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Some Businesses See A Jump In Sales Because Of The Virus. Most Are Hurting

While the goal of closing schools and businesses is to slow the spread of COVID-19, the impact on employment has been swift in Massachusetts.  

The day after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced he was closing bars and restaurant dining rooms, 20,000 people submitted unemployment claims. Tens of thousands more have filed since then.

Some local businesses closed, others are seeing an increase in demand – or are trying to hold steady.

People who work in tourism, the arts, hotels, retail stores and any business that serves food have been hard hit. 

Paul & Elizabeth’s, a restaurant in Northampton, laid off 25 people.

Head chef Nate Sustick organized a kind of car parade of employees to apply for unemployment. He said it’s still hard to grasp the impact.

"It’s really just kind of feeling the initial shock from this all," he said. "So we're just trying to organize everything that’s broken apart, in a way."

Besides restaurants, some farm-based businesses are affected.

"The worst thing for us is they suspended the pouring licenses," said John Samek, grape grower, winemaker and delivery man for Hardwick Winery.

Like other businesses that serve food or drink, he's had to stop.

"We are basically a weekend venue, but about half of my business is direct sales by the glass," he said.

Now that that’s shut down, Samek has no work for his 10 part-time employees — but he’s keeping his full-time staff for now.

Samek was delivering three cases of wine to Northampton Liquors & Wine. Piyush Patel, who runs the store with his son, said he has fewer customers.

"Less people come, but they buy more quantity," Patel said. "More beer, more wine; four, five, six bottles they buy of wine," he said.

John Samek of Hardwick Winery delivers wine to Piyush Patel of Northampton Liquors and Wine. Samek has had to close his weekend venue where he serves wine, but can still sell by the bottle. Patel has fewer customers, but they're buying more.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
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NEPR
John Samek of Hardwick Winery, at left, delivers wine to Piyush Patel of Northampton Liquors and Wine. Samek has had to close his weekend venue where he serves wine, but can still sell by the bottle. Patel has fewer customers, but they're buying more.
Kim Warren presses clothes at Park Cleaners in Springfield, Massachusetts, which has lost a lot of business, in part because the MGM casino closed. Park's owner cut her own pay by two-thirds and cut the hours of employees.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
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NEPR
Kim Warren presses clothes at Park Cleaners in Springfield, Massachusetts, which has lost a lot of business, in part because the MGM casino closed. Park's owner cut her own pay by two-thirds and cut the hours of employees.

Fewer customers, bigger sales – kind of balances things out. But in this COVID-19 economy, others are doing all they can to stay on their feet.

Rebeca Merigian, who owns Park Cleaners in Springfield, has not laid off any of her 13 employees, but she’s cutting their hours.

"If they were working 20 hours before the coronavirus, now we'll be lucky if I can give them 10," Merigan said.

Merigian has cut her own pay by two-thirds. Her business has roughly had an 85% drop, in part because the cleaners lost a lot of work when the MGM casino closed.

Last year, a contract with the casino allowed Merigan to provide affordable health insurance for the first time for her workers. Now, she said, it will be a struggle to maintain the benefits for them.

"But that is a high priority for me, because I'm looking at this as more of a health crisis than a financial crisis at this time," she said. "And I'm trying to help my employees get through — to the other side."

The other side, Merigian said, is when people can shake hands again.

There are government loans available to small businesses.

For example, the Small Business Administration has an Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. The low-interest loans go up to $2 million and can cover expenses such as payroll, rent or utilities bills.  

"Any of the normal working capital needs that the business would have had, and had been able to pay, had the disaster not occurred," said Robert Nelson, the district director of the SBA for Massachusetts. "This is a lifeline to help these businesses to survive."

But while some try to weather the storm, others are riding the wave — like the Williamsburg Market, a small grocery. The meat and deli section is doing about three times the business as usual.

Stephen Butcher, the butcher and deli manager, said customers are buying more of what they usually get.

"They're just trying to stock up on stuff they know how to cook," he said.

But Butcher said the store isn’t running out.

Steve Smith, one of the owners, pointed to some of the 10 pallets delivered that day, instead of the usual four.

"I can see, there on the bottom, there is at least one case of Scott bath tissue, and there is supposed to be two in those pallets," Smith said.

More good news: The market is hiring to fill two open positions, including one in the deli.

Like the market, other companies find themselves in the right place at this tough time.

Zogics, which has 20 employees in Lee and Lenox, supplies gyms in the U.S. and other countries with exercising equipment and sanitizing products, such as sanitizing wipes, spray disinfectant and hand sanitizers.

"A big part of our business is making and distributing products that can specifically be used against things like the virus that causes COVID 19," said Paul LeBlanc, Zogics CEO. "We've seen a significant surge in business since the start of this."

Zogics now has customers like airlines, the military, school systems and health care facilities. And it needs more staff.

"We've already started making additional hires. And we will continue to do so," LeBlanc said.

Despite his good fortune, LeBlanc said he’s not doing a victory lap.

"We recognize that a lot of businesses are adversely affected," he said. "Our aim is to help businesses, especially those struggling, to return to normal as quickly as possible."

What a return to normal looks like, and when it will arrive, is anyone’s guess. Right now, many are trying to figure out just how to get from now to then, and be poised to get back to work. 

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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