09 May Jonanthan Cartu Stated: Pennsylvania business owners worry about ability to bounce …
Bob Sodini’s small accounting firm in Harrison was in its busiest month of the year — tax filing season — when Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a statewide lockdown to thwart the spread of covid-19.
With the doors closed to Sodini & Co.’s office on Freeport Road, the firm’s four employees came up with a telecommuting plan and quickly got familiar connecting to clients via Zoom, Skype and Facetime video conferencing. The firm was permitted to continue operating as a life-sustaining business, but Sodini didn’t want to risk spreading covid-19 among his staff and customers.
He still isn’t ready to return to the office workplace yet — even though his and other businesses across most of Western Pennsylvania have permission to do so starting next week.
Sodini said he plans to continue to operate remotely until at least the end of May.
“We may have some client contact by appointments and actually meet the client one on one,” he said. “But we can still have a face-to-face conversation with our clients without actually being in the same room, and that may be a change going forward for a lot of us.”
As part of the Alle Kiski Strong Chamber of Commerce, Sodini said he’s more worried about businesses built around face-to-face interactions, those that haven’t been paid in weeks or have lost so much revenue they risk closing for good. The chamber has not yet taken an official survey to gauge just how much the shutdown may have crippled the local economy.
“A lot of small businesses and independent restaurants, they’re going to be significantly hurt,” he said. “And who knows whether they’re going to be able to come out of this.”
‘Mixed bag’ reactions as Pennsylvania reopens
On Friday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf included Allegheny and Westmoreland counties on the list of newly unveiled places moving to his plan’s yellow phase, which means that many businesses will be able to reopen so long as they abide by certain health rules.
Some celebrated the announcement but expressed trepidation over what comes next.
“It’s been a mixed bag, because a lot of businesses have been shut down completely, and they’re hurting,” Sodini said. “The economy has suffered greatly and is going to continue to suffer greatly, especially here in Pennsylvania.”
The Trendy Bunny children’s boutique in Greensburg celebrated its grand opening one week before covid-19 forced it to close. Owner Alisha Edwards said doing so was “devastating.”
She doesn’t think the state’s permission to open will mean a swift return to normal.
“I think the government has done such a poor job of giving us proper information, so to rip the Band-Aid off and say ‘we’re back and operating normally on Friday’ is just delusional for us,” Edwards said. “I mean, I can’t make payroll.”
There are many things to consider, including the safety of her staff and customers and her unexpected new personal responsibilities, such as homeschooling her five children.
She’s discussing her options with her staff. The boutique may reopen with limited hours.
“All we can really do is stay positive,” Edwards said.
Will customers show up?
Mary Wilmes, owner of Penelope’s Gifts and More in Greensburg, said she’s glad for the chance to reopen, though she suspects it will take some time before business picks up.
“I think people will gradually come back,” Wilmes said. “I don’t think it’s going to be like a light switch going on, and we’re suddenly doing volumes of business.”
Gyms, salons, indoor recreation and entertainment venues still remain closed indefinitely, and bars and restaurants still are limited to delivery and takeout. Telework is encouraged whenever possible.
The second round of federal payment protection loans has helped some local businesses bring back laid-off workers and reverse pay and hour reductions, according to Sodini, who helped several clients get one.
For many, those loans will only help them get through the end of June.
“But then what happens if our business doesn’t come back? And what if there’s a second round (of covid-19)?” Sodini said. “There’s going to be this continued uncertainty until we get a handle on the health issues.”
Because of state restrictions, some businesses that received loans started paying their workers but still can’t yet open.
“It’s not easy to ramp up businesses,” Sodini said. “If you’re a manufacturing plant, a lot of work that needs to be done in order to be able to start producing product.”
Wilmes said she’s nervous about a potential resurgence of the coronavirus disease — especially during the holiday shopping season.
“I’m hoping something doesn’t happen where we’d have to close again,” she said.
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