By Roger DuPuis and Kevin Carroll, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on small businesses nationwide, and many in downtown Wilkes-Barre are at risk of closure within months, the responses to a new survey reveal.
Of the 14 downtown Wilkes-Barre businesses participating in the survey, 64% indicated that their businesses are at risk of closing permanently in the next five months. Meanwhile, 93% of downtown Wilkes-Barre respondents have seen revenue decrease by more than 50 percent — and more than 70 percent have seen revenue drop more than 75 percent, according to information released by the Diamond City Partnership.
Those findings were collected as part of a new report, published by Main Street America, which reveals that nearly 7.5 million small businesses across the country face closure over the next five months because of the crisis.
“The findings are grim but unsurprising — this pandemic is simultaneously a public health emergency and an economic emergency,” said DCP Executive Director Larry Newman.
DCP is Wilkes-Barre’s nonprofit downtown management organization, serving as the caretaker of the community’s vision for Downtown Wilkes-Barre. DCP also manages the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Improvement District.
“Our local results are generally consistent with national and statewide findings, and they echo my individual conversations with downtown business owners during the past few weeks,” Newman added. “I’m hoping that these findings will be useful to policymakers as they craft initiatives to help us recover from this situation.”
”The Impact of COVID-19 on Small Businesses” is based on an extensive survey assessing the impact of the pandemic on small businesses, especially those employing 20 or fewer people.
DCP assisted Chicago-based Main Street America in this effort, distributing the survey to a cross-section of Downtown Wilkes-Barre small business owners.
Nearly 6,000 small business owners across America responded to the survey. Of them, 91% own businesses with staffs of fewer than 20 people.
Similarly, all but one of the businesses responding from Downtown Wilkes-Barre employ fewer than 20 people, DCP noted, and all but one of those have been forced to lay off employees as a result of the crisis.
Interactive maps with state and local-level data, including specific results for Downtown Wilkes-Barre, can be found online at mainstreet.org.
“The survey responses from Downtown Wilkes-Barre confirm the scale of the local economic damage being caused by this pandemic,” Newman said. “This situation poses a fundamental threat to the businesses that are the bedrock of our center city’s economy.”
“The programs in the CARES Act, along with the financial assistance programs developed as a response by state and local governments, have been an initial lifeline to many businesses – but it’s only the beginning,” Newman added. “Our small business community needs additional help, and they need it now. I hope that our elected officials will find these survey results to be a useful guide to the next actions they can take to help stabilize the local economy and position us for recovery.”
The Main Street America report is based on survey responses from 5,851 small business owners in 48 states and the District of Columbia, collected from March 25 to April 6. Respondents came from more than 1,000 locales across the United States, officials said. Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s respondents were among 603 Pennsylvania businesses surveyed.
According to Newman, here are other key survey findings:
• Small business financial assistance programs must help small business owners address their expenses.
“Minimizing permanent business closures is critical to economic recovery. The survey reveals that 64% of Downtown Wilkes-Barre survey respondents have less than 5 months remaining of likely business survival. Thus, there is the need to not only address the revenue side of the income statement, but also find ways to reduce expenses,” he said.
When asked about what types of assistance would be most helpful, more than 70% of Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s surveyed small businesses focused on two specific areas: “Information on financial assistance over the next 90 days” and “Penalty-free extensions on expenses (rent, utilities, supplies, inventory).”
“Our community-based response has primarily been focused on revenue enhancement — for example, by supporting carryout, gift card purchases, and online shopping whenever possible,” Newman said. “However, that support must continue to be supplemented with new financial assistance programs that focus on the expense side of the equation.”
• Small businesses desperately need support in transitioning to e-commerce selling.
While much focus has turned to supporting e-commerce solutions to help boost revenue while the nation remains in quarantine, more than 70 percent of respondents from Downtown Wilkes-Barre – like most of the businesses surveyed nationally — do not have an active online sales component to their business.
“It’s critical, therefore, to connect more small business owners with e-commerce training programs, website development grants, and connections with low cost e-commerce platforms,” Newman said.
For eateries the closure of dine-in service has been a particular blow, but one many are working to try and overcome.
At Mimmo’s Pizza and Restaurant on Public Square, owner Mark Bronsburg recently told the Times Leader he is keeping the place open for take-out and delivery, and even offering a special do-it-yourself pizza kit for customers to take home.
With necessary health precautions in place, Mimmo’s is looking to keep things business as usual in these uncertain times.
“Our hours are the same and the menu’s the same,” Bronsburg said.
One thing Mimmo’s has introduced is a take-home pizza kit. Consisting of a 24 oz. dough ball, some pizza sauce and a half-pound of shredded cheese, the whole kit onyl costs $10 and is siple to prepare, allowing for customers to whip up their very own pizza from the comfort of their home.
“We’re not doing anything that different from other businesses,” Bronsburg said. “We’re all just trying to stay alive out here.”