By Igor Studenkov
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has taken a toll on local businesses, and even as officials relax the restrictions, businesses still face challenges.
Even businesses able to make some money during the pandemic saw revenues plunge. The federal Paycheck Protection Program, designed to help businesses pay their employees, does not take care of all financial needs, and some businesses were not eligible for it.
Business associations in this area area argue the City and State must do more to help tide businesses over. Looting and temporary closure and boarding up at some businesses further complicated the situation in a number of commercial corridors.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread, Governor JB Pritzker issued the “stay-at-home” executive order that took effect on the evening of March 21, which shut down all businesses except those designated “essential” and put restrictions on those businesses as well. Restaurants could offer only delivery and carry-outs, and bars closed altogether. The State allowed laundromats, hardware and supply stores, hotels, pharmacies, gas stations, funeral services, media companies, and manufacturers that produce essential goods such as food and medicine to stay open. It also allowed grocery stores and supermarket stores such as Target and Walmart that sell groceries to stay open. Businesses deemed nonessential, such as clothing and bookstores, still sold items online.
Pritzker subsequently issued the Restore Illinois plan, which called for relaxing restrictions over the course of several phases. Municipalities could adopt their own restrictions as well, so Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot created her own reopening plan.
Since the initial announcement, the State modified plans several times, but even under the most recent version, businesses could not resume normal operations fully until either a vaccine or a treatment becomes available (or no new cases arise over a sustained period of time). As of this writing, the latter has not happened anywhere except New Zealand.
Under City and State plans, by early June, Chicago restaurants could offer outdoor dining, health and fitness clubs could provide one-on-one personal training and outdoor classes, personal care businesses reopened with restrictions, and “nonessential” stores reopened, so long as they cap the number of shoppers inside at any given time.
The State is on track to move to Phase 4, which allows indoor dining for restaurants and bars with capacity limits. Health and fitness clubs, cinemas, and live theaters can reopen with capacity limits, and the State permits gatherings of up to 50 people.
During an online media conference organized by the Fulton Market Association, Christine Lopez, vice president of portfolio management at BMO Harris Bank, explained that, while the Paycheck Protection Program helped business owners cover salaries, it does not help them with other expenses, such as rent and payments to suppliers.
“I think the exception is, as this goes on, that this is not going to be a snapback, it’s going to be a slow, gradual resuming of normal business activities,” Lopez said. “I don’t think what the Federal government has done is going to be enough, and we need to get help from our local government.”
During the same media conference, several business owners spoke about the challenges they faced.
Jill Garrett is the on-site venue representative for Loft On Lake Events, a Fulton Market-based event space. Under the State’s Restore Illinois plan, her business would not be able to host anything involving more than ten people until Phase 4, when the cap will increase to 50 people—which still rules out larger events. She explained that coronavirus likely would impact her employer for the next two years.
Her business normally would “have weddings, we have corporate events—obviously, all of that was put on halt,” Garrett said. “And, meanwhile, you know, we would be in the booking season for the following year, so not only is this year impacted, but our entire next year.”
Loft on Lake could not apply for the Paycheck Protection Program because most of its workforce is independent contractors. The company did encourage those contractors to apply for their own loans, Garrett said, but only some of them were successful.
For companies concerned about property taxes, considering that they have no revenue coming in, she said they will be struggling for the next two years.
Sally Schwartz, head of the Randolph Street Market, explained that, while she personally was not “in danger of losing real estate,” she worried about vendors who normally would sell their wares at her market.
“The market serves about 300 small businesses, and those businesses can’t afford rent in the first place,” she said. “I’m worried about their mental health well-being. They survive from show to show.”
Schwartz has been trying to help them by promoting their goods via the market’s Instagram account.
The Fulton Market Association threw its support behind a resolution introduced by Ald. Daniel LaSpata (1st Ward), which urged the Illinois General Assembly to pass a law allowing the City to use tax increment financing funds to provide financial assistance for businesses. The current State law is ambiguous on the matter. Fourteen aldermen signed on in support of the resolution including Pat Dowell (3rd), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Walter Burnett (27th), and Jason Ervin (28th).
