INVESTIGATING THE IMPACT: Nevada County businesses, governments, nonprofits navigate uncertain times, worry what’s ahead
Special to the Sierra Sun
FIRST IN A SERIES
Today, Sierra Sun presents the first installment of “Investigating the Impact,” a series of stories that will discuss how Nevada County is coping through the COVID-19 crisis. This week’s coverage will focus on the economic toll of pandemic on business, government services and nonprofits.
Further discussion over coming weeks will delve into each of those — in addition to education, health care, housing, as well as arts and culture — to better understand the impact of the crisis, the situation each sector faces and what resources are available to help the community to move forward.
While the list of nonessential workplaces is lengthy, there are still many — including builders, government agencies, medical clinics, health care institutions, and nonprofits — trying to navigate uncertain economic times that may last long after the threat of coronavirus has subsided.
“It’s been a little bit of a mixed bag so far,” Nevada County Contractors’ Association Executive Director Libby Goldsmith said of how local contractors are experiencing the broader economic blow.
The majority of building projects, like Higgins Marketplace in south Nevada County and government projects, continue to move forward, said Goldsmith. Although a number of people previously planning to invest in projects are now acting more prudently for fear of financial instability.
“A lot of it is people being careful with their money,” said Goldsmith. But while there have been some delays in construction and a few companies have issued layoffs, Goldsmith said most projects are moving forward unabated.
In the retail sector, some stores have closed, but many more locally are still interacting with their customers on an appointment basis and making sales online.
Such is the case with Susan Escano’s business Vintage on Main in Grass Valley. Since Escano helps decorate homes, she said she’s a bit lucky because that’s an activity residents still want to do as many sit at home, staring at the same four walls.
“They’re bored and wanting to at least see if I’m there,” she said.
Vintage on Main doesn’t have a large inventory nor employee costs. Yet, sales are slightly down and that makes Escano, and every store owner she knows, cautious about the future.
“Everybody’s just treading lightly,” she said.
Considered an essential business, some solar companies, like Byers and Cal Solar remain open. Sustainable Energy Group, however, made the decision to dramatically slow its business in order to protect the health of its employees and customers, according to company president Brian Gardner.
The group applied for a Payroll Protection Program loan to help them out, but, according to Gardner, the company isn’t expected to take a huge financial hit from the crisis, and doesn’t anticipate having to lay off anyone in the long run. The company is still experiencing a demand for solar energy, and may fully reopen in May.
“All companies are winging this right now,” he said. “We’re kind of taking it step by step, day by day.”
Though budget cuts haven’t yet hit all of Nevada County government, one of the cities in the western county has already begun to experience change. Grass Valley has laid off four individuals and seven open positions have been frozen and not filled. The cuts were made to ensure the city could provide essential services after a new budget update anticipates a shortfall of $900,000, officials said. The sudden loss, and likely expanded drop, of tax revenue from local commerce is largely the reason for the change.
Nevada City has not yet made cuts, but both the city and county government are preparing for changes. But at the county level, officials are hoping not to have to do so in the near future.
“Currently the county isn’t looking at any layoffs, furloughs or reductions in staff,” said Steve Rose, the county’s Human Resources director, in an email. “We are looking at our vacant positions and determining whether or not we can temporarily hold off on filling them in light of the current situation.”
Although it’s unknown what is to happen financially to county government agencies, local and state governments across the country are already experiencing economic pain, and planning for the worst, as they had to do a decade ago after the Great Recession.
Financial stability for rural hospitals has long been a problem across the country, and economic crises only exacerbate the problem. According to data gathered by the University of North Carolina, 170 rural hospitals have closed since 2005 — 10 of which occurred already this year.
Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital President & CEO Dr. Brian Evans has often spoken about the challenges rural hospitals face remaining financially solvent. Evans wrote in an email that currently the hospital needs to continue to be cautious of its resources to ensure the institution is around for a long time into the future.
“At this point we are definitely seeing decreased revenues because of low volumes, and postponing elective surgeries and tests,” he wrote. “However, we have excellent financial reserves, an engaged fiduciary board and we will get through this pandemic.”
