Posted on

Mask Mandate? In a Montana Town, It ‘Puts Us at Odds With Customers’

HAMILTON, Mont. — Outside River Rising Bakery sits an older gentleman, his face uncovered. He’s here every morning, greeting customers as he drinks his coffee and reads. Inside, people mill about, waiting to order. A group of moms chat at a corner table.

The employees wear masks, but patrons are not required to. Most don’t. It feels almost normal. As if the pandemic had never happened.

Half a block away in Hamilton, at Big Creek Coffee Roasters, most customers don’t go inside; instead they wait to order at a makeshift to-go window. There are a lot of strollers and Lululemon tights, and most people in the line are wearing a mask. If anyone did go inside, wearing one would be mandatory.

One Montana block, two small businesses — and two different decisions about asking customers to wear masks.

This summer, the governor, Steve Bullock, mandated face coverings in public spaces to combat a spike in Covid-19 cases. But the sheriff in Hamilton, backed up by the Ravalli County commissioners, elected not to enforce the order, saying individual rights took priority. That decision left small businesses stuck in the middle of a months-long national conflict over mask wearing as they try to keep staff safe and their doors open without alienating customers.

Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

For the owner of River Rising, Nicki Ransier, the commissioners’ decision made her life easier: “It kind of took some pressure off of us, because we’re not having that confrontation with our customers when they walk in.”

Before the governor’s order, Ms. Ransier asked her staff to wear masks, but a few customers berated her employees — some of whom are in high school — over the decision. One customer told the staff that they were “bending the knee to tyranny” by following Mr. Bullock’s order.

Other patrons wanted Ms. Ransier to flatly require masks for all and install costly plexiglass barriers. She felt she couldn’t please anyone, so she decided her policy would focus on what she could control: employees. She would let customers choose, but ask her 14 workers to wear masks even though it can be hot and miserable.

“We have a lot of older customers,” Ms. Ransier said. “And in my heart, I was just like, ‘What if I were to get Bob — the man who sits out front every day — or someone sick?’ I would just feel horrible.”

But the commissioners’ move frustrated Randy Lint, the owner of Big Creek Coffee Roasters. He thought the governor’s order would put an end to mask conflicts. Instead, he said, the commissioners’ decision “puts us at odds with customers.”


Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

“Dealing with fallout from stressed customers has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic,” Mr. Lint said.

He’s thankful for the to-go window and the reprieve it offers — at least while the weather is nice. He added a propane heater to extend the outdoor season, but once winter hits and customers come indoors, he knows his policy will be an issue again. Still, he said, he can’t risk having any of his seven staff members contract Covid-19. If one did, he would have to shut down for two weeks so everyone could quarantine. Mr. Lint said he wasn’t sure he could survive that experience emotionally.

“The danger is that it will all crush my spirit,” he said.

It’s a fear based in reality: Down the block, Naps Grill, one of the town’s busiest restaurants, recently chose to close temporarily after several workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Complicating the choice for business owners and customers alike is that the pandemic has been slow to affect Ravalli County, which is part of the Bitterroot Valley, an approximately 100-mile strip of isolated southwestern Montana. The county is 2,400 square miles — nearly as large as Delaware — but it has had just over 300 cases of the coronavirus and four deaths from Covid-19 since March. More than one-quarter of those cases have cropped up in the past week and caused several local schools to shut down for multiple days. And with the area’s reliance on tourists for hunting season and an influx of pandemic refugees from more populous states, anything could happen this fall.


Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

The town, with just under 5,000 residents, is home to Rocky Mountain Laboratories, where researchers are trying to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. It is also the county seat, luring many to shop and do business, and is a gateway to serious trout streams and other outdoor recreation. That means everyone is mixing on Main Street: white collar, blue collar, wealthy ranchers, scientists, lifelong bartenders, multigeneration residents, tourists, hunters, kayakers, conservatives and liberals.

There is an uneasy truce between newcomers with high-paying jobs who are looking for the Montana lifestyle and longtime Bitterrooters, whose wages have been slow to rise even as the median home price in the county has risen 60 percent since January 2017. The longtimers feel pushed out.

“We are scrupulously apolitical,” Mr. Lint said, who has lived in Hamilton for 25 years. “It’s a survival mechanism. We have a lot of old Bitterrooters who wouldn’t come in here otherwise. We just try to give a good drink and kindness.”

That’s the refrain up and down the block. Most owners, whatever their politics, keep their business’ social media and public statements staunchly neutral. But masks have become a very public symbol onto which people imprint their own assumptions.


Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

“It’s quite exhausting,” said Shawn Wathen, a co-owner of Chapter One Book Store, which is cater-corner from Big Creek. “If we could go one day and not have to talk about masks — that would be just quite astonishing.”

“The governor’s order was supposed to handle that for us so that we could focus on staying open as a business, right?” added the other owner, Mara Lynn Luther. “And that’s so frustrating.”

Chapter One has been a staple in Hamilton since 1974, and both Ms. Luther and Mr. Wathen were employees before becoming the owners. They jokingly call themselves bartenders — because customers bring them their biggest problems. It’s a real exercise in trust, for example, when someone asks them to order a title on mental health or how to save their marriage. They love the hours they spend talking about books and big ideas with shoppers.


Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

Recently, an elderly woman came in and lashed out when she was told that the store required masks. Instead of kicking out her longtime customer or using harsh words, Ms. Luther asked if the woman was OK. The two chatted, and Ms. Luther learned that the woman, unable to see facial expressions, was genuinely frightened to see people in masks. Now when the woman comes in, Ms. Luther said, she masks without complaint.

“Do we always share the same views and values as our whole community? No,” Ms. Luther said. “But for years we’ve just kept these lines of communication open and really made an effort to never make someone feel like we shut the door on them.”

Across the street at Big Sky Candy, the owners, Michele DeGroot and her daughter, Marlena Fehr, made a different decision: They are not asking patrons to mask while browsing the chocolates, truffles, toffees, fudge and caramels. The pair have been making the goodies from scratch for 19 years, and they love having people who came in as kids bring their own children now.


Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

That community connection is partly why they decided not to enforce the governor’s mask mandate: They didn’t want anyone to feel bad in a place that is supposed to bring joy. So instead of the “masks required” sign, a note on their front door says they won’t be enforcing the order and adds, in part: “BASICALLY, it’s up to you. You do what you feel is right for you. We will not judge you. The rest of the world does enough judging. We don’t need that here. We love each and every one of you.”


Credit…Lido Vizzutti for The New York Times

That’s how Ms. Ransier of River Rising feels about her customers: She loves them all. She cries when talking about how much they mean to her, and how Covid helped show her how much the cafe meant to them. When the pandemic hit, she said, her “old curmudgeon regulars” were the first to step up and offer cash donations to help keep her afloat.

“I didn’t even think they really cared, as long as we have their pastry,” she said. “But those ranchers, you know, they aren’t going to be wearing their heart on their sleeve. There’s always something good that comes out of everything.”

It’s bittersweet because she recently sold the business to her landlord, Fenn Nelson. The two had been in discussions since before the pandemic, and the timing finally worked out.

So far, Mr. Nelson is not planning any significant changes to the menu, the staff or the mask policy. At his other business, the microbrewery Higherground Brewing Company, he strongly encourages customers to wear masks inside but doesn’t make staff insist.

“At one level, I feel like I should push for more for masks,” Mr. Nelson said. “But on the other side, I feel like, at what cost? For us to survive, we need everyone as customers.”

Posted on

A Korean Store Owner. A Black Employee. A Tense Neighborhood.

The crowd was growing impatient as Crystal Holmes fumbled with the keys to the store.

Dozens of people were swarming the street around Western Beauty Supply, the Chicago shop where Ms. Holmes works. She had persuaded some of them to let her open the store so they could rob it without breaking the windows.

“She’s taking too long,” someone yelled. “Let’s go in and get it.”

Western Beauty Supply sells products like wigs, hair extensions and combs mostly to Black women. Most of the employees, like Ms. Holmes, are also Black, but the owner is a Korean-American man, Yong Sup Na.

When a few young men appeared outside the store earlier that evening in May, Mr. Na went out to speak with them. He offered some of them cash, and they walked away. At that point, Mr. Na told Ms. Holmes that he felt confident his business was safe. “They are not going to break into the store,” he told her.

A few minutes later, though, a larger group showed up. A woman snatched Mr. Na’s keys, but Ms. Holmes persuaded her to give them back. Then she ordered Mr. Na, her boss, to leave. “You don’t know what could happen,” she told him.

Even as Ms. Holmes tried to save the store from ruin that evening, when protests and looting followed the police killing of George Floyd, she understood what was causing the turmoil roiling Chicago and dozens of other cities.

“I understand where the rage is coming from,” Ms. Holmes, 40, said in an interview. “We don’t have any businesses in the community and we are getting killed by the police and killing each other, and we are just getting tired.”

In the years she has spent working for Mr. Na, customers have constantly told her that she should open her own store. But she has watched some Black women struggle as owners in the industry, and her priority has been keeping a steady job to support her family.

Outside the store, people in the crowd kept pushing for Ms. Holmes to let them in. But she couldn’t get the keys into the lock. Her hands were shaking too much.

Mr. Na, who is 65, grew up in South Korea in a home with an outhouse. He watched television by standing outside a neighbor’s window and peering in at the set. Mr. Na was in his late 20s when he arrived in the United States. He knew only one person, a friend from his village who had moved to Chicago.

Not religious but seeking to meet other immigrants, Mr. Na soon joined a Korean church. A few years later, a friend from the church bought a shoe store on Chicago’s South Side from a white man who wanted out.

“This man was upset that the Black people were moving into the neighborhood,” Mr. Na recalled in an interview. “Koreans didn’t care. This was an area that they could afford.”

