting a virtual town hall is a quick way to safely congregate business owners and elicit their concerns and needs. Local business organizations like SCORE New Orleans, the Midtown Atlanta Alliance, and Manhattan Chamber of Commerce have all hosted emergency COVID-19 town halls, helping connect government officials with local organizations that already have boots on the ground.
Create a centralized resource hub
Government agencies can help provide small business owners with a centralized hub that’s regularly updated with tools, resources, and information. For example, Birmingham Strong — created by a coalition of public, private, and civic leadership in Birmingham, Alabama — has a dedicated channel offering useful information, like how to apply for an immediate small business loan, how restaurants can shift from service to meal preparation, and dates for virtual town halls. Stockton took Birmingham’s lead and created a similar site, Stockton Strong, which offers small-business channel support for local restaurants and other retail shops.
Create a business-impact survey
An important step in gauging the economic impact of COVID-19 is to set a baseline. To do that, government agencies can digitally distribute business-impact surveys to begin documenting information that will continue to inform mitigation and recovery programming, both now and in the coming weeks and months, as needs might change. Civic leaders in Oakland, California, created a digital survey and translated it into four languages. The survey elicits specific responses, such as the types of near-term support most needed for each business, helping civic leaders direct immediate aid.
Build a database of local businesses
Create a database of your city’s small businesses, which can be developed by using information from business-impact surveys and research. A centralized database can help streamline outreach, resources, and next steps between city government and the small business community.
Pivot the city’s economic team members
Consider putting long-term economic development projects on hold and pivoting team members to urgent needs in the business community, from advocating for small businesses to helping locate and provide resources to conducting individual outreach. In Vallejo, California, the city pivoted its economic development team from project management to a more active role in advocating for small businesses and providing resources. In another Bay Area city, its economic and workforce development agency trained 20 staff members to conduct small business outreach.
Get creative with outreach
Think creatively about how to reach as many people as possible. If quickly pulling together a customized website isn’t possible, create a newsletter specifically aimed at small businesses that includes a toolkit to help during the crisis. To reach businesses that don’t have websites and emails, make old-fashioned phone calls, or train staff to conduct safe, in-person outreach. When creating resource materials, consider the different languages spoken in your communities. If you’re short staffed, hire consultants to help businesses address next steps, such as the process of applying for loans.
Develop pipelines for unemployed workers
Many businesses will invariably have to lay off workers, but others — like grocery stores — might need to hire employees to meet increased demand. In Vallejo, California, the city started a Hiring Business Intake Form to collect information for businesses hiring during the COVID-19 crisis, share it with community members, and assist with job searches.
Help restaurants shift to pick-up and delivery
Many restaurants have shifted to delivery and pick-up models — and local governments are stepping in to help. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, for example, approved emergency rules that allow bars and restaurants to make curbside deliveries of alcoholic beverages. Minneapolis is changing curbside use in front of restaurants so that people ordering takeout and delivery services will have easy access, helping both small businesses and residents. In Champaign, Illinois, the mayor executed two emergency orders that allow for temporary curbside pick-up zones downtown and for qualified bars and restaurants to deliver packaged alcohol. The town of Elizabethtown, North Carolina, even provided restaurants with pop-up tents and signs to place outside in an accessible parking area so that customers can pick up orders without entering the restaurant.
Stand up for small businesses
Amidst persistent confusion about support coming from federal, state, and local governments, civic leaders can connect across sectors and across inter-agency departments to call for immediate action needed to support small businesses. Building these alliances now will be key to identifying new partners, programs, and financial support for local business communities.
For city-specific resources, check out Living Cities updated document with links to COVID-19 relief programs for small businesses nationwide.
Emily Nonko is a New York City-based freelance writer who has covered urban policy for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Next City, and Curbed, among other publications.