The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking global havoc on the health and wealth of the world.
While as of March 24, 2020, Huntsville has yet to record a laboratory-confirmed case of the novel coronavirus—a situation that will no doubt change in the coming days—we are not immune to the economic and social effects. Effects that are hitting home for a lot of people who work and reside in a community that bases a lot of its economic viability on the tourism and hospitality business that the upcoming months would provide.
The shut downs and social restraints are necessary if we hope to defeat this unprecedented disaster that is impacting everyone’s lives.
Resorts have closed their doors; non-essential workplaces have been ordered to shut down. Businesses that are deemed essential still have a protocol to follow.
For 13 years, That Little Place By The Lights has been an active and viable restaurant on Main Street in Huntsville, serving fabulous Italian cuisine. Many nights there was a line of people at the door waiting for a seat. But as of March 19, the doors are closed indefinitely until the owners are able to figure out the next step.
“We were doing takeout orders only,” said owner Manny Buttus. However, he added, he made the difficult decision to shut the doors because people were coming into the restaurant who were not following the rules of self-isolation. Buttus has a young son with two autoimmune disorders, making him highly susceptible to the virus. It was a risk Buttus was not willing to take. “He could die,” he said.
With family residing in Italy, Buttus has been in constant communication with his cousins and is hearing first-hand the horror stories afflicting that country.
“They can go into their yards. If they don’t have a yard, they can go on their balcony,” he said of the restrictions imposed on the country. “You have to print out a form which indicates what grocery store you can go to.”
Buttus has had to lay off all of his nine full-time employees—not a decision he made lightly as they are all very important to him and his business.
“We are in the process of figuring out a delivery service,” he said. Ideally, orders would be made and paid for online at the beginning of the week and orders would be delivered and left on people’s porches.
He is currently able to get supplies delivered to the restaurant and hopes these businesses will be able to continue to operate. However, he points out that if people continue to ignore and disregard the orders to stay at home, these may shut down. “It sucks,” he said succinctly.
If the delivery option becomes viable it will provide him not only with some income, but more importantly the ability to hire back some of his people.
While there is no good time for a pandemic, it is a double blow for Stacey Thornton, owner, barber, and stylist at ORBIS Barbershop and Salon.
A stylist for 23 years, she just celebrated the first-year anniversary of opening her own salon on Brunel Road in Huntsville.
“I had literally just started to see my debt going down,” she said. Thornton had to close her shop down a week ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “People don’t understand that small businesses are going to suffer. People think that the government is going to bail them out and it doesn’t work like that.”
Closing her doors means there is no income, period.
Thornton adds she will have to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day to recoup what she is losing and that is not feasible. “It is scary,” she said.
Thornton said she has a very loyal and amazing clientele as well as an amazing landlord. She has been able to defer anything that is not necessary and contact companies that are able to waive late fees. But unless the restrictions lift and life gets back to normal, she is not sure how long that is feasible.
“I almost feel like I have gone back to my twenties when I lived on non-existent money,” she said. “Right now I am saving every penny for my ‘just in case’ fund. Like, just in case I have forgotten about a bill.”
Applications for any potential funding for small businesses won’t even be accessible until April 1, something Thornton intends to apply for immediately.
“People think if you own your own business you are rolling in money and that is not the case,” she said. And the government is always slow to get on things, she said, adding it is taking forever to get the Record of Employment needed for her two staff she has had to lay off.
In order to fill her time and take her mind off the daily influx of bad news, Thornton and her daughter Adi did an online painting tutorial. “I posted the one I painted on Facebook and all of a sudden people wanted to buy it,” she said. “It was completely accidental.”
She has now sold three paintings with three more commissioned and calls herself The Pandemic Painter. “I don’t expect every painting to sell, but if it makes people happy and puts a few pennies in my wallet, why not.”
And, she adds, the process of painting is helping her psyche. “I would 100 per cent be going insane right now if I was not painting.”
For now, she is painting and waiting and hoping that people are getting the message to do their part and everything necessary if we are going to beat this pandemic.
“COVID-19 is going to bankrupt more people then it kills,” she said.
For Matt Coles of The Framing Place and Gallery, COVID-19 has left his company teetering on the edge of financial devastation. “That would be a mild way to put it,” he said. “Last Tuesday I had modified hours, Wednesday I was closed to the public.” He has had to lay off his two employees.
While he is currently able to fill orders he had taken prior to COVID-19, he is having trouble obtaining product as his frame suppliers are closed. If he can get the product and fill the order, he then delivers the finished job to the customer.
Coles bought the business, which was established in 1980, in 2011 and provides custom framing as well as selling art work. He is also a proprietor of the Algonquin Art Centre, one of three landmarks located in Algonquin Park and showcases works from Canada’s top artistic talents.
Opening day at the art centre is set for June 1 and they are planning as such, but he also acknowledges that may not happen. “The park is currently closed,” he said, adding that the repercussions on tourism, both locally and globally, could be devastating.
Coles has been working proactively and said he is lucky his landlords have provided some relief in the form of rent deferral. He was also able to defer mortgage and car payments and cancel any non-essential services. While those help to hold off the outpouring of money, it doesn’t help with the incoming.
Prior to the hit of COVID-19, Coles would have described his lifestyle as upper middle class. Now it’s like a roller coaster with the loss of business and the financial stability it provides.
“I do have the support from people,” he said. “There are a lot of good people in my life.”
He said people are reaching out and he was able to sell a painting online. “I had a customer call and said when this is over, we will still need our custom frame shops and small businesses. He said it was important we do anything to help our small businesses.”
However, it seems that small businesses are last on the list for assistance. “I recognize that legislation has to be written and I am being patient,” he said, “but I am going to need some assistance and answers pretty soon.”
While federal and provincial government initiatives have been announced and details are being worked out, the Town of Huntsville is still somewhat on a wait-and-see platform.
An announcement of council’s decision not to defer property tax payments was met with a lot of hostility. They will discuss the matter again at a special council meeting on Thursday, March 26.
Councillor and local businessman, Tim Withey, says they have to wait and see what the higher levels of government will provide before the local government can make a decision. However, he adds, there are huge resources that the town is able to access and there are options available to them.
He was in favour of deferring the March 31 property tax payments.
With federal and provincial announcements expected, Withey said they need to see where those services trickle down to and see what else the local government can do with what they have.
However, he added the town does not have a disaster fund. When a disaster occurs that funding comes from the province.
Withey is also a District councillor and said there is a District meeting on March 25 which is set to cover topics including social service.
Withey is the owner and principal broker at Withey Insurance Brokers and said it is almost business as usual.
With insurance deemed an essential service, all 12 employees of the company are still working, however, the office is closed to the public. They are able to conduct all of their business online or by telephone.
“We are essential because insurance doesn’t stop,” he said. “People still make claims and need advice. This virus doesn’t effect our workflow business.”
As an insurance broker, Withey said he has fielded many calls from businesses who have insurance coverage that includes business interruption. However, a pandemic is not covered. “Pandemic coverage is not available,” he said. “It does not exist.”
While Withey is thankful the people who work for him will continue to get paid, he recognizes that there are a lot of people who are afraid they are not going to make it out of this.
“People need to observe the rules,” he said. “Stay home if you can, don’t have the kid next door over. Hopefully, we can get some testing soon to give us a picture of what we are up against.”
For more local COVID-19 coverage, visit our regularly updated COVID-19 page.
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