Credit…via Sandra Na

With no access to a bank loan, Mr. Na bought the store from his friend by using proceeds from the shoe sales. He paid $5,000 a month for 13 months. The business was straightforward.

“You were buying cheaply made goods at a low cost from a wholesaler,” Mr. Na said. “The customers were not snobby.” He also owned businesses that sold pagers, cellphones and clothing. The endeavors allowed him to pay for private school and then college for his two daughters.

Over the years, other Korean retailers told Mr. Na that beauty sales were a steady proposition, even in recessions. In 2007, he started his first beauty shop. He opened Western Beauty in 2014, on the city’s West Side, and started Modern Beauty in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville two years later.

The portion of the beauty industry that caters to Black women generates about $4 billion in sales a year. Much of those sales are rung up in small beauty supply stores, which are ubiquitous in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The stores seem like a natural answer to the numerous calls from policymakers and corporate America to create more Black-owned businesses after protests over systemic racism broke out this spring.

Yet fewer than 10 percent are owned by Black women, said Tiffany Gill, a history professor at Rutgers University. Instead, many of them are owned by Korean immigrants. Korean Americans also lead some of the largest wholesale distributors that import the hair products from China.

“These are two historically marginalized groups fighting over the same small slice of pie when there is so much more of the pie that neither has access to,” said Ms. Gill, the author of the book “Beauty Shop Politics: African-American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry.”

For years, Mr. Na worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. His daughter Sandra, 33, remembers one night when her father didn’t come home. He had been rushed into emergency surgery to remove a shard of glass from his face after a scuffle with someone who tried to rob the store.

The Na family lived for a time in a Latino neighborhood and eventually moved to a largely white suburb north of the city. Ms. Na said her parents had insisted that she spend her summers learning Korean, working as a tutor and taking academic enrichment classes. Ms. Na and her sister, Jenny, visited the store only rarely when they were growing up and played with the register.

She said her father never talked about the “social and racial impacts” as a retailer on the South Side. Her father came from a generation that experienced poverty and hardships, Ms. Na said, and didn’t have the time to focus on much else except taking care of his family, which included sending money to his siblings back in South Korea.

As part of a younger generation faced with fewer of these pressures, Ms. Na said, she has had opportunities to think about issues of race from a different perspective.

“But everything for my dad was about survival,” Ms. Na said.


Credit…Danielle Scruggs for The New York Times

Crystal Holmes grew up a world away from South Korea, in Chicago’s East Side. But like Mr. Na, she faced challenges from the start. She was raised mostly by her grandmother until she was a teenager.

“I knew I wanted better,” she said. “I always said I would never put my kids in the situation I was in.”

Ms. Holmes, a mother of two, worked for a time for a fried chicken chain, but switched to beauty supply stores when she found that many pay every week.

At the first store she worked in, the owner, a Korean man, was so impressed with her sales skills that he said he would help her open a store one day, Ms. Holmes said.

Then things soured. The owner accused her of stealing from him after he discovered the register short of cash, she said. She told him how one employee, who was also Korean, had insisted on taking turns on the register and had a gambling problem. But the owner didn’t believe her.

“I just walked out of the store,” she said. (A security tape later showed that she did not steal anything, according to Ms. Holmes.)

Many beauty supply stores have a reputation for being demeaning places for the Black women who shop in them. Ms. Holmes said she had been in numerous stores where employees followed customers or required them to check their bags at the door.


Credit…Danielle Scruggs for The New York Times

Credit…Danielle Scruggs for The New York Times

It’s not just small retailers. Until June, Walmart kept its Black beauty products in locked display cases. “You can’t treat everyone like a thief,” Ms. Holmes said.

Mr. Na’s stores are different, she said. Women are allowed to shop without being watched. She likes to walk the floor talking to the customers about their hair and offering them advice.

Ms. Holmes sometimes accompanies Mr. Na on trips to the wholesaler to pick up inventory. She is usually the only Black person in the warehouse. Once, she encountered another Black woman from a beauty shop in Wisconsin.

“I said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” Ms. Holmes recalled. “And she said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”

Still, there is tension. Some customers ask Ms. Holmes why she works so hard for a Korean owner. One woman said she was like a “slave.”

Ms. Holmes, who earns $14 an hour, was able to pay for three years of her son’s college tuition but could not afford his final year. Her son, now 26, plans to go back to school. But he lost his job at a downtown restaurant during the pandemic and has a baby on the way, so college may be further delayed.

Ms. Holmes also hopes her 20-year-old daughter, who has a 9-month-old son, can attend college eventually.

Mr. Na has been encouraging Ms. Holmes to start her own business one day and offering her advice on how to get started, like how much money she will need to save.

For now, Ms. Holmes appreciates the small perks of the job. How on a good day, the store can feel like a gathering place where women talk about their lives and swap beauty tips.

On many Sundays, Ms. Holmes opens and closes the store on her own. “Some customers see me by myself and say: ‘Where are the Koreans? Are they in back?’” When she explains that she runs the store on Sundays, “they are shocked,” she said.

“It’s mind-blowing to them that a Black woman is in charge.”


Credit…Haruka Sakaguchi for The New York Times

Sandra Na has also wondered why Koreans dominate the sale of Black women’s hair products.

She acknowledges that Korean immigrant communities can be “insular,” and that her father, who speaks limited English, prefers to do business and associate with other Koreans because it is easier.

But other forces are also at play. Ms. Na said her father had been shaped by his parents’ experience living through the Japanese occupation of Korea and then the Korean War. That left him with a shared feeling of grief and loss, which Ms. Na said is often referred to as Han.

It helps explain, she said, why her father typically hires Korean managers in stores where most of the employees are Black.

“Han creates a level of trust among Koreans,” Ms. Na said. “That trust goes back decades.”

Since the protests, many business leaders and public figures have sought to address racial disparities with more investment. Square, the payments company led by Jack Dorsey, the billionaire founder of Twitter, has pledged $100 million to financial firms supporting Black communities. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, has proposed a $7 billion federal fund for Black entrepreneurs.

But the struggles of Black women in the beauty supply industry show that some barriers to success are more complicated.

In interviews this summer, Black women who own beauty shops in Dallas, Buffalo and Sacramento said they were consistently denied accounts with major Korean-owned suppliers. One of the women said that as soon as she had sent over a copy of her driver’s license, the supplier stopped returning her calls.

These rejections, the women said, prevent them from stocking the most popular hairpieces, forcing their customers to shop elsewhere.

While Mr. Na is a retailer, not a distributor, he said he was aware of some of the challenges Black female proprietors faced in obtaining products.

He said Black owners were often unable to rent or buy stores that were physically large enough to allow them to work with the big suppliers.

“It has nothing to do with racism,” Mr. Na said. He acknowledged that if Black women gained a larger footing in the beauty supply industry they could seriously challenge Korean businesses.

“It is competition,” Mr. Na said. “Eat or be eaten.”


Credit…Danielle Scruggs for The New York Times

In the end, the group didn’t wait for Ms. Holmes to let it in. The looters smashed the window and barged inside.

Mr. Na walked across the street, sat in his car and looked on as his store was ransacked.

Like many Americans, Mr. Na had watched the footage of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck in horror. He wondered if the unrest would ever stop and whether he should bother to rebuild.

“I feel like racism is something that will never go away,” he said.

After the looting, Ms. Holmes returned to the store to clean up. Some people from the neighborhood were surprised to see her helping Mr. Na. A few customers were angry she would not let them take some of the products that had been knocked off the shelves.

“Why are you on their side?” she remembers one Black person asking her. “Why aren’t you riding with us?”

Ms. Holmes said some people were too quick to judge. “They are on the outside looking in. They don’t know the person I work for. He’s a good man.”


Credit…Sandra Na

When Sandra Na drove to Chicago from Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, she was struck by the level of destruction at Western Beauty Supply and Modern Beauty. A cash register that contained no money was smashed, the glass in the display case had been shattered, and dozens of bottles of hair solutions had been dumped on the floor.

She believes most of the looters were seizing on the chaos wrought by the protests over the killing of Mr. Floyd to steal desirable products, she said. A range of businesses across the city were destroyed that day, including pawnshops, grocery stores and Walmarts. Some of the damaged stores were Black-owned.

Ms. Holmes said she agreed that the crowd wanted only to steal merchandise from Mr. Na — not to make a statement that his store was not Black-owned.

Still, Ms. Na said she recognized that some people might begrudge small businesses like her father’s stores. “I have a hard time thinking there isn’t resentment there,” she said. “You see an outside ethnic group capitalizing on your people.”

As painful as it was to see her father’s shops destroyed, Ms. Na said she was heartened that the broader protests had spurred efforts to address systemic racism. “The attention is there,” she said.


The moments when a crowd broke into Modern Beauty in Chicago.

Mr. Na was able to reopen his business with insurance money, government grants and more than $94,000 in donations from a GoFundMe page his daughters set up. In August, though, he temporarily boarded up his stores after a police shooting in Chicago set off a fresh wave of protests and looting.

Back at work, Ms. Holmes said a few customers had told her again that she should open her own store.

She’s hoping Mr. Na will help her get started. Mr. Na, who is planning to retire in the next few years, said he had been considering ways he could do so.

“One day I’ll have a store, and you come shop with me,” Ms. Holmes tells customers. “Just wait.”

Read More

Posted on

Small-Business Loans Will be Forgiven, but Don’t Ask How

When the federal government began the Paycheck Protection Program in April, one rule was clear to small-business owners bedeviled by its chaotic and messy start: If most of the loan money was used to pay employees, the debt would be forgiven.

