‘This gives an opportunity to adapt’; Chamber of Commerce encourages businesses during COVID-19 pandemic

Local resident, small business owner and economic development visionary Don Willie leads the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce through hard times as its president and CEO | Photo courtesy of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Although it may feel like the world is coming unraveled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, local businesses are being urged to conduct best practices in keeping their employees and customers safe.

Don Willie, president and CEO of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, is cautiously optimistic about the future.

“This is a concerning time for everyone in the community,” Willie said. “Obviously, we are seeing a significant economic impact.”

But federal guidelines limiting public gatherings make conducting business hard, he said.

“The chamber recognizes the economic impact that this brings,” Willie said. “However, we also need to take precautions and the greater impact that could happen to our economy and our society as a whole if we don’t take this outbreak seriously.”

“As a chamber, we are trying to find the middle,” he added. “We have to strike a balance to meet the needs of the community in order for stores to stay open and provide what people need.”

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the United States Small Business Administration has issued guidance, and there are ways for many businesses to connect to their customers through technology.

“We are stressing to businesses that this is an opportunity, even as difficult as it is, to use technology and learn how to develop stronger relationships with their customers and their clients,” Willie said.

It is not simply communicating through email, Willie added, but text options for more immediate interaction, utilizing customer management software and implementing improvements across the board as people socially distance themselves from each other.

Willie said the chamber will be providing online seminars to chamber members over the next two weeks, which will help businesses start implementing technology tools.

According to Stephanie Ruhle, NBC News senior business correspondent, businesses small and large are going to suffer.

Don Willie met with more than 160 chamber members Wednesday during the 2020 state of the chamber luncheon. St. George, Utah, Jan. 29, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“During the financial crisis the issue were banks,” Ruhle said in an interview with Brian Williams on MSNBC. “The government came and assured they were solvent and the system could work. Now what we have is a business crisis.”

Ruhle advocates business leaders shut down.

“Just like people who live on credit cards, most businesses live on leverage,” she said. “Most industries cannot survive something like this if it is a slow bleed.”

Instead of a government bailout and writing checks to Americans, Ruhle suggested infusing money into companies that help employees keep their jobs.

“Three months from now, if all we are are doing is paying the American people, they will not have any companies to go back to,” she said.

Ruhle and others say the answer to stopping the slow bleed in business losses will come at the local level.

To assist its members, the St. George chamber is setting up a web page to provide local information. A target date for the launch of the web page, stgeorgechamber.com/coronoavirus, hasn’t been determined.

In addition, the chamber has sent out a survey that business owners can use to convey how the coronavirus is impacting their business.

“It’s a very detailed survey,” Willie said.

Currently, the chamber is open by appointment only or by telephone.

Willie echoed Ruhle’s sentiments that it is at the local level that change will be seen.

“This gives an opportunity to adapt,” Willie said. “The normal practices that we are used to are not working. We have to pivot and adjust how we do things and think about things different even down to marketing tools of an online presence. If businesses don’t have this they may not make it through.”

The St. George Area Chamber of Commerce estimates that some owners are seeing as much as a 50% drop in business.

Lori Hanna, owner of Perks! Espresso and Smoothies, is among this demographic, seeing a 40% drop in sales across her six stores.

“We actually started restrictions in service before it was mandated,” she said. “My husband and I are in our mid 50s, but most of our staff are young. Our mindset is, they are not going to be affected physically as much, but they have older family members who could be.”

Having halted inside dining on Monday for social distancing but remaining open to takeout, COVID-19 has been hardest on their 42 employees.

“We are doing our best to keep everyone working,” Hanna said. “We’ve done extra training and have extra supplies to make sure exposure is limited to a minimum.”

“It’s been cool to see our family of employees help each other out along with our customers,” she added.

As a business, they are trying to secure funding to make sure their staff is paid, even if they haven’t worked the hours.

“This is an interesting journey,” Hanna said. “We are hoping it’s like the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ What do you need, not what you want. We are working hard to help people.”

The positive attitude is not limited to employees, Hanna said, but customers as well.

“We are just out there trying to give them bags of sunshine and hope, and negative feelings are at a minimum,” she said. “Everyone is appreciative to answer the calls for need.”

Trying to do their best to keep the business above water, Hanna realizes what is happening to one is common for all.

“I am not going to lose sleep of what becomes of our business, because we are more than that,” she said. “If worst comes to worst and we lost our business, we haven’t lost our family. It may just become a different path.”

Willie said that he believed things are going to get better at some point.

“This is here. Things will happen. We just have to be cautious.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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