Sur­vey: Busi­nesses in SC are at the ‘end of the rope’ from COVID-19

The State - - News - BY MAAYAN SCHECHTER mschechter@thes­tate.com Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSche­chter

Fac­ing a heap of chal­lenges as they de­cide how or whether to re­open amid the on­go­ing COVID-19 out­break, South Carolina busi­ness own­ers are re­port­ing that low de­mand and an in abil­ity to cover em­ploy­ees’ pay are among their great­est threats.

But they also face other hur­dles, the South Carolina Cham­ber of Com­merce found this week in a new, pre­lim­i­nary sur­vey of so far more than 3,000 busi­nesses — a ma­jor­ity of them small — where own­ers shared con­cerns about em­ploy­ees be­ing afraid to come to work, a lack of coro­n­avirus test­ing, a lack of ac­cess to child­care and re­stric­tions placed on their busi­nesses by lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

“Most busi­nesses have ap­pre­ci­ated the gov­er­nor’s ... ap­proach to kind of slowly shut things or slow the econ­omy down with the stay-at-home or­der,” Ted Pitts, head of the South Carolina Cham­ber of Com­merce, told The State early Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon be­fore he met with a panel of state busi­ness lead­ers tasked with eval­u­at­ing how best to re­open the state’s econ­omy.

“What you’re see­ing now, specif­i­cally small busi­nesses, they are at the end of the rope. We’ve got to open the econ­omy back up and safely.”

Last month, Gov. Henry Mc­Mas­ter closed most stores and man­u­fac­tur­ing and other larger com­pa­nies sus­pended pro­duc­tion lines as pos­i­tive COVID-19 cases con­tin­ued to rise. Mc­Mas­ter lifted some of those re­stric­tions this month, al­low­ing re­tail stores and other “nonessen­tial” busi­nesses to slowly re­open their doors. How­ever, restau­rants re­main closed to in­side din­ing, and sa­lons and gyms are still closed un­der his or­ders de­spite leg­isla­tive pres­sure to re­open and let own­ers who have been hit fi­nan­cially get back to work.

Mc­Mas­ter told re­porters this month he be­lieves the state’s econ­omy will be “hum­ming” by June.

“The sur­vey is an in­di­ca­tion that small busi­ness is hurting and needs for us to find a way to get back to some sense of nor­malcy,” said Pitts, who pre­sented the sur­vey to Mc­Mas­ter’s ad­vi­sory group, Ac­cel­er­ate South Carolina, that will come up with rec­om­men­da­tions for the gov­er­nor to get the state’s econ­omy back run­ning.

But a new sense of nor­malcy will cer­tainly come with some headaches, the cham­ber’s sur­vey shows.

Though nearly 33% of those sur­veyed said they were not plan­ning a sig­nif­i­cant change to their busi­ness be­cause of the health cri­sis, nearly the same num­ber of busi­nesses — 995 — said they plan to re­duce ser­vices or prod­ucts

‘‘ THE SUR­VEY IS AN IN­DI­CA­TION THAT SMALL BUSI­NESS IS HURTING AND NEEDS FOR US TO FIND A WAY TO GET BACK TO SOME SENSE OF NOR­MALCY.

Ted Pitts, head of the South Carolina Cham­ber of Com­merce

to keep em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers safe.

In some cases, busi­nesses turned to em­ployee fur­loughs or com­plete lay­offs.

The sur­vey found nearly 55% of own­ers did not have to do ei­ther. But more than 45% did, the same re­port found.

About 29% of busi­ness own­ers said in the next three months they’re sure they could bring back all of their em­ploy­ees, com­pared with nearly 11% who said they could bring back 75% and 5% who said they ei­ther could bring back half or fewer than 50% of staff.

A lot of that re­turn will be en­tirely based on money as es­pe­cially small busi­nesses con­tinue to take fi­nan­cial hits.

Two rounds of fed­eral leg­is­la­tion — the Pay­roll Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram — doled out bil­lions of dol­lars to small S.C. busi­nesses.

But the first pot quickly dried up and the sec­ond round could dry up just as fast.

In the sur­vey, more than 35% of busi­ness own­ers said they had re­ceived some type of fed­eral loan or other as­sis­tance. But an­other roughly 30% said they still had not re­ceived or were still wait­ing on loans through the fed­eral govern­ment or loan re­lated to COVID-19. In the same sur­vey, more than 15% of those sur­veyed said they knew about the loan pro­grams but did not pur­sue them.

Al­most 4% of busi­ness own­ers sur­veyed said they did not know re­lief pro­grams were avail­able.

Mc­Mas­ter’s task force is set to of­fer clear guid­ance and rec­om­men­da­tions to the gov­er­nor to re­open busi­nesses in May.

Pitts said he al­ready has some ideas, in­clud­ing craft­ing a pro­posal for the Leg­is­la­ture to con­sider that of­fers busi­nesses li­a­bil­ity pro­tec­tion.

“Ul­ti­mately, we need for folks who are older and (or) have com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tems to stay at home,” Pitts said. “(But we need the) rest of so­ci­ety to start mov­ing around in a safe fash­ion, fol­low­ing CDC (Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion) guide­lines.”

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