But as the program enters its loan forgiveness phase, those owners — and their lenders — are finding out that although the principle may have been simple, its execution is anything but.

Many lenders have yet to start accepting applications from borrowers to have the loans forgiven. They are waiting to see whether Congress will pass a proposal to automatically forgive debt of less than $150,000, which make up the bulk of loans made under the program.

Square, the mobile payments company, lent Audrey Kramer $5,600 in May to pay the only employee of Sweet Treat Stop, her mobile food truck bakery. She has been ready since July to apply to have the debt wiped away, but Square hasn’t started taking applications. It sent her an email this month saying that it was “waiting to release our forgiveness application until we get more information from Congress.”

Ms. Kramer is grateful for her loan — it helped her keep paying her baker even as her sales plunged — but she’s also eager to be done with it. “We’ve been cautious and we’ve never carried any debt at all on the business,” she said.

On Thursday night, the Small Business Administration, which runs the program, released new forgiveness forms and rules for loans under $50,000. Such loans make up nearly 70 percent of the program. The new rules mean that some borrowers can still have their loans forgiven even if they cut head count or wages after taking the loan, but they will have to submit payroll documents and other records.

Lenders said the change was a start, but did not go far enough. The Consumer Bankers Association, an industry trade group, renewed its call for all loans under $150,000 to be automatically discharged.

“It’s almost a nightmare to go through the forgiveness process as it is now written,” Richard Hunt, the group’s chief executive, said. “You have millions of small businesses in crisis, some going under, and Congress is not there in their time of need.”

Lenders said they were also wary of processing applications without knowing how crucial aspects of loan forgiveness will work, like how carefully they are expected to vet borrower-provided documents like payroll records. They are waiting for details on the Trump administration’s stated plan to audit all loans over $2 million. And they are getting nervous about whether they will be paid back by the government for loans they made to businesses that have since closed or gone bankrupt.

More than 5.2 million business owners borrowed a total of $525 billion through the paycheck program, which used banks and other lenders as conduits to issue the loans. From April to August, small businesses were encouraged to borrow cash to cover eight weeks of payroll and a handful of other expenses. Once the money is spent, borrowers must apply through their bank to have their loan paid off by the government.

But business owners looking to start the loan forgiveness process have found lenders mostly unwilling to work on those applications until there is clarity from Congress, especially because of the cost and complexity of handling fairly small loans. Loan forgiveness proposals have been introduced in both the House and Senate with bipartisan backing — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was a supporter — and were likely to be included if Congress passed an economic relief bill, but the fate of such legislation is uncertain, with the presidential election just weeks away.

Ed Sterling, the president of Flagler Bank in West Palm Beach, Fla., said lenders had been “waiting on the edge of our seats” for legislative action. The process for reviewing a loan-forgiveness application will take his bank about three times as long as it took to actually originate the loan, he said.

The S.B.A. has been slow to act on loan forgiveness applications that lenders have sent in. The agency began accepting the forms on Aug. 10. By late September, it had received 96,000, but had not yet approved or denied a single application, William Manger, the agency’s chief of staff, said at a House subcommittee hearing. By law, the agency has 90 days to respond after it receives an application. An S.B.A. representative said the agency sent its first approvals and loan payments to banks on Oct 2.

Lynn Ozer, a banker at who specializes in small-business lending, said borrowers she worked with at Fulton Bank in Lancaster, Pa., were “panicked” at the prospect of their forgivable loans becoming debts if they made mistakes on their paperwork. “We can’t help our borrowers if we ourselves don’t understand the guidance,” Ms. Ozer said.

Trapped in the middle are business owners like Léa Kujala, a co-owner of Northwest Treatment, a counseling center near Portland, Ore. Ms. Kujala got a $34,000 loan in April, which helped her and her business partner retain their three employees when their revenue nose-dived.

Now, Ms. Kujala would like to get the loan paid off, but her lender, U.S. Bank, has not yet opened its forgiveness portal to her. Ms. Kujala — who estimates that she has already spent five hours gathering records and preparing her application — is so concerned about the loan’s many rules and potential tripwires that she is keeping all of the money she got in a reserve account, just in case her loan isn’t forgiven. (She drained her business’s savings to make payroll, and will pay that back if her loan is discharged.)

“We’re super nervous about the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. And the loan was only a temporary salve: With her revenue still down at least 30 percent, Ms. Kujala is preparing to lay off one of her employees.

A U.S. Bank spokesman said the bank was sending out invitations in stages to its forgiveness portal. After the bank was contacted for this article, a representative told Ms. Kujala that she would get an invitation soon.

Most borrowers — and their lenders — can afford to wait before seeking loan forgiveness. The CARES Act, which created the P.P.P., initially set repayments on any remaining debt to begin six months after a loan was disbursed, but Congress later revised the law to give borrowers as long as 16 months to apply for forgiveness. For most borrowers, that means the issue won’t become urgent until mid-2021.

But there, too, the law has a gray area. More than four million borrowers — a majority — have loans that were made before the rules changed. To scrupulously follow the law, lenders would need to formally modify those loans and get each borrower’s signature on the changes. That’s a “momentous task,” said Brad Bolton, the chief executive of Community Spirit Bank in Red Bay, Ala. The S.B.A. has not yet responded to banks’ requests for clarification on the matter — and payments for the program’s earliest borrowers are scheduled to come due this month.

Most lenders, especially the biggest ones, have decided to take the risk and simply postpone all payments, said Tony Wilkinson, the chief executive of the National Association of Government Guaranteed Lenders, a trade group. “Because it’s a benefit to the borrower, they’re doing it unilaterally, because who is going to object?” he said.

Glenn Sandler, an accountant in Melbourne, Fla., has around 200 clients with P.P.P. loans, averaging around $40,000 each. He’s advising all of them to sit tight and wait for what he believes will be legislative fixes to the forgiveness process. “Hopefully, Congress will get off their butts,” he said.

Mr. Sandler thinks automatic forgiveness for small loans is likely, in part because the alternative — trying to collect payments from small businesses struggling to stay afloat — is untenable.

“They’re broke,” he said of the mom-and-pop ventures that he works with. “There’s a lot of people who won’t be able to pay it back. So, what, they’re going to go into collections with them? There’s no sense in that.”

Read More

Posted on

New Stimulus Hopes Fade While Economic Risks Grow

Here is the situation the U.S. economy faces, a month before Election Day: Job growth is stalling. Layoffs are mounting. And no more help is coming, at least not right away.

American households and businesses have gone two months without the enhanced unemployment benefits, low-interest loans and other programs that helped prop up the economy in the spring. And now, after President Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he was cutting off stimulus negotiations until after the election, the wait will go on at least another month — and very likely until the next presidential term starts in 2021.

It could be a dangerous delay.

Already, many furloughs are turning into permanent job losses, and major companies like Disney and Allstate are initiating new rounds of layoffs. The hotel industry is warning of thousands of closures, and tens of thousands of small businesses are weighing whether to close up shop for good. An estimated one of every seven small businesses in the United States had shut down permanently by the end of August — 850,000 in all — according to data from Womply, a marketing platform. The deeper those wounds, the longer the economy will take to heal.

Economists say lawmakers should be acting immediately to send more money to workers marooned on unemployment by the recession, to businesses of all sizes that are struggling to survive until the pandemic abates and their customers return in full force, and to state and local governments that have seen tax revenues decline and are already moving to lay off public employees.

While they disagree about exactly how much federal aid the economy needs right now, virtually all economists, across the ideological spectrum, agree on one thing: The correct dollar figure is not “zero.” Most estimates fall in a range between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

Mr. Trump appeared to open the door to piecemeal measures like aid for airlines and individual checks, and his Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke twice on Wednesday about a stand-alone bill for airline relief. But prospects for even a limited package were uncertain and would fall far short of the amount that many economists say is needed to keep businesses and households solvent.

“The risk to waiting is that we may find ourselves in a place where we’re unable to turn back, we’ll hit a tipping point,” said Karen Dynan, a Harvard economist and Treasury Department official during the Obama administration.

R. Glenn Hubbard, a Columbia University economist who was chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, said the economy still needed $1 trillion in immediate aid for people, businesses and state governments. “Failing to act will have real economic consequences,” he said.

Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, echoed those concerns in a speech on Tuesday, arguing that the government should go big and that not providing adequate support carried risks for the economy.

“Too little support would lead to a weak recovery, creating unnecessary hardship for households and businesses,” he said. “Over time, household insolvencies and business bankruptcies would rise, harming the productive capacity of the economy and holding back wage growth.”

Business leaders have made urgent pleas for help, arguing that the risk of not acting could doom entire sectors. The Business Roundtable, a group of chief executives from major corporations like Apple and Walmart, warned on Tuesday evening that “communities across the country are on the precipice of a downward spiral and facing irreparable damage.”

Some 36,000 franchise businesses are likely to close by winter without additional federal support, said Matthew Haller, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the International Franchise Association in Washington, which represents owners of gyms, salons and other chains. “The situation’s pretty dire,” he said.

Laid-off workers are also under pressure. Ernie Tedeschi, an economist at Evercore ISI, estimates that unemployed Americans will begin to exhaust the savings they were able to amass from previous rounds of aid as early as this month, leaving them struggling to buy food or pay rent. Without another aid package, the economy will regain four million fewer jobs through the end of next year than it would have if lawmakers had struck a deal, he said in a research note on Wednesday.

The gridlock in Washington is a reversal from the spring, when fear of an imminent economic collapse led Congress to vote overwhelmingly to approve trillions of dollars in aid to households and businesses. The effort was largely successful: Households began spending again, companies began bringing back workers, and a predicted tidal wave of evictions and foreclosures mostly failed to materialize. The unemployment rate, which reached nearly 15 percent in April, fell to 7.9 percent in September.

