New River Public Health Task Force COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall meetings

COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall: Local/Small Business

Audio Recording via Montgomery County Today podcast

Local/Small Business FAQ

Q: We are now nearly 2 weeks into Phase 1 of Re-opening businesses in the New River Valley. What is the general sentiment of business owners in your communities? 

A: Businesses are all over the board. Some are considering closing, others trying to remain. Costs have gone up, and for many, revenues are way down. We’re working one on one, to evaluate and address each business’s unique needs. Many are cautiously optimistic. Some have countdown calendars for reopening. Some have evaluated the protection needed to be comfortable re-opening, and are choosing to wait. And that’s OK. Patience will be key going forward.

We are proud of the resilience, creativity, collaboration and the wide variety of approaches among local businesses. All are learning from one another. We’re all in this together. We have very robust member-to-member support. Business owners are taking the proper precautions to make sure employees and everyone are safe.

Q: Can you all talk about some of the positives you’ve observed with businesses in your communities?

A: We have many opportunities for outdoor dining. Some businesses have limited outdoor seating, but they and their localities are looking at re-purposing pocket parks and other common areas. We’re all encouraging customers to get outside, and expanding non-traditional outdoor dining areas. Businesses are coming together in surprising ways. This is can be a time of great innovation and re-invention for businesses.

It’s great to see businesses supporting first responders. A local engraving company pivoted to produce PPE for local businesses so they could reopen. Many local restaurants are providing free meals to those who need them, particularly schoolchildren in grades K through 12. Restaurants have been hit hard but are rising to the occasion the help their communities.

Q: What steps are business owners taking to protect themselves, employees and patrons right now?

A: The agencies represented here tonight have collaborated to create a guidebook, “The NRV Guide to Working Smart, Working Safe.” It contains guidance, information and strategies to help owners understand what it takes to reopen, steps to communicate with employees, steps to protect customers and boost their confidence to be out after staying home for so long. It matches small business needs with industry standards, for protection of clients and customers. We also have implemented a health questionnaire, to help businesses assess their employees’ health status, and maintain measures for their well-being like washing hands and ensuring cleanliness.

Businesses can do simple things to inspire customer confidence, like posting cleaning schedules. This is a big issue as we all navigate getting back on our feet. Businesses need to demonstrate what they’re doing to regain customers’ confidence. We have web resources for small businesses, such as downloadable signs to maintain workplace safety.

Q: If someone has a concern or complaint about unsafe practices, who should they contact?

A: The first thing is try to have a civil, kind and compassionate conversation with the business owner or manager. An offender may not be aware of the infraction. If behavior does not change, citizens, customers or employees can notify the Department of Labor, or call the Virginia Department of Health at 1-877-ASK-VDH3. Do not call local law enforcement, unless there is a true public safety emergency.

Q: Can stores mandate everyone wear a mask or a face covering prior to entering their store?

A: Yes, Governor Northam has done that. Executive Order 63 mandates that all people in public places wear cloth masks or a bandana, scarf or other face covering. Medical grade masks must be reserved for healthcare. The order states that any one 10 and older should wear a mask while entering, exiting, and spending time in specified types of businesses.

These are:

  • Personal care and grooming businesses
  • Essential and non-essential brick and mortar retail including grocery stores and pharmacies
  • Food and beverage establishments
  • Entertainment or public amusement establishments when permitted to open
  • Train stations, bus stations and on intrastate public transportation, including in waiting or congregating areas
  • State and local government buildings and areas where the public accesses services
  • Any indoor space shared by groups of people who may congregate within six feet of one another or who are in close proximity to each other for more than ten minutes

For all of us, we stress courtesy, patience and flexibility.

Q: Can businesses charge a fee to cover the additional safety measures that may be required by the state?

A: Yes. Many businesses nationwide are doing this. It can be a flat fee or a percentage. It’s a legitimate business expense, and perfectly legal as long as it’s communicated.

Q: What type of special initiatives have you all either helped facilitate or seen take shape in your communities? 

A: Giles County’s gift card program has been very successful. It was implemented quickly, to provide immediate revenue generation for participating partners. It’s an online portal for customers to support local businesses - restaurants, dining, lodging and others - by purchasing $20 gift cards. We also worked with Giles County elected officials to add 50 percent of the value as a stimulus for local economy. So a $20 gift card purchase generates $30 in local economic activity. After nine weeks, we’ve pumped $117,480 into the local economy, through the sale of more than 4,000 vouchers. This has provided great support from customers to support small businesses.

Residents also can purchase a t-shirt that is branded for each community, and half of the $10 purchase price goes to any local business of the purchaser’s choosing.

The kindness that is being spread is really encouraging. In some places, you can purchase a car wash, get a gift card for a local restaurant. We’re encouraging local community support in so many ways. Municipalities and police departments are providing restaurant bingo cards. We’ve never seen a community wrap its arms around the business community like is done here. The call to action is never greater than it is now.

