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Stephen Waguespack

ACT TO BEAT COVID-19, SAVE SMALL BUSINESS

America has changed very quickly.
In only a matter of days, what was once a generally stable, prosperous, independent nation filled with everyday people just grinding it out on a daily basis to raise their family and have a little fun in the process has turned into something much different.
Everyday people like you and me are now known as “potential carriers” and are being told to stay home. Everyday people are now educating their own children at home and avoiding contact with their neighbors, families, and friends. They are no longer visiting local restaurants, retailers, offices, governments, churches, or entertainment venues by governmental request and/or mandate. This could go on for two weeks, two months or even longer, and we are all now trained to keep hitting refresh on Twitter to find out the new rules we’ll be living under for the moment…until they all change again in the next moment.
Our leaders are trying their best to figure it all out also and are doing a good job, all things considered. Anyone playing politics or spreading partisan blame right now needs to get a life. These are unchartered waters and we all must lock arms and figure it out together until this life-altering ordeal is past us. The health of our citizens comes first and there is no asterisk on that statement. However, there is another crisis at hand and we also must be preparing for what comes next on that front.
Will there be any small businesses left when this is done? I know it sounds alarmist, but the question is absolutely legitimate.
Talk to any mom and pop restaurant or store owner and they will tell you we are in a crisis. The festivals and cultural events that drove their markets have been canceled. The students who used to be their customers have returned home. Their ability to serve customers inside their own establishments has been banned. Their employees are like family to them and they are desperately trying to do what is right by them, but profit margins for many of these entities average about one to two percent, and there is simply no cash flow available to pay bills and wages. The rent is due, and their supply chains are disrupted.
Oh, by the way, these small business owners are also parents, so their children are at home trying to abide by whatever rules their school is piecing together on the fly. They have elderly relatives they are worried about and are discouraged from visiting. Whatever savings they have in the market have tanked, and they are not the type of long-term investor who can just “ride this one out” and wait for things to get back to normal.
For many of these folks, they don’t see how normal ever returns. They are scared, they feel alone and they are not sure where to turn. Many more than you realize are contemplating closing their doors for good despite their strong desire to stay open at all costs.
These small business restaurant and retail owners are the backbone of every community in Louisiana. Over the years, their establishments are where you would gather to celebrate a family special occasion, propose to your girlfriend or simply enjoy some cold beer and crawfish on a beautiful Louisiana weather evening. These folks always are some of the first to step up when a storm hits and they go all over the state to feed folks first who are hungry and wonder about any payment after the fact, if ever.
It’s our turn to have their back after they have had our back time and time again over the years.
As a citizen, do your part by supporting them any way you can. If you can order takeout from your favorite local restaurant, do it as much as you can the next few weeks and tip generously to the workers. If you cannot make it there, go online and order gift cards from them to help provide them the cash flow they need to get by. Here at LABI, we are pushing folks to take the #giftcardchallenge. That means buy a gift card for a local restaurant or retailer, take a photo of yourself doing it and post it online to inspire others to follow suit. Use the #giftcardchallenge hashtag and spread it around.
As for our elected leaders, we at LABI are begging them to be just as bold and decisive on the small business recovery as you have been on preventing the spread of COVID-19. Do not hesitate to jump in and ensure these small businesses survive. Tax credits that can be used down the road are nice, but they don’t help much when cash flow is nonexistent since the government has shut down your business and banned your customers from coming to see you. Low-interest loans only help so much when the loans you already have to operate your low-margin business are overdue.
This is a crisis of epic proportions on multiple levels. The health crisis is one that leaders have taken bold steps to tackle. The economic ramifications of such bold actions require just as bold and immediate of a response.
Congress is currently debating legislation to help, and it appears they are hearing the cries of small business and resolving some of these issues best they can. When the state legislature returns, it is imperative that they immediately take steps to pass bills that target immediate relief for small businesses. That is all well and good, but today government can only do so much for this small business crisis.
Today, it is all on all of us, the consumers. If we want our unique Louisiana culture to continue…the one based around close-knit communities focused on food, fun, faith and family…we the people must do our part now.
Just don’t sit at home right now, social distancing your day away by binge-watching your favorite shows. Buy a gift card to your favorite local small business today and encourage your friends to do the same. Order takeout from a local restaurant, safely pick it up and tip generously. Find creative other ways to help these community pillars these next few weeks in a way that adheres to health guidelines.
We all want things to go back to normal soon and, if we follow governmental guidelines, it looks like we will get there from a health perspective. But that new normal may not include many of your favorite local small businesses on the back end if you don’t step up now to help. Do your part today, and if you do, continue to reap the benefits of these small businesses in your community for years to come.
Stephen Waguespack is president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

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