But most of the aid programs expired over the summer, and in recent weeks economic gains have faltered. Economists say the loss of momentum is likely to grow worse if more aid doesn’t arrive soon. Federal Reserve officials had been expecting another aid package to arrive when they released their economic projections in September, minutes released on Wednesday showed, and warned that “absent a new package, growth could decelerate at a faster-than-expected pace in the fourth quarter.”

While Republicans, Democrats and the White House have sparred over the scope and size of another package, many economists say the amount is less important than how fast and where the money is deployed.

“When do you need money? The answer is, two months ago,” said Jason Furman, who ran the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama.

Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

Unemployment benefits are a top priority for many economists. The $600 a week in extra benefits that kept many households afloat in the spring expired at the end of July, leaving millions of families struggling to get by on only their regular state unemployment benefits, which often total just a few hundred dollars a week. Millions more people are depending on temporary programs that extend aid to those who don’t qualify for regular state benefits or whose benefits have expired. Those programs lapse at the end of the year.

Research has found that unemployment benefits are among the most effective forms of economic stimulus, because jobless workers are likely to spend the money rather than save it. But many economists said that is a secondary reason for extending benefits; the primary reason is to keep families from slipping into poverty or losing their homes.

“My principal reason for wanting the $600 to continue is not as a macroeconomist, it’s because I’m worried about people,” said Jay Shambaugh, a George Washington University economist who served as an adviser to Mr. Obama. “I think we can afford it and not have people starve.”

Senate Republicans have made clear they will not support restoring the full $600 supplement, which many of them opposed from the start. But even progressive economists say any amount is better than nothing.

“I don’t think it’s worth dying on the hill of ‘should it be $600 or $400,’” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist who has been one of the most vocal proponents for federal spending since the start of the pandemic.

The consequences of failing to provide help to jobless families would be particularly dire for low-income families, many of them Black and Hispanic. Those workers were among the last to make gains after the previous recession, and have lost the most this time around.

“The gains that have been built up over time are fragile,” said Raghuram G. Rajan, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund who is now a professor at the University of Chicago. “You have a whole bunch of people who’ve struggled their way into a semblance of normalcy by 2019, and then you have this massive crisis. If we don’t try to protect those gains, it will take a longer time, a really long time to come back.”

Businesses are also in need of more help, particularly industries that have yet to return to full capacity as the virus persists. Major airlines began laying off workers this month after Congress failed to extend an earlier aid package. A hospitality-industry lobbying group last month released a report estimating that 1.6 million hotel workers could lose their jobs and 38,000 hotels could close without federal help. Restaurants are in similarly dire straits, especially as colder weather begins to shut down outdoor dining in much of the country.

With the pandemic lingering longer than many had expected, economists said businesses are facing new challenges that will require a different approach from what Congress previously funded. For instance, any new program probably needs to provide more flexibility to businesses, allowing them to make adjustments — including laying off workers — to survive a crisis that could stretch on another year or more.

Steven Hamilton, a George Washington University economist, said lawmakers should “radically expand” a tax credit that offsets the costs of retaining employees, along with additional aid for fixed costs like rent. He said any delay in help, especially until next year, “would be catastrophic.”

“It is much faster to close a business than to start one,” he said. “It took us a decade to regain the businesses lost in just three years during the Great Recession. The labor market seems to have hit a ceiling in recent months, and a big part of that is that many workers’ former employers no longer exist.”

And while companies have begun to bring back furloughed workers, the U.S. economy lost 216,000 government jobs in September, according to the Labor Department, with most of those cuts coming at the state and local level. Forecasters warn that much deeper cuts are coming as state and local governments reel from lost tax revenue.

Economists say that the failure to help state and local governments was one of the biggest policy mistakes of the last recession. Back then, state and local governments cut thousands of jobs, slashed spending and raised taxes, offsetting federal efforts to prop up the economy through deficit spending and tax cuts.

Economists have been arguing since the spring that insufficient aid for state and local governments was a significant flaw in the various relief packages.

“We’re in for a sizable reduction in economic activity coming from state governments if we don’t do anything,” said Wendy Edelberg, who runs the Hamilton Project, an economic-policy arm of the Brookings Institution. “It’s just a terrible thought that we didn’t learn that lesson post-2008, that state budgets are incredibly important to the aggregate economy.”

Posted on

Lumberjack, Tailor, Counselor, Host: A Hotel Owner Does It All During the Pandemic

Since the pandemic began, Montu Patel has learned how to sew masks and fight with Wall Street lenders. He has helped draft pleas for relief to state and local officials on behalf of small business owners. He knows how to fashion plexiglass.

As the head of a small business, Mr. Patel, whose family owns eight budget hotel franchises, was used to wearing multiple hats. But since March, when the long-haul drivers, families on road trips and business travelers who made up most of his clientele stopped checking in, forcing him to lay off workers and hunt for cash, Mr. Patel has become a one-man army battling for the survival of his business. Its death would be no less than the extinguishing of an American dream.

One August morning, before meeting with a loan officer who he had to convince that the hotel industry had a rosy future, Mr. Patel had to hack down a tree that had fallen across the parking lot of one of his properties.

The hotels are Mr. Patel’s whole life. The son of Indian immigrants, he grew up in and around an Econolodge hotel that his family owned and operated in Bordentown, N.J. He studied real estate in graduate school, knowing he would eventually take over the business from his father.

“My parents came to this country with nothing in their pockets,” Mr. Patel, 43, said. “Everything that we’ve accumulated since then has been gravy.”

Mr. Patel has managed his hotels through tragedy and growth. Two years ago, his sister, who was the business’s finance chief, died of a brain tumor. Last year, Mr. Patel bought four new properties, and now the family runs three Hamptons Inns, two Comfort Inns, two Holiday Inn Expresses and one Days Inn, licensing the popular names from big hotel companies.


Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

The pandemic has forced thousands of small business owners to close shop permanently. Those that have survived, like Mr. Patel’s, have had to readjust and recalibrate constantly, as their owners cling to the hope that things will improve. But a widely available vaccine is at least a year away, there is no guarantee of fresh federal aid weeks before the presidential election and the virus still spreading.

“As long as the pandemic subsides next year, we will be in good shape to start replenishing our savings, digging ourselves out of the hole we’re in,” Mr. Patel said.

Soon after the coronavirus outbreak began, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — the states where Mr. Patel has his hotels — instituted lockdowns. Mr. Patel watched helplessly as business plummeted. Occupancy fell by 90 percent. But he and his staff were kept busy by new types of guests.

In Maryland, the state’s health department took over a floor of Mr. Patel’s Hampton Inn in Salisbury and put up homeless people who had contracted the virus. One May morning, the state police came to the hotel, followed by funeral home workers. A guest had died.

At Mr. Patel’s Holiday Inn Express near the Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport, crews from a Russian air cargo company, Volga-Dnepr Airlines, began checking in at regular intervals. They were flying masks, gloves and other protective gear from Russia to help overcome a sudden shortage in the United States.

In Hershey, Pa., where the Patel family owns another Hampton Inn, an emergency room doctor brought in to help handle Covid-19 cases at Hershey Medical Center was, for a time, the only guest. The doctor asked that hotel staff stay away from his room.

Operating the hotels required adjustments. Elevator buttons had to be cleaned hourly, and electronic key cards had to be sanitized each time they were returned. Front desks required plexiglass screens. Trays and equipment for meals served buffet-style — a common feature of budget hotels — were removed. Gyms were shut; pools were closed.

Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Any time Mr. Patel had a particularly good idea for how to do something, he shared it on one of several WhatsApp groups that hotel owners had formed to commiserate and swap advice. “I feel like we are driving down the interstate trying to avoid one fiery crash after another,” a group member wrote. “If you lost money in 2018, 2019 or 2020, carry back those losses up to five years,” wrote another, describing ways to lower federal tax bills. “More little-known benefits coming.”

Mr. Patel shored up his hotels’ finances. Between April and August, he drew roughly $500,000 from a pool of cash contributions made by friends and family. He secured forgivable loans of about $150,000 per hotel through the federal government’s $650 billion Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, which he used to pay employees through the early stretch of the lockdowns.

With few guests, Mr. Patel assigned some of his staff to deep-cleaning jobs. Still, he furloughed around 225 people, or about 75 percent of his work force. (He has now asked almost everyone to come back, but some have chosen not to, he said.) He tried to upgrade the properties, but it became harder to do as supply chains faltered. LED vanity mirrors and faucets were back-ordered. He also struggled in the spring to find a reliable supply of masks and hand sanitizer, which the hotel chains overseeing his properties required him to provide free to every guest. Supplies were easier to get as the summer progressed, but it was still hard to pay for them.

“When you’re renting rooms at a steeply discounted rate and still trying to offer all of these additional things, it’s either a very thin profit or not profitable at all,” Mr. Patel said. He added that some of the hotel companies’ requirements had started to seem unreasonable. “They can come up with any rules for the franchisee that they want, and they don’t have to worry about fulfilling them,” he said. “They’re not part of our hardship at all.”

Mr. Patel has pleaded with government officials for help, especially for his property in Hershey, a town once popular with tourists. In late August, he attended a county commissioners’ meeting in Harrisburg, Pa., seeking relief for himself and other local businesses on property taxes. The commissioners said there was nothing they could do.


Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Over time, having fewer guests created fresh peril with lenders. Rather than take out a traditional bank loan for his Hershey property, Mr. Patel had borrowed from Wall Street, attracted by terms that did not allow for the seizure of his personal assets in case of a default. It turned into a nightmare. The commercial mortgage-backed securities loan was controlled by a contract with onerous terms that were almost impossible to change.