Concern has also seeped into other medical institutions, like the smaller clinics that operate in Nevada County and around the country. The Urgent Care Association highlighted that distress, noting 3,000 urgent care providers signed a letter to Congress urging financial relief in order to stay open during the pandemic and thereafter.
“Urgent care centers are on the front lines of this pandemic but may not be available for their communities as this public health crisis continues, or when it ends,” Dr. Richard Park, a board member for the association and co-founder of CityMD Urgent Care, said in a news release.
Yubadocs Director Dr. Roger Hicks said things are difficult now that volume is down at the Grass Valley clinic and people are staying home. Injuries and other maladies still occur independent of the coronavirus, he said, noting that it’s important for Yubadocs to be able to treat those people.
“It’s safe for people to come in — don’t put off your medical problems,” said Hicks. “It is safe to come in and be seen.”
While the medical clinic has begun instituting telemedicine, Hicks is concerned that his organization will have to issue furloughs or layoffs soon. The clinic has applied for Paycheck Protection Program and disaster relief loans from the federal government, but has yet to receive any money.
“We’ve been in this community for over 20 years now,” he said. “We’re part of the medical landscape here that a lot of people see as a needed resource.”
Nonprofits are in a similar boat as other private sector organizations as they try to make the best of a rough situation.
After recently opening its renovated building in Grass Valley, the Center for The Arts is enduring a particularly challenging time, having postponed its programming until mid-June and requesting people donate money to keep it afloat. The nonprofit says it has “an immediate need to raise $150,000,” according to its website.
While having to cut back a bit on its staff, The Food Bank of Nevada County has seen a demand for services skyrocket, leaving the organization needed now possibly more than ever.
Like the food bank, Gold Country Community Services’ Executive Director Janeth Marroletti wrote that she’s looking to ramp up her organization’s services, meeting rising demand from vulnerable residents.
The local Habitat for Humanity’s Re-Store has closed and the organization’s construction operations have been halted mostly because its volunteers are older and there was concern for their health, said Lorraine Larson, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“It’s been rough, we’re not in terrible shape but we’ve had some impact,” said Larson.
Having applied for a federal loan to avoid closure, the executive director is concerned about what’s to come, especially if the shelter-in-place order lasts longer than May.
“It’s a pretty big impact, it’s making us pretty nervous as to how long this will go on,” she said.
ARTS & CULTURE
While wary of what’s to come, other nonprofits are operating and working hard to serve their members. The Nevada County Arts Council, for example, has been working to serve other arts organizations as well as individual artists. On April 18, it was able to virtually live-stream the Sierra Poetry Festival.
“We haven’t stopped,” said council Executive Director Eliza Tudor. “We’re working hard.”
The Nevada County Arts Council has issued a survey to better understand how artists and non-artists are navigating this time and, according to Tudor, have received 257 responses thus far. While certain programming has had to be postponed, Tudor is hopeful that the county’s artistic communities will be able to rise strong out of potential economic ruin.
“I’m behind the scenes advocating like crazy for continued funding towards the arts (and) the use of public funds for the arts,” she said. “We want the arts community to be healthy when we come out of this.”
Nevada County Media also remains busy, according to the nonprofit’s Executive Director Ramona Howard. While the organization has stopped staffing interns and has reduced staff down to bare minimum work hours, the nonprofit is continuing with many programs, including Nevada County Now, a new shopping program as well as a town hall forum.
“Any nonprofit is usually operating so close to the edge anyway,” said Howard. “Our goal is to spend the money that we have and hopefully some of us are able to save for bigger projects.”
The nonprofit has had many individuals regularly checking its budget, and has applied for and awaits assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program, said Howard. Mostly, the executive director doesn’t know what’s to come. Her biggest concern is membership drying up.
“I can’t give you a timeline because I don’t know what the next eight weeks, beyond this payroll, is going to look like,” she said, adding, “Nevada County Media isn’t going to go dark.”
Sam Corey is a Staff Writer for The Union, a sister publication to Sierra Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 530-477-4219.
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