Small businesses are struggling to reopen amid the uncertainties wrought by the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Chambers of commerce are right there with them on the front line.
They are dealing with staff layoffs in some cases. They’ve been working from home. They have fewer resources.
And, even as chambers begin reopening their offices, the priority is the economic recovery of member businesses.
Ribbon cuttings, for a while, are on hold.
“We had to pivot,” said Hope Kennedy, president of The North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.
From Day One of the shutdown, there was an urgency to how chambers should respond. They had to rethink what it means to network and provide services that would help businesses stay solvent and resilient.
To be sure, there were phone calls. Lots of them.
But, the new virtual world meant rethinking social media and technology. Zoom meetings and virtual town halls blossomed.
Websites became clearinghouses for grants and forgivable loans, and the latest information businesses needed to survive, and now to reopen, safely.
“We’ve done a lot of individual communicating with our members,” Kennedy said.
Initially, the focus was on helping business owners apply for financial aid, either locally or from the federal Payroll Protection Program.
Chambers partnered with Pasco County and the Pasco Economic Development Council to coordinate efforts to deliver financial aid to distressed businesses and residents.
Kennedy heard from business owners who told her, “if we had not had all this information on our website, they wouldn’t have gotten them.”
As businesses reopen, she added, “We’ve turned into a repository for businesses that need to rehire.”
Chambers are taking one step at a time, as lights turn back on at businesses.
“Cautiously optimistic is what we are,” said Melanie Monson, executive director of The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.
She believes people are following the protocols to make sure the situation does not get worse.
As the shutdown approached, Monson said her staff checked in with business owners to prepare them.
About 100 business owners needed to create plans to get through the crisis and to guide them once reopened.
“Most are prepared and ready to jump back in,” Monson said. “Are there going to be some who don’t open doors? Absolutely.”
But, she added, “I feel like there is enough help that businesses will recover. It will take a while. We’re optimistic that we’ll make it through the process. It’s not a light switch. It’s going to take a little bit of a process. Businesses in it for the long haul will make it.”
Like the businesses they serve, chambers also are reopening — slowly and with safety protocols.
The Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce started with one person each day at the office, behind a locked door. Visitors needed to wear masks, as did employees. Social distancing was required. Within the next weeks, the chamber anticipates “ramping up a little,” said John Moors, chamber executive director.
During the shutdown, work continued from home to keep business owners up to date on available aid and resources.
Renewal rates on memberships were discounted, and e-blasts and advertising were provided free, Moors said.
“It’s important that we bring connectivity and continue to offer support for our businesses,” he said. “We are resilient, very creative. We’ll figure this thing out.”
Pasco County and cities, such as Dade City, did their part.
Dade City officials, for instance, sent out fliers to 6,000 households about products and services available from area businesses.
The city also relaxed requirements for outdoor seating to allow restaurants to serve more customers.
Dade City, and its chamber, thrive on annual events including a seminar at Saint Leo University and a golf tournament.
The fate of the chamber’s biggest event of the year – the Kumquat Festival – is unclear, even though it typically is held in February.
“We’re not sure it’s going on the same as it has been,” Moors said.
The festival is the chamber’s most reliable fundraising event, bringing thousands into downtown Dade City.
North Tampa Bay chamber scheduled a movie night for May 16, featuring “Jumanji – Next Level” at The Groves at Wesley Chapel. Sponsorships made the showing possible.
Every chamber is facing budget losses. And, even as chambers helped its members file for financial aid, nothing similar was available for chambers.
If more aid is approved by Congress, Kennedy hopes to see the chambers included this time.
“We’ve been advocates for that from Day One,” she said. She has spoken with Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis. “There’s been a little bit of traction the last couple of days,” she said.
Kelly Marsh, member care specialist for The Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce, agrees that chambers need help, too.
“Fingers crossed on that,” she said.
Last week, the chamber hosted a Zoom meeting for a Land O’ Lakes Brochure Exchange. Owners could virtually promote their services and find out what other owners are doing.
“It hasn’t been as easy to reach people,” said Marsh. Social media and technology are taking on larger roles in networking, she said.
There is a concern especially for the ‘mom and pop’ shops and restaurants, and the toll the long shutdown took on their incomes.
It appears that most people are just “trying to get through it (the pandemic),” she said.
Published May 20, 2020