Mr. Patel worried that if he fell behind on payments, the property could be seized by investors who held the bonds that his loan was packaged into. In June, desperate for help, he visited the Federal Reserve’s website and read about a program that the central bank had revived — the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF — to prop up the financial markets.

When he saw that the program, created during the 2008 financial crisis, was meant “to support the flow of credit to consumers and businesses,” he wondered: Could that help him get short-term relief on the Hershey loan? No, as it turned out; TALF was designed to help bondholders by lending them money in exchange for bonds like the one linked to the Hershey property as collateral, but it offered no relief to the actual borrowers.

Mr. Patel worries that he may lose the Hershey property. He has set aside $200,000, taken from his company’s other holdings, to pay the $60,000 monthly shortfall he expects to face starting in November, for four months. After that, only another round of aid from the government could keep the property afloat. He is also finding it harder to deal with traditional banks, which typically have more straightforward loan terms but became stricter during the pandemic about negotiating changes to existing loans and even with disbursing what they have already agreed to lend.

In early August, Mr. Patel’s biggest lender asked him for a 12-month “pro forma,” a detailed estimate for how his business would perform over the next year, a monumental request considering how uncertain the future remains. On the morning he had to make a bullish case to the loan officer about the hotel business, the dissipating winds of hurricane Isaias had knocked down the tree in his Hampton Inn parking lot in New Jersey, forcing him to grab a chain saw.

His daily routine has changed, too. He used to reach for his phone while still in bed each morning and scroll through spreadsheets that showed the daily activity at each hotel. But there was little point in doing so after the lockdowns slashed occupancy.

“If I were to calculate all the money that we’re losing, I think I would become unable to just do and see the strategy ahead,” he said.

These days, he often spends hours every day on the phone talking to employees who can’t make it back to work because of child care conflicts or transportation problems. He strategizes about how to help them pay for transportation and their families’ care. He has also found more time to spend with his wife and three children, his parents and members of his extended family who help run the business.

When a vice president in the company started sewing masks in April, Mr. Patel, his wife and his parents joined her in the effort. They kept some of the masks they made for personal use and donated the rest to a hospital. And Mr. Patel picked up a new skill: “I learned how to sew.”

Read More

Posted on

Unable to Pay Rent, Small Businesses Hope for a Deal With Their Landlord

In March, when the Boston restaurateur Garrett Harker and his partners shut down their seven restaurants after Massachusetts issued lockdown orders, Mr. Harker assumed the closures would be painful but temporary.

Six months later, three of Mr. Harker’s restaurants, including the flagship Eastern Standard — once described as the “perfect restaurant” by The Boston Globe’s food critic — remain shuttered. Mr. Harker and his landlord for those three restaurants are in a standoff: He can’t afford to pay the six-figure arrears he has accrued while his restaurants remain shut, and the landlord, he said, has refused to grant a deferral or discount.

“We’re probably going to lose money for another year to a year and a half,” Mr. Harker said. “It doesn’t work financially to reopen without a new lease.”

Similar sagas are playing out nationwide, as Main Street businesses — especially music clubs, gyms, restaurants, bars and others that were forced to close by the coronavirus pandemic — try to figure out how, or if, they can dig out of debt.

Nearly 98,000 businesses have closed permanently since the pandemic took hold, according to an analysis by Yelp. And the fate of many that remain open increasingly hinges on their ability to renegotiate their leases. A recent survey by Alignable, a social network for small-business owners, found that a quarter of those polled had fallen behind on their rent since the shutdowns began. For those in the fitness and beauty industries, the number rose to nearly 40 percent.

The problem may worsen now that an initial flood of federal aid has dried up and a sharply divided Congress has been unable to agree on further relief measures. The government’s $525 billion Paycheck Protection Program gave more than 5 million businesses a one-time cash injection to pay workers and other expenses, including rent, but most recipients have now spent the money.


Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

“For 10 weeks, our revenue went to zero and stayed at zero,” said Rhonda Stark, the owner of three Orangetheory Fitness gyms in Ohio that were shut down from mid-March until late May. Ms. Stark’s collective rent bill, her largest fixed expense, tops $32,000 a month. She hasn’t paid it in full since March. Although she got P.P.P. loans ranging from $45,000 to $75,000 for each of her gyms, most of it went toward payroll, as the loan rules required. Ms. Stark’s gyms have reopened at a reduced capacity, cutting her sales by about 30 percent. To stay open, she needs to strike new deals with her landlords.

Retail rent collections plunged in April to just 54 percent of the total owed, according to Datex Property Solutions, a software company that tracks data on thousands of its clients’ retail properties nationwide. By August, collections had rebounded to nearly 80 percent, but some tenants, like movie theaters, clothing retailers, hair salons and gyms, were much further behind.

“When tenants can’t pay the rent, it imperils landlords’ ability to pay their own overhead and their loans, and the whole thing cascades,” Mark Sigal, chief executive of Datex, said.

For both sides, it’s a complicated dance. Property owners have their own expenses to pay, including taxes, insurance, mortgage or debt payments, and maintenance bills. Buildings owned by real estate investment trusts or Wall Street bondholders have complex management structures and governing covenants that can limit the property manager’s ability to make a deal.

Lance Osborne, the president of Osborne Capital Group, owns a retail plaza in Copley, Ohio, that houses four businesses, including one of Ms. Stark’s gyms. His company has around 150 retail tenants, and he estimates that half have sought rent relief or other concessions.

“Every one has to be handled on a case-by-case basis — no two tenant cases are the same,” Mr. Osborne said. “We’ve always dealt in good faith to try to keep the tenants open and operating. It’s always worth keeping someone, but it has to be an equitable deal.”

Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Eight of his tenants have declared bankruptcy or are on the brink, Mr. Osborne said. He has sued one business — which he described as open and thriving — for nonpayment. For others, he’s gradually negotiating new deals.

Many of those arrangements are informal and fragile. Ms. Stark said she hasn’t signed anything establishing new terms for any of her gyms, which means her landlords could at any time declare her in default and crack down. But so far, each has been willing to take it month by month, collecting some rent and verbally assuring her that they’ll keep working with her.

“It’s very tentative,” Ms. Stark said. “You call them up, you talk to them about what’s going on — I’ve sent screenshots of my numbers so they can see where we stand.”

Ken Giddon, a co-owner of the men’s wear store Rothmans, held off on reopening his flagship store in Manhattan until he nailed down a new lease. The shop hadn’t paid its landlord, ABS Partners Real Estate, since April, and Mr. Giddon didn’t want to bring back his staff and restock inventory if he couldn’t reduce his rent.

Last week, he finalized a new arrangement that involved lowering his base rent and giving ABS a variable payment based on his sales. Such arrangements are common in some industries, especially restaurants, but it was new for Rothmans.

“This is a very handcrafted deal,” said Mr. Giddon, who now plans to reopen next month. “We’ll probably be operating at a third of our previous volume for the next six to 12 months. This arrangement gives us flexibility.”

Gregg Schenker, the president of ABS, said both sides had an incentive to figure out a deal that would keep the business alive. Rothmans, which Mr. Giddon’s grandfather started in 1926, has been an ABS tenant for decades, and Mr. Schenker, who shops there, described it as the kind of unique, multigenerational retailer that he hopes will continue to thrive in New York City.

But not all landlords are willing, or able, to take a haircut. Oren Molovinsky closed his restaurant Farmboy, in Chandler, Ariz., in mid-July for what he intended to be a short break. He hadn’t paid his full rent for months, but he had reached out to his landlord, the Falls Investors, hoping to discuss options. Instead, he got a letter in late July telling him payment in full was due in five days. When he missed that deadline, his landlord locked him out.

“We were surprised they wouldn’t respond to us at all — my attorney didn’t even get a response,” Mr. Molovinsky said.


Credit…Courtney Pedroza for The New York Times

Credit…Courtney Pedroza for The New York Times

The Falls Investors sued Mr. Molovinsky last month in an Arizona state court, seeking at least $110,000 for what the complaint said was unpaid rent. Mr. Molovinsky has told his staff and customers that Farmboy, which sold sandwiches and salads using locally sourced ingredients, will not reopen. (A lawyer for the Falls Investors said the landlord has done workouts with other tenants but chose not to for Mr. Molovinsky because he was already behind on his rent before the pandemic. Mr. Molovinsky, who acknowledged his arrears, said he had a verbal agreement on a repayment plan with one of the group’s principals, who died last year.)

Mr. Harker fears that Eastern Standard — his first restaurant, and the only one of his ventures that he owns outright — will soon join that list.

The brasserie opened 15 years ago and quickly gained a reputation as one of Boston’s best spots for relaxed hospitality and cocktails. It sits in a retail space within the Hotel Commonwealth that has changed hands twice since Eastern Standard opened. The current owner, UrbanMeritage, promotes Mr. Harker’s “award winning restaurants” and the foot traffic they bring to the area in a brochure it created to to advertise a nearby vacant storefront.

But Mr. Harker said he could not afford to reopen unless UrbanMeritage renegotiated his lease, which has a bit more than two years left on it. He has $1.6 million in P.P.P. loans for Eastern Standard and the two other shuttered restaurants — the Hawthorne and the Island Creek Oyster Bar — sitting untouched in a bank account. He plans to return the loans soon if he can’t make a deal.

Michael T. Jammen, a principal of UrbanMeritage, disputed Mr. Harker’s claim that his company was unwilling to negotiate, saying via email that they have “offered multiple discount opportunities both on his existing lease and on a lease renewal” in recent years. Those discussions have continued during the pandemic, Mr. Jammen said.

