The state government’s lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus has fallen hard and rather unfairly on small businesses.
Only a small percentage of them qualify as essential and remain open. And many forced to shut have watched competitors continue to sell the kinds of products they can’t offer during state emergency.
That’s because department and dollar stores that sell food are considered essential and remain open — which allows them to also sell clothing, furniture, jewelry and many other non-essential consumer goods.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the rules have greatly benefited large national chain stores at the expense of local small businesses. Judging by the dozens of complaints he receives from them, he said, many are heading for bankruptcy and may never reopen.
Only some of these stressed small businesses will be saved by the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program, part of the multi-trillion-dollar federal effort to reduce the economic damage from anti-COVID-19 efforts.
The PPP offers loans to small businesses that can be forgiven if 75% of the money is used to pay employees. That means no more than 25% can be used for other expenses such as rent, mortgage payments and utilities.
But those expenses are often large in costly states such as New Jersey and many small businesses have few employees, so the PPP loan/grant terms don’t work for them. As of recently, more than 40 percent of small businesses in New Jersey were shut but fewer than 15% were approved for a Small Business Administration loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.
Many newly unemployed or furloughed employees, oddly enough, are earning more than if they were still working. The federal stimulus package also provides $600 a week to the pandemic jobless on top of their regular unemployment benefit.
This too will likely stress small businesses further, discouraging some experienced workers from returning once the state lockdown allows.
The stakes are high not just for South Jersey’s small businesses but for the regional economy as well.
The nation’s 30 million small businesses (fewer than 500 workers) employ about 60 million — almost half of all U.S. employees. Two-thirds of those are at firms with fewer than 100 workers.
Millions of working families and much of the economy depend on small businesses.
The only way to save them is to get them reopened.