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Sunday Focus: Area business leaders looking for resources, relief amid coronavirus crisis

NATCHEZ — The COVID-19 pandemic has not only impacted everyday life for individuals but the crisis also has impacted businesses.

From strong requests by local governments urging businesses such as restaurants and bars to limit in-store service to tourism events being postponed or canceled, steps being taken to curtail the spread of the new coronavirus are taking a toll on local businesses.

“Right now it is very trying,” said Chandler Russ, Natchez Inc. executive director. “We’re trying to collectively get through this as best we can, but I think it is important to know it is not just our area that is feeling this, it is the entire country and the world. We’ve got to work together to make sure everybody gets through this to come through the other side stronger and better than ever.”

Russ said the Natchez Inc. offices received numerous telephone calls from businesses seeking information on how to get through the economic downturn associated with the state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have put out three pieces,” Russ said, “to encourage people to go through our social media site, regarding (Small Business Administration) disaster relief forms.”

Russ said since putting out the information, Natchez Inc. has had some 35 businesses — 20 in Adams County and 15 in Concordia Parish — fill out forms for disaster relief or small business loans as of Friday afternoon.

“We are collecting those forms to get back to SBA and the governor’s office to make sure we are prepared coming out of this,” Russ said.

Some service industry employees have recently been laid off in the area, Russ said.

“In the hotel, motel business, if there is not any tourists or travel, no rooms being letted at this time, they’ve had to send people home and lay them off,” Russ said.

For workers who may have been laid off, Russ said he is encouraging them to go to the WIN Job Center to apply for unemployment coverage.

SBA loans approved

For Mississippi businesses, Gov. Tate Reeves announced Friday disaster assistance for Mississippi small businesses and their employees impacted by the current outbreak of COVID-19.

“The U.S. Small Business Administration will offer low-interest federal disaster loans for working capital to Mississippi small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of the Coronavirus COVID-19, according to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza,” a Friday press release from the Mississippi Economic Council states. “SBA acted under its own authority, as provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act that was recently signed by the President, to declare a disaster following Governor Reeves’ request on March 18, 2020.”

Reeves said the business community needs the support.

“Small businesses and their employees are struggling to stay afloat during this trying time, but we will get through this together,” Reeves said. “We are grateful that SBA approved our request in such a swift, timely manner so we are better able to help Mississippi small businesses and their employees weather this storm.”

Applicants may apply online, receive additional disaster assistance information and download applications online at https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela. Applicants may also call SBA’s Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 or email disastercustomerservice@sba.gov for more information on SBA disaster assistance. Individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing may call (800) 877-8339.

Concordia Parish businesses

Heather Malone, executive director of the Concordia Parish Economic Development Authority, said the mood of the business community in Concordia Parish is down.

“It’s pretty dire right now,” Malone said. “Everyone is concerned because of the mandatory closures in the service industry (in Louisiana), taking a big hit from that and businesses are trying to get through and weather the storm for their businesses.”

Malone said she also is hearing from non-essential healthcare facilities such as dental offices and physical therapy practices that the pandemic is affecting their businesses as well.

Malone said she is encouraging businesses to go to the economic development organizations’ social media pages to get updates on information and forms for financial assistance.

“We are making them aware of programs that are available as far as expenses that are available to make up for the decrease of business,” Malone said, “and programs that are coming down pipeline. We are keeping on top of SBA programs and any new bills coming out of Congress that might affect jobs. We are keeping tabs on that and sharing that information with our businesses. I think that is a big role we can play.”

While many Concordia Parish small businesses are feeling the economic squeeze, Malone said industry seems to be doing OK.

Vidalia Mills, which recently began production of denim in the Vidalia Industrial Park, is continuing production even though a contract with a major client has been put on hold, Malone said.

“Vidalia Mills is maintaining with what they have now,” Malone said. “That client may be on hold for now, but they will build up inventory for that contract when it comes back.”

Malone said the economic downturn might push back Vidalia Mills’ plan for hiring up to 300 people by July.

Chamber of commerce

Debbie Hudson, president and CEO of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, said she is hearing a lot of concern from small businesses recently as well.

“People are trying to figure out what to do,” Hudson said. “Some of them are doing things and some of them are just sitting on hold waiting to see what happens with the world.”

Hudson said she, like Russ and Malone, is keeping busy trying to find resources to help small business owners weather the economic crisis.

“I’m trying to find out things people can do and sending stuff out to small businesses, to tourism,” Hudson said. “I’m asking them to help each other.”

Bright spots in the dark

Russ said industries in Adams County are continuing to be productive.

“I’ve been talking with Delta Energy and Great River and Vidalia Mills and all of them haven’t slowed production down,” Russ said. “They have taken additional precautions in social distancing in order to keep employees safe.”

Russ said also that von Drehle, which manufactures paper products, is working to meet increased demands of paper products during the crisis.

Russ said he also is seeing a spirit of cooperation between businesses and industries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Great River Industries had some additional M95 masks, like masks you use in a hospital or a production facility where you might have particulates in the air, and donated them to the hospital,” Russ said. “Companies are helping companies and the local communities are supporting local businesses as they can in this time.”

Russ said he believes the community spirit will prevail through the crisis.

“Overall, it is optimism that we will get us through this,” Russ said. “You’ll have an escalation in cases as we continue to practice quarantine, social distancing and cleanliness. Then you’ll see a decline in those numbers and things will get back to normal and seeing the economy turn again. There is an end, it is just a matter of how long it is going to take.”

Hudson said she is trying to keep a positive spirit in the crisis.

“The big word is patience with ourselves and with each other,” Hudson said. “Have a little faith that life is maybe going to look different for awhile. That’s scary. We had become comfortable. That’s not a bad thing. It is a great thing. I don’t know, that’s kind of where I am at this point.”

Malone said she is encouraging people to work together to get through the crisis.

“Continue what we’ve always done and work together,” Malone said. “Do what we can to prop each other up and keep each other positive and help each other weather the storm. We’ve been around for quite some time. Help each other get through it all right.”

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