Stay tuned for “#myfootprint,” to be launched soon. Buy local, and think about what your footprint says about you. Think about where you spend your money. Local purchases support schools, public safety programs, and keeps people employed. It’s important to buy locally and regionally.

One of the exciting outcomes is how we have moved online in so many ways. Local businesses are now more accessible for shopping online, and interacting with customers online.

We’ve exchanged some in-person intimacy for online intimacy. In Floyd, we can’t do the Friday Night Jamboree live right now, but we’re showcasing the event online. Friday Night Online. Many businesses have been creative in retail, also in yoga, instruction, outdoor recreation. Things have moved outside, with acceptable physical distancing. We’re creating new revenue streams. There are some silver linings. There has been an acceleration of business people taking the leap to put products, food, and services online, accessible 24 hours.

Q: Can you share a general overview of the services the Small Business Development Center provides? How has your work changed as a result of COVID-19? What resources are available to small businesses?

A: It’s been very interesting. We work with the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We’re the first line responders for business. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our website traffic has increased by 400%; mainly for COVID questions. This has been very difficult for businesses. We work with businesses one on one to create business plan and marketing plan going forward. Take out business, delivery business, supply chain management. We do small business development work pro bono with small businesses (500 employees or less). Sixty percent are existing businesses, 40 percent are startup. Some businesses are just able to move forward in this environment. It’s especially difficult for restaurants, tourism and seasonal businesses.

We provide a network for information on reopening, recovery and resiliency. We conduct webinars; you can meet with an advisor online or visit our disaster chat room. We conduct recovery assessments, though one on one appointments with volunteer specialty advisors. We help businesses access the Payroll Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, and help them navigate the processes and documentation to take advantage of benefits. It takes patience and flexibility.

I like to describe us as a “resource connector.” We can reach out to many other wonderful resources in the NRV, to help create and retain jobs, increases capital expenditures, increase sales and provide economic development.

Q: Many of you are involved with community events. Downtown Blacksburg, Inc. coordinates and produces a host of programs, including Summer Solstice and Steppin’ Out, both of which were cancelled recently. What is the decision making process involved with community events for the summer and perhaps into the fall?

A: It was no easy decision. Steppin’ Out brings 40,000 visitors to Blacksburg. We also produce Summer Solstice, Art in the Market, Summer Musical Enterprise and more. But from the perspective of public safety, we could not be confident that we could pull them off safely. And public safely is most important. As you may know, Steppin’ Out was created to provide economic activity during a time when the college students are gone. We hope to reschedule it this fall, depending on Virginia Tech’s schedule. As much as revenue is important, public safety always comes first.

We will come back stronger than ever. Stay tuned. We are developing online programs to generate business development and online cash flow that would have come during those times.

Radford offers West End Wednesdays, which you can attend – and is recorded and archived - on Facebook live. We are marketing our local art and artists; the same with our farmers markets. We’re learning how to provide social distancing and keep everyone healthy and clean, without touching items, or example.

Local event planners and tourism directors continue to be busy, and we believe those opportunities will be better than ever in the future. Innovative trends will serve customers better, things you hadn’t considered before, more sanitation stations, new ways of conducing golf tournaments, for example.

Our communities are very supportive of major events, such as FloydFest. Many ticketholders rolled over this year’s prepaid ticket to 2021. And there is considerable excitement for this year’s merchandise. We ask that everyone support – in ways that you can – these events that made difficulty decisions to cancel.

Q: The Virginia Tourism Corporation has been gathering a lot of data on traveler trends for the summer season. What are the emerging trends you all are observing and positioning your communities to take advantage?

A: We analyze data to understand traveler trends. Communities are seeing 50% or greater reductions in tourism spending. Sixty percent of travelers have changed plans. But travel planning is still happening. Of those that are still planning to travel, many are changing plans to visit a place they can drive to. These data show that averages up to 539 miles, one way. In that range, there are still many people and still a lot of opportunity to visit the NRV. For most, the next opportunity for a trip is July, and we expect travel may not stabilize until or after the winter.

Health considerations and advice should be our guiding principles. The activities people feel safest doing are outdoors, in nature and done with distance. All of our communities have assets attractions that match those criteria. We’re encouraging “stay-cationers” and “drive-cationers.”

Q: Do you have any guidelines about bringing visitors to our community? Talk about staycation/recreation opportunities in each of your communities. As you interact with customers, what are their expectations and how can you address those?

A: It depends on the confidence of consumers, and policies and guidelines. Businesses are responding, doing what they need to do. We have an abundance of natural assets: water destinations, forests, parks, birding, cycling, hunting and fishing and many types of outdoor recreation. We promote all the things you can do when you visit the NRV, on Facebook, Instagram and social media.