Mr. Harker has worked out arrangements with his four other landlords, including Young Park, the president of Berkeley Investments. Berkeley owns the building housing the Boston location of Row 34, Mr. Harker’s seafood-and-burgers spot. Mr. Park agreed to slash Row 34’s base rent in return for a higher percentage of its sales.

“We did not want them to leave,” he said. “I think most developers are weighing the benefit of sustaining a business that is showing no revenue for an extended period of time versus the challenge of attracting another operation with the credibility, track record and management skills to run a successful business. That’s not so easy to find.”

Read More

Posted on

Is This the End of the New York Yoga Studio?

On an afternoon in late July, Amy Quinn Suplina met two of her longtime employees in an airy street-front room in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to box up her 12-year-old business. Sitting on balance balls to deflate them, the three reminisced while arranging straps, blankets and bolsters for storage.

Since opening Bend & Bloom Yoga in a 1920s firehouse on a residential block in 2008, she had turned it into neighborhood fixture, providing an oasis for yogis of all levels in a striving, strident city.

But the pandemic brought all that to a halt. And after five months paying rent, utilities, and other expenses for a space she couldn’t use, Ms. Suplina decided to forfeit her security deposit and get out.

She isn’t alone. Packed indoor classes focusing on breath, touch and togetherness are not exactly happening these days. In response, yogis have embraced virtual instruction, leaving New York’s physical studios struggling for relevance. Since March, dozens of them have permanently closed, from major corporate chains to independent shops.

Many owners say the pandemic was the final straw for an increasingly untenable business, where even crowded classes could no longer cover astronomical rents. Some studios and teachers are trying to recreate themselves as online brands but face an already saturated market, where celebrity YouTube instructors have millions of followers.

Some well-known yoga instructors dominate the online market. Adriene Mishler’s YouTube channel has more than eight million subscribers.

“It’s a really hard time, and communities need yoga and mindfulness practices more than ever,” said Ms. Suplina, who was inspired to open Bend & Bloom after relocating from Washington, D.C., where a studio she attended had given her a sense of belonging. As the lingering pandemic strains New Yorkers mentally and spiritually, physical spaces offering them this kind of sanctuary may become harder to find.

Public assistance programs have been little help to studio owners, most of whom hire teachers as independent contractors rather than employees. This means that studios could not use funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to cover their payrolls. Ms. Suplina said she received only a small loan for her administrative staff.

And unlike other businesses that were eventually given dates for reopening, yoga studios and other fitness centers were left out of New York’s plans for months. Last month, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued 17 pages of guidelines for gyms to incorporate before reopening, Mayor Bill de Blasio excluded group classes. Martin Kerestes, who has run two yoga studios in Queens with his wife since 2003, said there was “no light at the end of the tunnel.”

But many owners say the coronavirus outbreak merely exacerbated a deeper problem, the imbalance between revenue and rent. A few older studios, like Integral Yoga Institute on West 13th Street, own their own buildings and are less exposed to the rising price of real estate. But most studios rent their spaces and are in competition with ventures that can more easily guarantee, say, $20,000 a month. The pandemic merely pushed Ms. Suplina out of her space a few months early; her landlord intended to sell the building to a condominium developer at the end of the year.

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Add that to an overdue reckoning with inappropriate touching and abuse at a few well-known establishments that left some students leery of in-person classes, as well as disruptive platforms like ClassPass, and it’s easy to understand why yoga studios were starting to disappear well before the coronavirus outbreak. But the health requirements necessitated by the pandemic — including physical distancing, especially indoors — have robbed studios of their lifeblood: rooms full of people.

“Our business depended on volume to survive, and now if we say instead of putting 50 people in a room the most we can put is 10 to 12, there’s just no viable way for the model to work,” said Michael Patton, who left a job on Wall Street during the 2008 financial crisis to start Yoga Vida, which had four locations in the city.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Mr. Patton was paying around $95,000 in monthly rent. He has since broken all his leases and is riding out the pandemic in an empty rural retreat he was developing upstate near New Paltz, for which he is now seeking a partner or a buyer.

“The bigger you are, the bigger the problems,” said Brian Cooper, the chief executive of YogaWorks, a national chain that permanently closed all of its New York City locations in April and is now offering online classes.

The pandemic has been equally tough on smaller studios. Nueva Alma, which Erica Garcia opened on the northern edge of the Bronx in 2012, would have been limited to seven students under physical distancing guidelines. So Ms. Garcia locked the doors for the last time on June 1 and is now teaching Zoom classes. “I’m not in it for the money, but I’m not in it to lose money, either,” she said.

Yoga requires only a clear mind and a few square feet of space, so it is easily converted to remote instruction. But it’s all about community, and seeing the light in others, which can be hard to do through screens.

The disappearance of physical studios means fewer places for “satsang,” a Sanskrit term for sacred gathering spaces, said Sharon Gannon, who co-founded one of the city’s most venerable studios, Jivamukti Yoga, and ran it for 30 years before closing it in 2017. “But yoga practice itself makes one self-reliant,” she continued. “Yogis are good at adapting to change.”

The data bear this out. According to Mindbody, a booking software company for the wellness industry, its active users quickly embraced online yoga. Last year, one in five users said they had taken streamed or prerecorded classes, but by this June, more than four of five said they were doing so.


Credit…Kevin Bigger

Studios that once resisted virtual instruction are now embracing it. For the first time in its nearly 60-year history, the city’s oldest yoga school, Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center on West 24th Street, is offering online classes. “One way or another, we will make sure the teachings of yoga are available to those who want them,” said Neeti Bhatia, the studio’s manager.

Meanwhile, teachers who have lost their studio gigs are breaking out on their own. Before the pandemic, Kevin Bigger crisscrossed the city to teach at nine different studios and for a handful of private clients. Now all but two of his former employers have furloughed him or gone out of business, so he has begun teaching online.

The transition required a hefty investment: Mr. Bigger bought a camera, lights and monitors. It has also been a bit awkward to convert his railroad-style Brooklyn apartment into a sacred space. “In order to teach a live class right now, I have to move half the furniture in my living room and lock the boyfriend in our bedroom and ask him to be quiet the whole time,” he said.

But there are benefits. He is saving time by not commuting and now keeps nearly 80 percent of the revenue, whereas he usually took home less than 30 percent working for studios. Former students who had moved away have returned to the fold. And because he knows his clientele, he can charge them on a sliding scale, he said. “My unemployed students get discount codes, and the investment bankers don’t.”

Sherman Morris, an instructor whose arduous classes at YogaWorks stretched to nearly two hours and attracted a committed following, said teaching online was “the antithesis” of his former practice. But his loyal students have followed him to Zoom. He recalled one, a surgical nurse, who logged in from a tent in the middle of a desert in Afghanistan. “It was priceless,” he said. “How could I not continue with this?”


Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Since many teachers are cutting out the middleman as they organize their own classes and build personal brands, studio affiliations also seem to be losing their cachet.

Adrianna Naomi, who moved to the city from Puerto Rico in 2013, said she was grateful when she found a stable job as a manager of the Flatiron location of CorePower Yoga, a chain. So when Ms. Naomi, 30, was laid off early in the pandemic, she worried about losing her salary and the community she had fostered there. Since then, she and other “instructors have had to take matters into their own hands,” she said.

In late July she began teaching on Zoom six times a week. And on Sunday mornings, Ms. Naomi runs an in-person class on the rooftop of her Williamsburg apartment building, often having to clear beer bottles left by neighbors the night before. She caps the class at 10 students and charges $15. Everyone must undergo a temperature check, sign a health waiver and wear a mask. Overwhelmed by demand, she added a second rooftop class on Monday nights, but she doesn’t know how long she can continue once the weather turns colder.

Although Ms. Naomi’s new schedule hasn’t made up for her lost salary, it has kept her afloat. But marketing herself on social media requires constant hustle. Now, instead of competing with other neighborhood instructors for students, she is doing so with yogis around the globe. “You open up Instagram at any time of day and there’s somebody doing a free class,” Ms. Naomi said.

Ms. Naomi has also focused on her social media game since losing her job with a yoga studio.

Some teachers are trying to build their online followings through strength in numbers. Mr. Bigger and three other instructors recently launched Single Point Yoga, a website that bundles their classes together, sort of as a studio would have done in the past.

Ms. Suplina has not given up on the old model. She continues to employ about half of Bend & Bloom’s teaching staff for online and outdoor classes while she figures out her next move. The intimacy and reverence that occur in a studio are essential, she said. “It’s another expression of church,” she explained. “The reason we teach yoga is that alchemy of having bodies together breathing and moving in a room, and seeing people, and connecting and sharing that experience.”

She plans to open a new physical space as soon as she can.

Read More

Posted on

London Offices Aren’t Refilling Fast Enough for Shops Relying on Them

LONDON — Schroders, a big asset management firm, wants more of its workers to return to its office in the City of London. Over the summer, it encouraged people to come in for a day to test their commute and so the firm could demonstrate the new safety measures in place, including an app to order food from the canteen.

Last week, about 15 percent of its 2,500 employees were in the office.

A 15-minute walk away, in the building where the law firm Dentons employs 750 workers, fewer than 10 percent were in the office. Two streets to the west, Goldman Sachs’s new 826,000-square-foot European headquarters were about 15 percent full. In east London, in Canary Wharf’s cluster of towers, Citigroup had about 15 percent of its employees in an office that usually fits 5,000. In cities across the country, the offices of the advertising firm WPP were only at 3 percent capacity.

Britain’s sparsely populated offices have put the economy in a quandary. The dry cleaners, coffee shops, lunch places and clothing retailers specializing in suits that serve areas packed with offices are starved of their customers. Many are still shut. In a country that relies on consumer spending to fuel economic growth, the government and business lobby are urging people to return to their offices, pressuring civil servants to set an example, and in turn spend more money on food and travel and in city center shops.

