They saw the coronavirus coming, but no business was prepared for its high-speed impact once the first cases hit Michigan.
Since residents have been ordered to “stay at home” for at least three weeks, workers across Michigan are adapting to a new daily work life, with video conference calls and interruptions from kids and dogs.
But for many Jewish business owners with shops, fitness studios and restaurants, “work from home” is not an option. And they’re struggling to wrap their head around the fact that one day their business was bustling. The next, their doors were closed.
“I think right now we’re all in an adjusting state of shock and grief, which makes it even more difficult to navigate through this,” says Rachel Lutz, owner of Detroit boutiques The Peacock Room, Frida and Yama. She closed the stores March 17, about a week before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered nonessential businesses to temporarily shut down until April 13 in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
“This goes beyond a normal business loss,” she says. “We’re all dealing with the psychological shock and grief of what’s going on. It happened so rapidly that most of us (business owners) didn’t have time to pivot.”
On Friday, March 20, at 5 a.m., Lutz burst into tears as she pressed “send” on layoff notices to her 12 full-time, 2 part-time and 4 seasonal workers.
Not being able to financially support staff is only one of many unexpected dilemmas. She’s not sure what to do with a recent shipment of $12,000 worth of dresses for occasions that are no longer happening. She ordered the inventory in October.
“That’s my money right there sitting in a box. It’s all sitting on racks and shelves,” she says. “… Even a company like mine that experienced amazing growth was just so caught off-guard. I’m just not sure who’s in the position to survive this without assistance.”
Survival is top of mind for businesses that still have bills such as rent, utilities and insurance to pay.
While Detroit has not announced a moratorium on commercial evictions, like those declared by New York City and Los Angeles, some landlords are offering relief.
Dan Gilbert’s real estate firm Bedrock Detroit, responsible for huge chunks of development in downtown Detroit, announced that it will waive rent in April and May for any of its 125 retail and restaurant tenants with under $100,000 in monthly sales. Tenants with under $80,000 in monthly sales are also eligible for free rent in June.
Hebrew Free Loan is ready to offer financial assistance for Jewish business owners struggling with rent or other expenses.
“The coronavirus affected people from whom we’ve heard thus far are mostly small business owners whose cash flow has been cut off,” says David Contorer, HFL executive director.
Those with cash flow needs, including individuals, can apply for up to $10,000 in interest-free loans at hfldetroit.org.
For many workers in the service industry, like Detroit Axe axemaster Brad Bobkin, they’re just “riding out the storm.”
Bobkin, 31, was among a couple dozen people laid off at the axe-throwing venue in Ferndale. He sensed trouble as early as Friday, March 13, when 15 parties canceled their reservation for the weekend. By Monday, the Governor ordered bars and restaurants to temporarily close or reduce service to carry-out. Detroit Axe sent employees home.
“There’s the assumption that when things get better, we’ll be back to business as usual,” Bobkin says, “but in the meantime, there’s no news when that could be.”
Bobkin owns a house in Ferndale and lives with two housemates who pay him rent. Which is a problem when one of those housemates is his co-worker.
“He’s also out of a job, and it would be ridiculous for me to be like, ‘Man, pay rent.’ I know he can’t,” Bobkin says.
For workers who are sick, quarantined or have unexpected family care needs due to the coronavirus, the governor has ordered a temporary expansion of unemployment benefits. Those out of work thanks to the virus are seizing the opportunity.
Over 108,000 unemployment claims were filed in Michigan the week of March 16, compared to an average of around 5,000 claims, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.
JVS Human Services also reports an uptick in the Jewish community reaching out and seeking career or financial counseling. They’re also seeing more traffic to jhelpdetroit.org, which offers coronavirus-related resources.
“A lot of it is (people asking), ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. What can I do?’ ” says JVS Human Services CEO Paul Blatt. “It’s about giving them some action to be able to help them ride this out.”
Blatt has flashbacks to the Great Recession, when certified JVS counselors worked with families to avoid home foreclosures.
“There is this enormous unknown that was similar in ’08 and ’09,” he says. “That fear of the unknown was what drove such anxiety and depression in the people we were serving back then.”
Yet once people had steps to take, that anxiety subsided, Blatt says.
Today, JVS counselors are working remotely and available to talk to those unemployed or worried about bills.
“(The counselors) work with families and households to talk about how to contact their lenders and to make arrangements before they find themselves behind on bills, so that it doesn’t totally impact their credit,” Blatt says, “and that they’re stable when this whole thing ends.”
Ryan Landau, founder of the recruiting marketplace re:purpose, is connecting the unemployed with employers. On March 24, he hosted a virtual career fair with Jacob Smith, a partnership manager at the software collaboration hub Altimetrik. The fair was originally going to have up to 150 attendees at Altimetrik’s Detroit location. The virus changed that.
They switched to a virtual job fair where people could upload their resume and connect with 21 companies hiring for technology and startup positions. The virtual platform worked out even better, Landau says, as it allowed 648 people to attend.
Re:purpose works with 70 Metro Detroit companies to connect them with job seekers on its online platform. Landau says they’re continuing “business as normal” and are creating more content for people out of work.
“We’re in the process of developing webinars based on how to prep your resume in times like this or how to stand out on LinkedIn,” he says.
Yet many employees are hoping they won’t have to dust off their resume if they receive financial relief from the $2 trillion stimulus package signed last week by President Trump. The package allocates $250 billion in direct payments for individuals and families and $350 billion in small business loans for those impacted by the virus.
Ashley Goldberg, owner of Born Yoga in Birmingham, is just hoping the pandemic ends sooner than later so that she won’t need loans.
Before the governor ordered fitness studios to temporarily close, Goldberg shut down her yoga studio for families and babies as young as 2 months old.
“We’re known for our cleanliness,” says Goldberg, 35. “We use organic cleaners and everything we use is baby-safe to clean the studio, but even with that amount of cleaning, I just didn’t feel like it was safe to stay open.“
The decision to close wasn’t easy.
“Aside from being my business, it’s a safe space for so many families and it’s this wonderful place that we all come together to breathe and move and feel positive and feel good,” Goldberg says. “So to take that away from the community was obviously necessary, but really hard for me.”
Yet she made a promise to stay connected to her several hundred families. She closed on Friday, March 13 and told everyone to join a free yoga class virtually on Zoom the next morning.
“The response was huge,” she says. Every day since, she’s offered free daily live yoga classes, and she says hundreds of people are tuning in across the world.
“We are accepting donations, but never asked for them,” Goldberg says, explaining families insisted on giving. She’s using the donations to pay staff, but also giving a portion to Gleaners Community Food Bank.
“My heart is so full amongst all this craziness,” she says. “… it’s making me feel really good that I can continue to spread what I love and do what I love, even if it’s not directly face-to-face with my students at the studio.”
Goldberg and Lutz are adamant they’ll reopen their businesses when it’s safe to do so. Yet Lutz is acutely aware things may be different, especially if the virus continues into the summer.
“I think a question that business owners need to ask themselves is, ‘Yes, your business will reopen after this, but what will it look like?’”
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