“This is urgent,” Sigcho-Lopez said during the conference. “We do have businesses that are really going bankrupt, and we have resources that, instead of paying small businesses that are paying those taxes in the first place, are still going toward luxury housing that don’t need that funding as much as the small businesses do.”
As of this writing, the resolution has not moved in City Council, and Fulton Market Association executive director Roger Romanelli said he has not seen any movement on the state level, either.
“The feedback we got was, ‘Oh, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan won’t support it, so we can’t press the issue,’” he said. “We’ve got to have elected officials that are ready to stand up for our small businesses. Who cares about what Mike Madison thinks?”
As if the coronavirus weren’t enough, many businesses within Gazette Chicago’s coverage area and throughout the city suffered from looting that followed demonstrations that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death. May 30 saw several businesses in the Loop, South Loop, and Magnificent Mile looted. The next day, Lightfoot closed off the Loop and the surrounding neighborhoods, only to see looters strike major commercial corridors in other neighborhoods, including Bronzeville. In response, the City is working with Jewel-Osco to set aside $11 million to help the affected businesses.
Local businesses under Phase 3
In an interview with Gazette Chicago, Romanelli said Phase 3 has not been much help for businesses.
“I’d think we’d see more business activity, but I’m not hearing a lot of positive feedback yet,” he said.
The major issue for Fulton Market businesses is that many residents simply do not feel safe enough to shop and eat out, Romanelli said. For restaurants, at least, having more room to set up outdoor dining would help address those concerns.
At the end of May, the City announced it would close sections of six major commercial corridors throughout Chicago to give restaurants more space to set up tables and chairs, including a section of Taylor Street between Loomis Street and Ashland Avenue and the Randolph Street restaurant corridor between the Kennedy Expressway and Elizabeth Street.
Since then, the chambers of commerce within the corridor have submitted applications, and Romanelli said he has no idea when the City will finalize details for Randolph corridor. He feels the City should move with more urgency.
“This is ridiculous,” Romanelli said. “Randolph is one of the premiere restaurant streets in the whole nation, and it’s ridiculous that we’re not open yet, and other streets are open. I’m very concerned that the City doesn’t understand that small businesses are suffering.”
He emphasized he did not think the Randolph Street corridor should have opened first. Rather, he thought all corridors should have opened for outdoor dining at the same time.
When asked what else the City can do to help local businesses, Romanelli said he would like to see the City e-mail information about coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths and break that data down on a neighborhood level.
“We need data, we need to know how we’re doing, whether we go down or up, and that’s the key to bringing back customer confidence,” he said. “That way, people feel they can go to our restaurants, go to our clothing stores. I think that’s really important.”
Donna Sukacz of the South Loop Chamber of Commerce noted her organization covers the Bridgeport, Canaryville, Back of the Yards, and Fuller Park neighborhoods. She explained several factors affect the chamber members. Just like Wrigleyville benefits from Cubs fans coming to watch games, businesses in Bridgeport and other nearby neighborhoods benefit from White Sox fans, she said. Without games, businesses are hurting.
While staying in business has been a struggle for everyone, Sukacz said community support has helped. She noted restaurant owners “said that residents have been kind and tried to come and try to patronize them, because they are all favorites, and they’ve been here for such a long time and they want them to stay. They have established customers, and many of them live in the area, so it’s not just a small business—they’re neighbors and they’re friends.”
Sukacz touted the businesses’ civic sprit, praising them for providing free meals to the homeless and first responders.
The South Loop Chamber of Commerce supports its members by using its website and social media to let residents know what businesses are open, along with their current hours, specials they may offer, and which restaurants have outdoor dining. The chamber is working with businesses to let them know about grants they can apply for. For restaurants and bars, the chamber is helping business owners understand how to apply for permits allowing them to set up outdoor dining and serve cocktails to go.
She noted grants involve one major issue: many business owners may not be technologically savvy, and they have found the application process overwhelming. That situation prompted the chamber to help them through the process.
Sukacz said if the City waived fees and relaxed certain regulations, at least while the pandemic is still happening, would go a long way to help businesses.
“Anything to make them feel like they’re not forgotten,” she added.