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COVID-19: What can we do to support vulnerable businesses?

Local business operators learned of strategies underway to support one another during a March 19 virtual meeting of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Destination Madison, and Downtown Madison Inc.

One strategy is a new virtual portal launched by Greater Madison Chamber, but Chamber President Zach Brandon outlined some best practices that have been percolating as the result of a partnership with the city of Madison. The chamber and the city would like these practices to become “socialized” and some could be undermined by social distancing, but to the extent they can be practiced, they include:

  • If you’re in a tipping situation, tip well. “That generosity, particularly for service workers, will help them make ends meet,” Brandon notes.
  • Turn a ticket purchase into a donation. If you purchased a ticket for an event, a show, a charity function, or another ticketed event, consider not asking for a refund or tell the organization to keep the money you paid for the ticket as a donation.
  • Buy gift cards. “We can’t stress this enough,” Brandon states. “Not the kind of gift cards that are on platforms where you don’t get the money until you spend it. We’re looking at gift cards that are purchased from the local company so that they get the money today, and then you can frequent them at a later date. That cash infusion can make the difference in whether they keep their doors open.”
  • Seek out virtual options. Look, browse, and be intentional about drilling deep and “not just looking at the first screen that pops up on your Google search,” Brandon says, “but looking at subsequent screens to see if you can identify local and small vendors who are selling products that you can use, and then ordering online. We are also working with other partners to try to stand up some local purchasing platforms so that we can better aggregate local vendors who have online sales opportunities.”
  • Shop for friends, family, and neighbors. “If you are going to go out shopping, make certain that you are thinking about people who are more vulnerable or less mobile than yourself and ask them if you can purchase anything for them.”

Portal in a storm

The virtual portal has been established so that employers can submit questions related to COVID-19 and its impact on business. Questions may relate to community response efforts, best practices for businesses, and the types of assistance available for affected businesses.

The chamber says its staff, in collaboration with a team of local public-sector leaders and private-sector, subject-matter experts, will collect and aggregate questions and post answers in as timely a manner as possible.

To submit questions, visit slido.com and enter the event code #ASK4BIZ (not case-sensitive). Questions can also be submitted via email at ask@madisonbiz.com.

Responses will be posted on the Chamber’s website at: madisonbiz.com/covid19faq.

So many questions

Zach Brandon

Other findings from the survey of local employers indicate that business operators feel they can blunt or moderate the impact of this crisis on their workforce, and the portal will be used to answer related questions. One of their top concerns is making sure their employees have the services they need, which is evident in the questions they had. How do I help my employees understand how to pay their rent? How do I help them get access to benefits? When will the federal government issue paid sick leave?

“All those are questions that have come through the survey of employers asking questions, not just for themselves but how they can help their employees better understand what is going on in this crisis,” Brandon says.

Most employers are aware of disaster or business disruption planning, but most probably haven’t heard of IDER (infectious disease emergency response) plans. According to Brandon, 76 percent of the responding companies do not have such a plan, but he notes they have company. “The chamber did not have one, so I think it’s also impressive that 24 percent of the businesses in this region that responded to the survey did have plans,” he states. “Having been a small business owner, this is not necessarily one of those things you think about in small business, and even if you have thought about it, how could you ever predict what is going on and what our new reality is today? We say that not to say that businesses should have had it because the chamber didn’t have it, and many partners didn’t have this kind of plan, but to say that the impact of this will be significant because people didn’t plan for or predict what this crisis would look like.”

In the webinar, which is available on the chamber website, Brandon provided a sample of the things “the 24 percent” had in their plans. The number one thing is to communicate with employees that there is a plan, but only 69 percent acknowledged they were doing that, “and so not even 100 percent even were communicating the plan,” he says.

Increasing office maintenance and cleaning also was high on the list, but scrolling down the rest of the list, he notes that action items such as cancelling corporate events, restricting travel both internationally and domestically, restrictions on face-to-face meetings, working remotely — all of those things which are now the new normal — were in many but not all of those plans “and it just shows you how fast things are moving and how much public orders are changing the way we work,” he notes, “and so again, helping businesses better understand not what necessarily would have been in the plan, but helping businesses better understand what should be the reality for them moving forward, is going to be important.”

Understandably, business operators also had a lot of questions about social distancing and how it works. Retailers were asking how they could remain six feet away from customers they are selling to, and office tenants had queries about best practices for their office layouts that allow for social distancing. How would people move around space so that they are not interacting with people within six feet?

When it comes to remote working, managing dispersed teams is new for a lot of organizations, including the chamber, Brandon notes. All 12 of its employees are now fully dispersed, working remotely but working 40 hours a week, but how do you manage that? “Some of the questions were not just about how to manage it, but also concerned employee health, both mental health and physical health. How are we creating culture within dispersed teams? Again, just looking for best practices and being able to connect to other businesses to learn about what they are doing.”

Although there were questions pertaining to their employees’ ability to pay rent, paying rent also is a top-of-mind question for small businesses. The beginning of a new month is approaching, and businesses are starting to think about how they pay wages and pay rent. “We’ve had a lot of questions from companies about best practices or best ways to approach their landlords,” Brandon notes. “What we do know is landlords — the city, the county, the chamber — nobody wants empty storefronts, and so we’re encouraging people to work with their landlord. If you’ve had a track record of paying your rent and paying it on time, we hope that they will be able to work with you, but we’ve also want to make sure that landlords will be able to keep their payrolls intact and pay their employees, their teams, as well.”

Needless to say, there is a significant amount of concern about food, beverage, and hospitality, as most public orders have impacted them. “Think about a restaurant that one day is operating regularly, and the next day is operating at 50 percent, and two days later is only open for carryout,” Brandon state, “and what’s the difference between a restaurant and a bar? Helping companies understand the difference, what it means for them, where they can find this, and how they can be communicated with is going to be very important moving forward.”

Predictably, ecommerce activity is ramping up, but retailers are in the same position. In addition to questions about social distancing, they are trying to understand how they can create rapid retail online experiences so that people can order from them or buy gift cards from them [see above guidance on gift cards]. “Even very specific things about best practices for doing curbside delivery of retail that somebody might purchase from your store, and so helping companies understand that, as well, is very important.”

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