After six months, businesses holding their own

Published 5:07 pm Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Isle of Wight businesses have adapted, pivoted and collaborated to stay healthy through COVID-19.

Six months into the pandemic, relatively few local businesses have decided to or been forced to permanently close, according to Chris Morello, director of Isle of Wight County’s Economic Development.

As of late August, Morello said the department has “gotten word of only a handful of businesses that have said definitively they’re throwing in the towel because of COVID-19 and closing permanently.” None are restaurants. About 1,500 businesses are registered in Isle of Wight, Smithfield and Windsor.

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“If it’s not a handful, it’s a handful and a half,” that have closed, Morello said.

Most of the local businesses that have closed, Morello said, “have largely been storefronts. I’m thinking of some retail establishments, where you do walk in and you buy something and you walk out.” In terms of closures, “it’s been far fewer than we were fearing and expecting,”

Although the virus was in the background, “it really wasn’t until the March, April timeframe that we really started to see things happening that were different than the first part of the quarter,” Morello said. “I think we had nothing indicating in the first part of the year that the economy was doing anything other than improving.”

In June and July, 49 new businesses were registered in Smithfield, Windsor and Isle of Wight. In 2019 during the same time frame, 43 new businesses were registered. This uptick, Morello said, may indicate that people are pivoting to a different kind of business model or type of work.

However, one data point that’s not available is closure information. When a company goes out of business, they typically don’t immediately contact officials to have their information removed from the records. That information emerges later, usually the following year, when a business doesn’t renew its license.

Jessica Jones-Healy, president and chief executive officer of the Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce, agreed, saying at this point, it’s “challenging to put a number to how many businesses have permanently closed due to the pandemic. Most of our members have transitioned to online platforms to continue operating.”

Still, Morello said, “we’re seeing equal or greater strength in new business starts, and so it could be that people who have been furloughed or maybe even laid off from their work, they’re seeing a business opportunity and they’re ready to be entrepreneurs in this environment because they do see a need for a service or a product,” Morello said. “That’s speculative on my part, and we’ll have to see how it really goes, but I thought that was an interesting statistic, and it might be surprising to many.”

Morello said a look at the recent data indicates that the services offered by many of the newly opened businesses are mobile versions of what had been or could be storefront operations. “It’s kind of like the analogue to the food truck, like salon services becoming mobile, pet services. A mobile massage business. These are real examples … they’re things that I saw in the listing. So the pandemic has been catalytic for a surge in mobile services.”

For anyone who is currently a business owner or interested in becoming one, Morello said there are many resources available. The resources include grants available through the county’s Small Business Grant program, which offered $2,000 grants to businesses in the county, Smithfield and Windsor that experienced an economic setback due to COVID-19.

The county also recently announced an expansion of the program, which was first launched in June. A second round of funding is now available to eligible, for-profit small businesses that employ less than 50 people. Up to $4,000 is available for new applicants to the program. Businesses that previously received funding may qualify to receive an additional $2,000.

Although “$4,000 is not a lot of money for some larger companies, we have had great feedback so far from a number of companies thanking us for the $2,000 that we’ve been able to give to them so far. … We know these businesses have suffered a great deal more than $2,000, but this is a way of saying that your community and your leadership in the community, in the county and in the towns are really thinking about you and need you to know that we’re behind you.”

Many non-financial business, entrepreneurial and economic development resources are available. They include the county’s COVID-19 Business Resources website, which is filled with links to local and regional information and professional resources, as well as the department’s new YouTube channel, which has a series of recently produced videos on timely topics such as the state’s phased reopening plan.

Jones-Healy said her advice for local businesses and entrepreneurs is to get connected.

“At the chamber, we have seen businesses thrive in this current economic climate because they have pivoted to make their business stand out and innovative,” she said. “Staying connected keeps you ‘in the know’ and provides you with the resources you need at your fingertips. It has been amazing to see the business community come together and help each other during this pandemic.”

The chamber’s initiatives to support local businesses include: creating the “Isle of Wight VA Biz HUB” Facebook group, which provides a platform for businesses and residents to stay informed about local business happenings and promotions; using email newsletters and social media to publish information relevant to businesses such as resources, announcements and updated hours of operation for local businesses; engaging in daily communication with organizations such as the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Development Center and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce; and offering Chamber Chat, a podcast-style series featuring insight from member businesses and local leaders.

Jones-Healy also said the chamber will soon announce details of an upcoming initiative that will support the large number of teleworkers now working in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County.