ST. GEORGE — When Don Willie took over leadership of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce in January, he never could have imagined how the COVID-19 global pandemic would have widespread effects on nearly every aspect of life, especially on main street businesses.
“My entire career has been either turning around organizations or building something from scratch,” Willie said. “When I came in, the chamber was well run and a great organization, and I thought it would be nice to keep building on something that was already successful.”
While business life has been challenging since then, to say the least, he said it’s been full steam ahead at the chamber.
“Like many businesses we’ve been working three times as hard and only getting a third of the pay,” he said half-jokingly. “Seriously, we’ve put so much more work in than we have in the past to support our members and help them through this difficult time.”
The chamber has changed with the times, moving to more remote and digital outreach efforts and mentoring their membership to adopt COVID-19 distancing and safety protocols.
“We’ve advocated best practices, but our biggest concern right now is consumer confidence,” Willie said. “We are starting to manage things and getting into a rhythm, but it does feel some are starting to ease up on the safety precautions, which obviously could result in a spike in COVID-19 numbers.”
The focus now, he added, is to make sure consumer confidence and spending does not suffer more than it has.
“We were in the prime of economic opportunity in February. We were exploding,” Willie said. “Although the overnight shift was detrimental we are seeing a strong recovery.”
A recent national survey conducted as the pandemic descended on the nation found that 6 in 10 consumers reported living paycheck to paycheck, with almost half reporting having less than $2,500 in savings.
But faced with additional economic uncertainty, Americans quickly learned to be better savers, the survey noted. U.S. personal savings rate hit a historic 33% of disposable income in April.
The survey pointed out that the “trend toward belt-tightening and funneling funds into savings has carried on consistently since then.”
The survey stated that about a third of the recipients of the $1,200 U.S. government stimulus payments put the funds directly into their savings accounts, going against what the government had been hoping for: spending the money to bolster economic numbers.
St. George resident Nichole Frank said she prefers to have a safety net.
“Right now I have about $3,000 in my bank account, but that is where it’s going to stay,” she said. “What happens to me if I lose my job? I’d rather save that money for Plan B than even buying Christmas gifts this year. I’ll do something for the kids, but it’s not going to be like it was last year.”
Frank is not alone.
Consumer confidence fell in August to a new pandemic low after more coronavirus cases during the summer caused Americans to turn more pessimistic about an economic recovery, according to a closely followed survey released by the Conference Board.
The index of consumer confidence sank to a six-year low at 84.8 in August from a revised 91.7 in July. Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast the index to rise to 93.0. The decline in consumer confidence puts the index below April’s 85.7 during the height of the economic lockdown.
Despite these numbers, Willie said it is unclear for now how business and job loss numbers will shake out until well into or after the first quarter of 2021.
“We really won’t know the lasting effects of this for a while,” he said. “I think it won’t be until the first part of 2021 until we really see the impact of COVID because of all of the government funding that has propped us up.”
For now, he said, the number of businesses in Southern Utah that have closed is small, with other industries learning to adapt, such as restaurants that have shifted their business model to accommodate more drive up, ordering online, takeout and delivery. And some industries, such as technology-based companies, are thriving.
The key to Southern Utah’s business success is shop local, buy local, Willie added.
“It has been great because there have been multiple local campaigns going on,” he said. “This shows not only the resilience that is happening in our community but the deep concern and love that we have for our hometown.”
As one of the local campaigns to support area businesses, the chamber established its Greater Together Small Business Resilience Fund, which provided short-term funding for small businesses with 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees throughout Washington County. The loans were offered for up to $20,000 at 0% interest for up to five years.
When the loans are paid back, the revenue will fund ongoing efforts to support businesses in the future during economic hard times and economic development to generate community prosperity, including other potential decisions the chamber’s board may wish to support.
Willie said they awarded loans ranging from $5,000-$20,000 for approximately five dozen businesses that “spanned the entire county from Springdale to Ivins to Santa Clara and Washington with the bulk in the city of St. George.”
Although these are challenging times, Willie said it has been inspiring to see the community come together.
“Some businesses have opted to take a loss and keep their employees,” he said. “It’s been awesome to see that happening. … It is encouraging and inspiring to see that in the face of adversity and so much tragedy we’ve helped each other out here in Washington County. We’ve gone above and beyond to support each other, and its paid off. It’s what’s made all of the difference in getting through this.”
With COVID-19 still impacting how business is done, Willie councils his membership to remain optimistic.
“I think we are eventually going to see a strong economic recovery, and I think we are going to manage this better,” Willie said.
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