As officials continue to impose strict orders on social distancing in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, Montana’s businesses are shutting their doors and curtailing operations.
Even before the Flathead City-County Board of Health ordered the closure of eateries and gyms last week, businesses like hotels and restaurants had seen revenues plummet 80-90% since the coronavirus, or COVID-19, began spreading across Montana, according to Montana West Economic Development (MWED) President and CEO Jerry Meerkatz.
“It’s a trailing effect,” MWED Loan Officer Stephanie Juneau said. “A business could receive that 95% reduction in sales and cancellations in our current environment, but they still have payroll.”
Glacier Wholesalers, a Kalispell company serving restaurants and convenience stores, is seeing noticeable coronavirus-caused impacts. Vice President Mike Arlint said while convenience store business was up slightly, his restaurant business was down 50-75%.
“The whole thing is a huge hit for everyone in the food business, other than retail grocery,” he said.
Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Unturreiner has noticed a mixed impact on businesses. While tourism and restaurant industries are being negatively impacted, he says sectors like wood products and construction projects are moving forward.
Economic development agencies like MWED are working to keep small businesses afloat as revenue drops. Businesses nationwide are relying on a proposed $300 billion small-business loan program as part of the federal stimulus package, which the U.S. Senate has yet to vote on, as of March 23.
On March 17, the Small Business Administration (SBA) approved Flathead County for disaster assistance with low-interest federal disaster loans to assist with fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills.
While MWED typically helps businesses with loans, Meerkatz says the group is relying on grant money to help companies cope. Even with an interest-only loan, he says people are skeptical of taking on more debt and can’t risk deferring loans.
Following a conference call last week with state officials, legislators and SBA representatives, MWED and other agencies are creating a “needs list” for legislators to determine their funding priorities.
Immediate capital is among MWED’s priority list. Legislators are estimating that funding could take three to four months to transfer into businesses hands, which Meerkatz and Juneau say is not nearly soon enough.
“There’s businesses that simply will not survive three to four months,” Juneau said.
MWED is pushing legislators to turn those months into weeks in order to grant economic development agencies fast capital.
“The faster they get those funds to us and that flexibility to us, the quicker we can respond to our business community,” Juneau said.
Instead of creating new financial support programs for that money to be transferred into, MWED is requesting officials to utilize existing programs to avoid more time delays.
“The fastest way to react is not new programs,” Meerkatz said. “It’s existing programs because we know how to run them. Just fund them and we’ll go.”
MWED also requests that governing bodies broaden and loosen rural designation rules. Since the valley has grown significantly in recent years, it’s no longer considered rural, meaning it’s not classified as economically distressed, Juneau said. Broadening those requirements would make rural emergency funds available.
While MWED and other agencies push legislators for a stimulus response, Meerkatz and Juneau are telling businesses not to panic and encouraging communication with lending partners to inquire about interest-only or deferred payments in the meantime.
“Until we get a clear indication of any kind of funding, we’re looking at loans on a case-by-case basis, restructuring, defer principle on loans and have the client pay interest-only,” Meerkatz said on March 23.
Juneau also recommends that businesses start making tough decisions like reducing employee hours or layoffs immediately, before conditions get worse.
“This health crisis has turned quickly into a financial issue and hopefully it won’t get to a crisis,” Meerkatz said. “But for some people, it’s already there.”