Comedy clubs, bookstores and cocktail makers are among the millions of American small businesses facing a race against time in an unprecedented financial battle for survival.
“It’s not funny. You know, that needs to be clear,” said Allyson Jaffe, co-owner of DC Improv, which closed its theater and laid off nearly all of its staff this month because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “It’s been a nightmare. The word I keep saying is ‘horrific.'”
Businesses that employ fewer than 500 workers are a key pillar of the U.S. economy and uniquely susceptible to an abrupt economic shock.
“Half the people who work in this country own or work for a small business. So that’s half our jobs,” said Karen G. Mills, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration during the Obama administration.
“They have very low cash buffers. On average, they have about 26 days of cash,” Mills said.
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Congress this week is expected to approve a major infusion of cash — more than $350 billion in emergency loans for small businesses that include a big perk: owners won’t have to pay back the government, if they use the money to cover rent or worker wages.
“I would take that deal any day to allow us to do that, if those loans could therefore be forgiven,” said Pia Carusone, CEO and co-founder Republic Restoratives Distillery in Washington, D.C., which produces craft vodka, bourbon and brandy.
“Our bills don’t just stop. We have a working capital loan that we’ve got so much debt on and a large rent bill every month from our landlord,” Carusone said. “So, we’re not in a good position to have nearly zero revenue coming in to our wholesale business.”
Adam Waterreus, who owns Lost City Books in D.C., has seen a steep 75% decline in sales since the pandemic hit. He’s laid off four employees and is struggling to keep three others on payroll.
“It seems like (financial relief) might be happening, which I think is important, that they’re giving certain provisions to small businesses,” he said of the $2 trillion federal coronavirus relief package.
Waterreus said he is nervous about taking on more debt with new loans but is optimistic financial aid might keep him afloat for the short-term.
“We’re not meant to be a place where we’re online marketplaces; we’re like your local bookstore,” Waterreus said of the desire to keep his doors open.
At the comedy club, Jaffe laid off 50 employees this month — including her husband — but still managed to find humor in the situation.
“He said, ‘Well, this is the first time I got laid this month,'” she said with a grin as she recalled the conversation with her spouse. “Laughter will bring us together and help us get through it.”
“We’ll apply for loans,” Jaffe added. “And obviously, if it’s a forgivable loan, that would be a better option for us as a business and would help us weather the storm even more.”
While many business owners and advocates have praised the government’s relief package, there is widespread concern federal funds won’t get distributed quickly enough.
“We will be lucky if most small businesses see any assistance in less than two months,” wrote finance lawyers Adam Levitin and Satyam Khanna in a New York Times op-ed. “That is time they — and their employees — do not have.”
Senate staff involved with drafting the plan say they’ve tried to streamline the loan process as much as possible, allowing business owners to apply for aid at one of more than 800 lenders nationwide that partner with the Small Business Administration.
“Considering it is a 100% guaranteed loan, it shouldn’t be overly complicated,” one senior Republican aide involved in the process told ABC News.
“These local banks across the country should very quickly be in the position to start moving money into the hands of small businesses, not-for-profits and others,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a video message. “We feel it’s going to make a big difference especially for the cafeterias, the cafes, the small restaurants, the bakeries that have closed down.”
The financial support is not unlimited. The congressional proposal would only cover about two to three months of rent, utility and payroll expenses for many small businesses.
The White House and some economists are pushing to lift the local shutdowns as soon as possible to jump-start the economy. President Donald Trump has set a goal of Easter — April 12 — weeks ahead of what many public health experts say may be safe.
“People are going to flow freely and re-infect each other and spread the virus. So I, as a small business owner who is suffering, would be very, very glad to make sure that we continue to shut down until we kill this thing,” said Carusone, a former chief of staff to then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona and former top Department of Homeland Security official.
In the meantime, Carusone has transitioned her business to producing hand sanitizer. The distillery is churning out small bottles of homemade alcoholic gel, filling a 1,000-gallon order just this week from local government to equip police and medical workers.
Waterreus said he also opposes a rush to reopen before public health officials give the all-clear.
“That’s not, I think, responsible for me as a business owner,” he said, acknowledging that crowds of browsing book buyers in his shop could create a dangerous situation if the virus is still spreading. “I would rather hear from the city or hear from Mayor (Muriel) Bowser and other health officials than I would (President Trump).”
Jaffe says she is trying to ride out the crisis by giving back to the community through what she does best — making people laugh. The improv club is experimenting with virtual stand-up shows and online comedy classes.
“We want to give you a place to kind of — even if it’s your own place in your own little home and your office or living room or whatever,” Jaffe said. “I don’t want to charge people for it.”
“It’s also not healthy to just be in total fear and panic, you know? That’s going to do more damage to you,” she said. “Yes, the virus is going to hurt you, but that feeling is going to hurt you, too.”
In other words: don’t forget to laugh.