On Sunday, Dominic Raab, a government minister, said, “The economy needs to have people back at work.”

Credit…Alexander Ingram for The New York Times

Credit…Alexander Ingram for The New York Times

But the companies charged with responding to this call have discovered that they can function productively with their staff working at home, and many aren’t in the mood to ask employees to risk getting on crowded trains or buses to return to the office.

Take the City of London, the financial and legal hub, which before the pandemic was the destination for more than half a million daily commuters. At the start of the month, many of the lunch chains were still unlit and locked, and the train stations were significantly quieter — so were the pubs.

“The people are just not coming back,” said Robert Cane, who has worked at a dry cleaners and shoe repair business in the City for the past six years. “Half of the people have left the offices. I’m watching them evacuate daily.”

In the spring, Britain entered its worst recession since record-keeping began in 1955. After a sharp decline in economic activity during the national lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus, a rebound started to take hold as early as May. The strength and sustainability of that recovery is still being determined, though there are concerns it will be short-lived as coronavirus cases rise in Britain and continental Europe.


Credit…Alexander Ingram for The New York Times

Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, the district’s governing body, said Tuesday that she was “very concerned” about the lack of foot traffic for the small businesses dependent on office workers, especially in the coming months as government support programs end. The corporation has offered rent holidays and business advice, but “it’s just a conundrum” for those businesses, Ms. McGuinness said.

“I do think there is a major challenge looming about unemployment rates and insolvency rates,” she said.

Outside Britain’s city centers, activity is returning faster and online shopping has helped push retail sales above their prepandemic levels. But foot traffic in shopping areas is still down a quarter from last year.

In August, after months of encouraging working from home, the British government changed its advice: People could return to their workplaces if employers made them safe. After only a trickle of people responded, the government planned an advertising campaign — to coincide with the reopening of schools last week — to reassure employees that workplaces have been made safe over the summer. That campaign has reportedly been delayed as ministers study a jump in infections across the country. On Tuesday, new restrictions were put in place in England banning gatherings of more than six people, but they don’t apply to workplaces.

Even if the campaign works, social distancing measures that reduce the capacity of workplaces will continue to suppress the office-dependent economy. It’s a problem that isn’t unique to Britain.

“Our policy is that we won’t have more than 25 percent of any one floor,” said Jeremy Cohen, Dentons’ chief executive officer for the United Kingdom and Middle East. While this policy will be reviewed next month, the law firm is still far from reaching this capacity, he said.


Credit…Alexander Ingram for The New York Times

Credit…Alexander Ingram for The New York Times

In the long run, the pandemic has raised questions about the entire nature of the office economy. The role of the office could substantially change as many companies consider how to make some, or all, aspects of remote working permanent. A deputy governor of the Bank of England warned that a lack of investment in commercial real estate could be one of the reasons the long-term economic impact of the coronavirus might be worse than the central bank recently forecast.

In July, Dentons said it would close two of its six offices in Britain, and the company is reviewing the ones that are left. In the future, Mr. Cohen said, he expects to see a “very different” arrangement, where the offices are designed for more flexible working to accommodate teamwork and training, but could also be smaller.

Association Coffee is a shop across the street from a City of London train station. It used to have five employees making about 600 coffees a day; the morning rush could cause a 10-minute wait. Now just one person makes coffee.

Christian Baker, the shop’s manager, said that its business was a direct reflection of the number of workers in the surrounding offices, and that to break even he would need to sell two and a half times the current volume of coffee.

“I have massive empathy for the people who are working from home,” Mr. Baker said. “I understand why you wouldn’t want to come in when you can do your job remotely.” The problem, he added, is that “we’re in the position of serving them.”


Credit…Alexander Ingram for The New York Times

A short walk away, James Shoe Care is running at a loss. An employee, Robert Cane, said he was worried that he’d be without a job once the government’s furlough program — which provides him wage subsidies — ended next month.

“If the offices are empty, then we get no work,” Mr. Cane said. “That’s why I’m only getting four, if I’m lucky five, people a day. And that’s just people who live around here.”

The sticking point for central London is that many people must commute by mass transit, where social distancing would have been difficult, if not impossible, during prepandemic rush hours. Last week, after Britain’s August bank holiday unofficially marked the end of summer, use of National Rail was only a third of last year’s volume. In the past week, the number of journeys on the London Underground have risen noticeably but are also only a third of last year’s. In Britain, fewer people coming out of lockdown are using public transport again than in France, Italy and Germany, according to Google Mobility Reports.

“People aren’t worried about being in the office. What they’re worried about is getting to the office,” said Emma Holden, the global head of human resources at Schroders. “Seventy five percent of our people commute. That is probably the greatest source of anxiety.”

Though Schroders had been a proponent of flexible working before every company was forced to be, Ms. Holden said employees would still be expected to regularly go into the office and work with their teams. Now, with socially distanced desks and a one-way system for walking around the work space, the office can hold half of its normal capacity, she said.

Employees are asked to speak with their manager if they are worried about returning to the office, Ms. Holden said. “And if there’s a reason why you can’t come in, then that’s OK,” she added.

She said that there was no deadline to reach 50 percent capacity but that having teams working together in person was important for innovation. Nonetheless, the firm has decided to roll out a new flexible working regime globally.

For the coffee shops and dry cleaners, fewer office workers will be a lingering problem. But the businesses’ customers aren’t ready to shoulder the burden of their survival.

“I think we have much more of a hybrid going forward, so people will probably come and work two or three days in the office,” said John Lucy, the human resources director for Dentons in Britain. “That will have a massive impact on the local shops, restaurants, bars around the place. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what we can do about that.”


Credit…Alexander Ingram for The New York Times

Read More

Posted on

‘That Kept Us Going’: Small Businesses Stay Alive With Local Help

Summer 2020 was going to be a booming season for Giovy Buyers and her flower shop, Southern Blossom Florist. The Republican National Convention was coming to Charlotte, N.C., and she was bidding to do its floral installations.

We know how that story ends.

Instead, the coronavirus pandemic forced Ms. Buyers to close in March and lay off her three employees. On her last day, she looked around her shop, where cooling cases were stuffed with the flowers she imports from her home country, Ecuador, and decided to donate all of them to retirement homes.

When longtime customers began calling for funeral floral arrangements, she thought that work might help her limp through. But Ms. Buyers discovered her “supply chain was broken” — she could no longer import flowers.

Then two things happened. First, she found new suppliers, connecting with local growers who lost sales at farmers’ markets. Second, she heard that the City of Charlotte was offering grants to help small businesses pay their rent and other expenses. In July, she received $10,000.

“It was a real motivation for me to keep going,” Ms. Buyers said. “To be honest, before that, I was already thinking if things continue I was going to have to shut the shop.”

Across the country, local governments are sending out small lifelines like that grant to their small businesses even though their budgets are already devastated, with some cities expecting revenue shortfalls of 20 percent. But city councils, mayors and governors see this help as a matter of survival — especially with Congress still wrangling over a second stimulus plan — after an estimated 3.3 million businesses had to close their doors, at least temporarily, during the pandemic, according to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“They realize that it’s much easier to retain businesses and jobs than to let them fail and presume the economy will stitch itself back together,” said Joseph Parilla, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “What we learned from the great recession is that it is not easy for the economy to heal itself.”

Credit…Swikar Patel for The New York Times

So far, they have given out at least $5 billion in aid. They are squeezing the money out of their own limited budgets along with donations from corporate benefactors and philanthropic organizations. But the biggest source was the first stimulus package, the CARES Act. As part of that, Congress allocated $150 billion to states — and cities with more than a half-million people — to cover costs related to Covid-19.

Most places are using a portion of the stimulus funds to offer loans and grants, but others are more innovative.

Since pumping $30 million worth of grants and loans into the economy to help owners like Ms. Buyers, officials in Charlotte have put an additional $20 million toward their “thrive” phase. They created a work-force training program that promises jobs in advanced technology and renewable energy. So far, officials have secured 45 job placements and are working on 90 more. They are also offering grants for business innovation and subsidizing businesses to hire people who were laid off because of the pandemic.

“They are intervening in a way that improves the productivity of the business, not just meet the current moment,” Mr. Parilla said. “You want them to be successful in the new normal.”

In Akron, Ohio, the city government hired a tech company to develop an app that allows users to earn points — or in this case “blimps,” a nod to Akron-based Goodyear — by shopping locally. Blimps are redeemable for discounts at area businesses. So far, 125 businesses have signed up, and app downloads are double what was anticipated, city officials said.

“We all shop online. That’s just a way of life these days,” said James Hardy, Akron’s deputy mayor for integrated development. “But we hope we can take a fraction of that and show folks that we have locally owned retailers who can do the same thing.”

Mr. Parilla said one of the most robust pandemic responses he had found was in southeast Michigan and Detroit — a city that gets kicked in the teeth with regularity.

“Detroit had the infrastructure to have a better shot at being resilient when faced with a shock to the small-business sector,” he said. “Other cities are trying to do this, but the difference is they don’t have the institutions. They have to build them in real time.”


Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

The center of that infrastructure is the New Economy Initiative, an organization founded by 10 philanthropic groups at the start of the last recession. Those leaders wanted to invest in entrepreneurship as a way of diversifying the economy to inoculate against future economic shocks. They tasked NEI with funding the groundwork of small-business development — like teaching people to write business plans — and having a pilot’s view of the entire network and its needs. Since 2007, it has invested nearly $100 million.

When the pandemic hit, NEI’s director, Pamela Lewis, intuited that it would disproportionately hurt Detroit because many of its businesses are Black owned, with fewer than 10 employees — exactly the type of firms that have limited access to banking and lending in good economies. And without those relationships, she knew access to federal relief funds would be a struggle for them.

