To weather the pandemic, small businesses need support during the holidays and in the months following

Posted at 1:58 PM, Nov 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-28 13:50:47-05

HELENA — Many retail businesses depend on holiday shopping as part of their yearly budget. During the pandemic that revenue is needed more than ever; especially considering there are no signs of help from Congress on the horizon.

“The community has been very supportive, but it’s been very stressful to be continually thinking about adapting and trying to meet the needs to both stay alive as a business and be safe,” said Chelsia Rice, co-owner of Montana Book Company. “We want our business to do well, but we also want our customers to be safe and our employees to stay well. Juggling all of that has been a tremendous stress on business owners.”

Montana Book Company is one of more than 8,000 small businesses across the state that have received funding through the Business Stabilization grant program.

The State of Montana has distributed more than $188 million in CARES Act funding by way of the program this year. Through the program each qualifying business was able to receive up to $20,000 to help cover payroll, rent and more.

Two rounds of payments have gone out so far, and Governor Bullock announced Nov. 17 another $75 million would be distributed through the program from unspent CARES Act funding from other programs.

Businesses say they’re incredibly grateful for the support and it has been much needed during the COVID customer drought, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to what has been lost.

“It’s basically ensuring that the very minimum of our business needs get met; our utilities, rent and our employees payroll.” said Rice. “There’s a lot of other expenses we have to cover as a business in order to stay afloat.”

Rice says the most recent amount of funding covered about a month of their foundational expenses. Montana small businesses have been seeing a drought in customers for more than eight months now, since the pandemic hit Montana in March.

Congress has yet to announce an agreement on any additional funding for small businesses. Holiday shopping is now more important than ever for small businesses.

“We make about a third of our revenue during the holidays, and that is what sustains us from January until summer vacation when people start to come into the state,” explained Rice. “Even then, this year we saw some movement from tourism but who knows what we can get next year.”

There is a real concern by many small businesses that if they don’t do well enough this holiday season they won’t see the other side of the pandemic.

Rice says although it’s been lean for them, they’ve been getting support. She’s most worried about restaurants and bars closing permanently in the coming months. Those potential closings would have a domino effect on the area. Less places to shop, get a bite or grab a drink downtown reduces foot traffic and impacts all of the businesses.

On Friday the streets of Downtown Helena were bustling with families out shopping, but not what it had been in the past.

The increase in COVID cases has impacted customer confidence. Those customers that were out expressed their own concerns about businesses not being there next summer.

“I think the pandemic has strained a lot of businesses downtown,” said Helena resident Hallie Kellerman. “It would be sad to see them close so I’m doing what I can just to help keep them open. “

Jesse Heide was out picking up an order from The Painted Pot with her family and getting a head start on some Christmas shopping.

Heide said she’d be so sad to see any of these businesses not make it through the pandemic.

“This year, more than any other year, because of the pandemic they’ve been hit hard. A lot of the foot traffic isn’t there. So we’re just trying to be safe but keep shopping local and keep these important stores in town,” said Heide.

Holiday shopping will be a much needed influx of revenue for many Montana small businesses. But for many to make it through to the other side of the pandemic, they’ll need regular support in the months after the holidays as well.