You’ll miss those small businesses when they’re gone, so help them now

April 6, 2020 6:00 am

Like your local creamery? Without help, small businesses like this one will be gone. Photo by Getty Images.

After a disaster, when the feds have left town and insurance payments have been made and residents attempt to put their lives back together, we still live with constant reminders of what was lost. Sometimes — like after 9/11 in New York City — structures and people and a (perhaps false) sense of security vanish. Sometimes — like after the tornado in North Minneapolis in 2011 — homes and old growth trees and a different sense of security are gone. 

I’d argue that the COVID-19 pandemic will create a new hole in our communities: the small businesses and organizations that are the essential heart of our cities and towns. Many of them will be gone. They are falling through holes in what remains of our social safety net.

We’ve all heard the statistics from the daily press conferences — we had more Minnesotans lose their jobs and request unemployment benefits in the past two weeks of March than in all fifty-two of the weeks in 2019 combined. Luckily, the Minnesota unemployment insurance trust is in good shape, with enough of a cushion to absorb the blow from the economic shutdown. But this doesn’t mean that all who have or will lose their jobs from COVID-19 will have a safe landing. 

That’s because many Minnesotans — especially the owners of the small businesses that are struggling to find a way to make it — are not eligible for unemployment insurance. And, yet, there’s a distinct lack of empathy for these folks, particularly those trying to keep their small businesses afloat. 

Who are these business owners? They are the owners of stalls in Midtown Global Market that offer the comforts of home to Minneapolis’ immigrant communities. These retailers often included every member of their staff in conversation before they decided to remain open or closed in the first few days of the pandemic. Many business owners opted to spend their last dollars for the foreseeable future on health insurance premiums for their employees instead of taking any income for themselves.  

And yet, a supposedly progressive person I encountered — who apparently misunderstands the economic reality of most Minnesota small business owners — took to Twitter to mock them.

Thus far though, the Federal programs offered to these small business “bosses” are full of holes. People often associate government assistance for businesses with “bailouts.” But the only programs offered to these struggling small businesses are loans —  additional debt on top of the losses already incurred. Some of the newest programs have a forgivable portion, but the formulas for figuring out how much may be forgiven are extremely confusing and still leave many businesses without options. 

And, there’s no indication when qualifying businesses might get their money if they qualify, or how solo folks like those renting stalls at the Global Market might prove their income if and when the vague federal unemployment assistance program aimed at them is finally in place.

I wish the armchair and online business critics could somehow understand that there are people behind every one of these businesses that make our Minnesota communities the places we want to live. Real people who are making some of the scariest and toughest decisions of their lives right now, nearly all without a net. And if something doesn’t change — rapidly and radically — I can’t imagine what our communities, including those that these keyboard warriors call home, will look like in the months ahead. 

If our elected officials who love to tout how “small businesses are the backbone of America” don’t start filling in these holes, our small business owners facing the continuing reality of expenses without income will be forced to close and to find some other way to provide for their families. 

And those same critics who mock “the bosses” will likely gripe about how their neighborhood is now full of big box stores and none of the community-oriented small businesses they took for granted — until they were gone. 

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Davis Senseman

Davis Senseman is the founder of Davis Law Office and a member of the Mainstreet Alliance of Minnesota Advisory Board and Outfront Action Board. Davis advises small businesses, nonprofits and political campaigns and was formerly district director for U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.