Ms. Lewis began coordinating with local leaders right away and put $5 million in the response pot — including $2.6 million she raised in just two weeks. They used that money and additional federal relief to flood the economy with grants, loans and rent support.

The group formed a website, Detroit Means Business, to house all of the city’s pandemic response information. Included are industry-specific playbooks for how to reopen, downloadable signs, and details on getting curbside pickup street signs installed in front of a restaurant or expediting a patio permit to allow outdoor dining.

The group also got DTE Energy, the local utility company, to pay for free boxes of personal protective equipment to businesses with fewer than 50 employees — and passed out 3,000. DTE also paid for the city to hire a human resources firm to advise local owners.

The city and its partners raised $400,000 for its Feed the Frontlines program, which paid restaurants to make thousands of meals for essential workers. And they created the Digital Detroit course to teach businesses how to build websites so they could shift to e-commerce; more than 200 people signed up for the first cohort. The mayor ensured that all business owners and their employees could get free rapid Covid-19 testing.

In all, Detroit said, the group has invested nearly $33 million — much of it donated or from federal funds — to support more than 2,000 local businesses.

Ms. Lewis said she couldn’t imagine the alternative if they hadn’t been able raise money and distribute it quickly. Especially because a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York validated her early intuition. It found that Black-owned businesses had “experienced the most acute decline” from the pandemic: 41 percent of them had closed by the end of April, compared with 22 percent over all.


Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Nya Marshall is one of the entrepreneurs who have benefited from Detroit’s efforts. She opened her restaurant, Ivy Kitchen and Cocktails, in December and was just catching her groove after rehabbing her nearly 100-year-old building. The pandemic sent her revenue practically to zero. She didn’t know what to do for herself or her 23 employees.

But then she heard about the city’s support programs, took advantage of several of them, and got involved with Feed the Frontlines.

“Feed the Frontlines really helped with the morale of my business, because I was able to bring my team members back on,” Ms. Marshall said. “We were working for a collective cause, and they got a check from it, even though I didn’t earn any money. So that kept us going.”

That’s a relief to Charity Dean, who runs the small-business response to the pandemic for the city. She said keeping Detroit’s neighborhood businesses alive would require multilayered efforts.

“You can’t care about residents and neighborhoods without caring about small business,” Ms. Dean said. “For us, it was almost a time of creativity.”

It has also become a personal mission for Ms. Dean, who never expected to be in this role. After all, she is the director of the city’s Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department, not an economic development expert. But it became clear to her that the city’s response had to focus on equity to help all Detroit businesses.

“Equity is at the core of what we’re trying to do,” Ms. Dean said. “When inequities are heightened by a crisis, you have the perfect storm to do something to fix it.”

Still, Ms. Dean and Ms. Lewis said they had much left to do. The grant and loan programs ran out before they could help every business — and they are uncertain what will happen if a second stimulus package isn’t passed or when cold weather comes.

“All of this still pales compared to the need,” Ms. Lewis said. “We haven’t touched nearly enough, and it’s just devastating.”

Read More

Posted on

Small-Business Failures Loom as Federal Aid Dries Up

The United States faces a wave of small-business failures this fall if the federal government does not provide a new round of financial assistance — a prospect that economists warn would prolong the recession, slow the recovery and perhaps enduringly reshape the American business landscape.

As the pandemic drags on, it is threatening even well-established businesses that were financially healthy before the crisis. If they shut down or are severely weakened, it could accelerate corporate consolidation and the dominance of the biggest companies.

Tens of thousands of restaurants, bars, retailers and other small businesses have already closed. But many more have survived, buoyed in part by billions of dollars in government assistance to both businesses and their customers.

The Paycheck Protection Program provided hundreds of billions in loans and grants to help businesses retain employees and meet other obligations. Billions more went to the unemployed, in a $600 weekly supplement to state jobless benefits, and to many households, through a $1,200 tax rebate — money available to spend at local stores and restaurants.

Now that aid is largely gone, even as the economic recovery that took hold in the spring is losing momentum. The fall will bring new challenges: Colder weather will curtail outdoor dining and other weather-dependent adaptations that helped businesses hang on in much of the country, and epidemiologists warn that the winter could bring a surge in coronavirus cases.

As a result, many businesses face a stark choice: Do they try to hold on through a winter that could bring new shutdowns and restrictions, with no guarantee that sales will bounce back in the spring? Or do they cut their losses while they have something to salvage?

For the Cheers Replica bar in Faneuil Hall in Boston, the answer was to throw in the towel after nearly two decades in business.

“We just came to the conclusion, if we’re losing that much money in the summertime, what’s the winter going to look like?” said Markus Ripperger, president and chief executive of Hampshire House, the bar’s parent company.

Many businesses that failed in the early weeks of the pandemic were already struggling, had owners nearing retirement or were otherwise likely to shut down in the next couple of years. Those closing down now look different.

Cheers was a longstanding, successful business with access to capital and owners willing to invest to keep it going. But the bar, built to resemble the one on the 1980s sitcom, depended heavily on tourist traffic that collapsed during the pandemic.

The company’s three other restaurants, which include the original Cheers bar on Beacon Hill that was the inspiration for the show, remain in business. But Mr. Ripperger said he was worried about what a winter resurgence of the virus might mean.

Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

“We’re on life support now, and if we have to go through another shutdown or more restrictions, it’s going to be even worse for a lot more restaurants that are just barely scraping by,” he said.

On Friday, the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending rose only modestly in July after two months of resurgence and remained below pre-pandemic levels. Economists warn that without the $600 a week in extra unemployment insurance, spending is likely to slow further this fall.

Data from Homebase, which provides time-management software to small businesses, shows that roughly 20 percent of businesses that were open in January are closed either temporarily or permanently. The number of hours worked — a rough proxy for revenues — is down by even more during what should be the year’s busiest period. Both figures have stalled or turned down in recent weeks.

Small businesses have grown more pessimistic as the pandemic has dragged on. In late April, about a third of small businesses surveyed by the Census Bureau said they expected it to take more than six months for business to return to normal. Four months later, nearly half say so, and a further 7.5 percent say they do not expect business ever to bounce back fully. About 5 percent say they expect to close permanently in the next six months.

The ultimate damage could be much greater. In a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a small-business lobbying group, 21 percent of small businesses said they would have to close if conditions did not improve in the next six months. Other private-sector surveys have found similar results.

Widespread business failures could cause lasting economic damage. Nearly half of American employees work for businesses with staffs under 500, meaning millions of jobs are at stake. And while new businesses would inevitably spring up to replace those that close, that process will take far longer than simply reopening existing businesses.

“The consequences to allowing a tidal wave of closures is we will make every aspect of the recovery harder,” said John Lettieri, president and chief executive of the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington research organization.

There could also be longer-run implications. Despite high-profile bankruptcies in the retail industry and other sectors, many large corporations have been able to solidify their position during the pandemic: demanding concessions from landlords, borrowing billions of dollars at low interest rates and leveraging sophisticated supply chains and distribution systems to reach suddenly homebound customers. Small businesses, which usually have less access to credit and rely more heavily on foot traffic, have been struggling to survive.


Credit…Jamie Cotten for The New York Times

The challenge has been particularly acute for Black-owned businesses, which were more than twice as likely to close down in the early months of the pandemic than small businesses over all, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Black-owned businesses were more likely to be in areas hit hard by the virus, had less of a financial cushion and were less likely to have established banking relationships, which put them at a disadvantage in seeking loans under the emergency Paycheck Protection Program in the critical first weeks that the aid was available.

By the time they got access to the federal money, “many Black-owned businesses were already out of business,” said Ron Busby, president and chief executive of the U.S. Black Chambers. “We just couldn’t make it that long.”

Maurice Brewster is hanging on. He runs Mosaic Global Transportation, a California company that was growing quickly before the pandemic running the private buses that shuttled tech workers between their San Francisco homes and their suburban office campuses.

Those campuses have been all but empty since March, and many companies aren’t planning to bring workers back until next year. Other parts of Mr. Brewster’s business — providing transportation for conventions, wine tours and other events — are also suffering.

To survive, Mr. Brewster, who is Black, has slashed costs and sought new lines of business, including delivering packages for Amazon — “anything to get the vehicles moving and get some revenue coming in the door,” he said.

Mr. Brewster says he is confident he can make it through the end of the year. After that, he doesn’t know.

“You just can’t go a year unless you have just an endless pool of money to sustain you until March or April of 2021,” he said. “A lot of us are going to go out of business.”

Economists say there is time to limit the damage. Despite a rocky start, the Paycheck Protection Program eventually paid out more than half a trillion dollars in loans and probably saved many businesses from failure, according to research from economists at the University of Illinois and Harvard. But the program lapsed in August, and if Congress doesn’t move soon to replace it, the earlier effort could end up delaying failures rather than preventing them.

Many experts still expect Democratic and Republican leaders to reach a deal on an aid package that includes support for small businesses, but a new, large-scale program seems increasingly unlikely.

“Why didn’t we use the time that P.P.P. bought us to design the kind of program that would be commensurate with the national challenge that we’re facing?” Mr. Lettieri, of the Economic Innovation Group, asked. “That’s all P.P.P. was. It was a mechanism to buy time. It was never the long-term solution.”

A paycheck protection loan helped keep In-Symmetry Spa afloat early in the pandemic. But the money is long gone, and the San Francisco spa hasn’t been allowed to reopen. Nearby storefronts are boarded up, and Candace Combs, who has run the spa with her brother for two decades, said she doubted that many of those businesses were coming back.

“I can survive because I’m betting on another stimulus package,” Ms. Combs said. “But without that, we start to really teeter.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.