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Businesses fight to endure COVID surge

Tahoe businesses fight to survive second surge

Today marks the start of the second of a three-week shelter-in-place order issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

North Lake Tahoe businesses — particularly restaurants, retail shops and gyms — must endure the financial fallout of COVID-19’s second surge.

Kristin York, vice president of business innovation at the Sierra Small Business Development Center for the Sierra Business Council, said her organization helps federal, state and local governments administer small business loans and grants. It also provides free technical assistance, workshops and counseling to entrepreneurs across the region.



“We deal with small businesses one on one,” York said. “We have a whole team of counselors and contractors that work for us with various levels of expertise.”

York said since the pandemic’s onset she has heard both inspiring and heartbreaking stories.



“In a single day, our team has taken calls from business owners who are crying because they are going to lose everything,” York added, “or maybe they are crying because they just got information that they received a grant that will save their business, their families and their lives.”

York described the last 10 months as an “exhausting but most rewarding time.”

This season’s surge of COVID-19 will have a serious economic impact on local businesses, she said.

“The situation is escalating, for sure,” York added.

York said the initial panic and uncertainty her team responded to in the beginning was thought of as temporary.

“There was a thought that we’d be fine in a couple months,” York said. “People had lifelines, grants or personal savings.”

According to York, some businesses are keeping their heads barely above water while others are going under.

“A restaurant owner in our community told me he’s losing $2,000 dollars a day just by staying open and doing takeout,” York said.

York is grateful for business owners like him who are committed to keeping their core staff employed. But not everyone can afford to take the hit, York said.

“He is keeping his team and family together,” York explained. “That’s after he’s done cutting expenses.”

York said restaurant owners are back and working seven days a week “doing whatever they can to save their business.”

“They are losing money or breaking even,” York said.

York said restaurants can have high operating costs and sometimes operate in small margins.

Some chose to close entirely back in March, York said, and others took a hard pivot to create a takeout friendly menu.

ECONOMIC HEALTH

York said businesses cannot tread water forever.

“People can only sustain that for a certain period of time,” York explained. “That’s what the community needs to realize — shop local is the single most important thing people can do right now.”

York said a recent two-and-a-half hour wait at the post office made her realize how much commerce is happening outside of the area.

“By going to your local store you are keeping those businesses alive,” York said. “They are not getting rich right now, but they are supporting their family and their community members.”

“Next time around they are going to support your local soccer team,” York added. “I guarantee Amazon is not.”

York said she, too, appreciates the convenience of home delivery, but thinks there is a obscured cost to local economies.

“Amazon has done more damage to small communities than any other business in the world,” York said. “It’s just economics — the stuff is cheap and it arrives to your door.”

York said paying $2 more for a local product rather than having it shipped will not only address climate concerns, but help sustain businesses who need it, as opposed to mega-corporations.

“Income disparity problems are out of control,” York said. “Let’s look out for own, we have no control over what happens on a federal and state level.”

York said the scope of the economic crisis is hard to understand, adding she hopes locals understand how important their patronage is.

“We’re so lucky we live here,” York said. “There are communities around the us that are truly suffering.”

FORTIFYING THE SAFETY NET

York attributes the North Lake Tahoe’s region’s relative comfort to the robust safety net of social services.

According to York, the Paycheck Protection Program loans provided by the federal government mainly ended up going to large businesses. The state has been slow to respond on the fiscal aid side, though local governments stepped up in response to their constituents’ needs.

“All of them stepped up with a localized relief fund,” York said, referring to Nevada and Placer counties. York added that the quick turnaround on emergency permits for outdoor dining and rent relief ordinances inspired pride in her local governing bodies.

Phyllis McConn is the community impact officer at the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation. Since the onset of the pandemic, the TTCF has distributed multiple rounds of money and prioritized the safety net services.

“Because of the surge, we know there will be a surge in safety net services demand,“ McConn said.

McConn said the Sierra Community House is the main safety net organization in the region.

McConn said Sierra Community House recorded a 1,400% increase in direct payments assistance from March through October.

Long before the eviction moratorium is scheduled to lift on Jan. 31, the organization processed Public Utility District credits for 142 households, South West gas credits for 77 households and 13,000 food boxes to over 600 families.

McConn said the growing mental health concerns come from a 200% increase in helpline calls, averaging 150 calls to the crises center a month.

McConn said delays in unemployment data — the numbers from the California Employment Development Department are from October —make it hard for nonprofits to assess the need.

McConn said the foundation helps finance these services, but does not have “boots on the ground,” necessarily.

“The nonprofits are meeting the demand organically,” McConn said. “If more people show up in need, they get it done, and adjust on the fly.”

Foundation Director Alison Schwedner said the region’s critical nonprofits already do not receive enough funding, and now must provide more for the community with less time and money..

”Everyone has thinner capacity,“ Schwedner said. ”There’s been some frustration, but nonprofits have totally risen to the challenge. We’re doing a ton and the best we can.“

THE CORE OF THE MATTER

“Our world has become so dominated by technology and convenience that we’ve lost track of what’s truly important,“ York added. ”That’s community, family and health.“

York said the pandemic has forced her and many others to reflect, prioritize and sacrifice.

“I have to believe in every tragedy there’s a lesson to be learned,” York said. “If we don’t learn the lesson, we get taught again.”

York said she has tremendous respect for the community, but hopes the crisis inspires change in spending habits.

“Community resilience starts with community first,” York said.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun and The Union. She can be reached at roneil@theunion.com.


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