Wilton Businesses Struggle to Navigate COVID-19 Challenges, Ask Community–’Remember Us’

The outbreak of  COVID-19 has shocked Wilton, ushering an unprecedented time of uncertainty for small businesses. With the new, state-wide order to close all non-essential businesses to best protect people from the coronavirus outbreak, Wilton businesses now face the economic consequences of that reality.

Wilton resident Peter Denious is president of AdvanceCT, an independent non-profit whose mission is to retain, support and increase the number of businesses in the state. He said the organization has been working around the clock to help support businesses in this unprecedented era of uncertainty.

“It’s clear that [the pandemic]’s going to have a significant impact, particularly on our smaller businesses,” Denious said. “Frankly, it’s all hands on deck to try and help those businesses in all these communities that are suffering and going to suffer from the dislocation that this is all causing.”

Wilton resident Robert Tobias owns Massage Green Spa in Norwalk and Orange, CT. He closed both locations on March 17, two days before Wilton’s executive order closed all nail salons, hair salons and barber shops. Tobias reached this decision after determining the “social responsibility” was too great, he said.

However, while most businesses appear overwhelmed by the uncertainty of this time, Tobias said he has been through temporary closures before. In September of 2001, Tobias owned a shop located two blocks from the Twin Towers. When the tragedy of 9/11 occurred, his business was shut down for weeks.

“Having been through 9/11, you think the whole world is ending. And it’s not going to–it’s going to come back,” Tobias said. “You got to make it through, you got to make it through your anxieties and your fears.”

Those fears among business owners at this time are numerous. Despite the steps the state has made to support businesses–including setting up a phone line for small businesses to ask questions, allowing businesses to apply for disaster-relief loans of up to $2 million and providing tax extensions–businesses in town still have remaining concerns on how to navigate the uncertainty.

Remaining Concerns

One of the largest concerns Tobias expressed was for his employees. Even though closure was the socially responsible option for his company, he said telling his 60 employees that they would be out of work for at least two weeks was not easy.

“Most people that are hourly workers live paycheck to paycheck. So what happens with them?” Tobias said. “That’s a huge concern.”

Michael Lindquist, owner of Wilton Auto and Tire Center, said he is similarly “gravely concerned” for what the pandemic means for employees.

“Workers are the heartbeat of the economy,” Leary said. “So if they’re making less than what they normally do, there’s going to be a serious drop in economics besides their own personal hardships.”

Denious expects state unemployment rates to rise “pretty dramatically” because of the outbreak, saying there are signs indicating it is already increasing.

“Unemployment insurance claims [are] going up dramatically, by multiples of where they are in kind of a normal period,” Denious said. “So there are already early indications that these businesses are trying to adapt by letting some of their staff go or furloughing employees.”

According to CTNewsJunkie, more than 99,000 Connecticut residents have filed unemployment claims since Friday, March 13

Right now, the Connecticut Department of Labor has said that employees can apply for unemployment pay without actively seeking another job. However, Will Maxwell, owner of Outdoor Sports Center which closed March 19, expressed concern for his 46 employees who are now out of work.

He said he is specifically concerned with whether the federal government will require businesses to pay their employees themselves, which could significantly cut into the funds of small-medium businesses like Outdoor Sports Center.

“As far as what can the state and town can do to help us, I think, [they should provide] a lot more clarity, especially for small businesses, a lot more clarity around how payroll is going to work,” Maxwell said.

Beyond employees, Maxwell is additionally concerned with his financial liabilities, specifically the seasonal products that the store purchases up to a year in advance that he must pay for.

“Over the coming months, there will be products shipped to us that we purchased a year ago and we’ll have to pay for that,” Maxwell said. “So part of the challenge is to keep enough money to pay those bills, also have the ability to reopen when there’s a safer environment for our employees and maintain a payroll to start up.”

Julia LaBant, owner of the Schoolhouse at Cannondale with her chef husband, Tim, said the restaurant closed on Monday, March 16, for at least two weeks after they decided that the risk of contributing to the spread was too great.

“In choosing to close and encourage our employees to stay home, we hope to protect the vulnerable and support the effort to flatten the curve so that our doctors and hospitals are not further overwhelmed,” LaBant wrote in an email to GMW. “Hopefully by taking proactive action, we can get back to welcoming guests into our dining rooms sooner rather than later.”

Already Action

The Wilton Chamber of Commerce sent out an email Friday, March 20, linking to a website, “Coronavirus: An Employer’s Guide” made by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA). On the webpage, CBIA wrote “Don’t misjudge the potential severity of today’s crisis, but don’t discount your capacity to assess, plan, and survive.”

Additionally, in partnership with the DECD in the Governors Office, AdvanceCT has worked to take action to help businesses.

Denious said that a business survey was distributed via LinkedIn to gauge how businesses in Connecticut were fairing to help inform the decisions the state was making. Since the survey was released on Tuesday, March 17, they have received over 4,000 responses Denious said, which were shared with the governor in “real time.”

Furthermore, AdvanceCT helped organize a conference call with Gov. Lamont and David Lehman, commissioner of the DECD, on Thursday, March 19 to inform the 2,000 people on the call about actions the state has taken to protect businesses in the state.

During the call, Lamont told listeners that just the day before, the state received 12,000 unemployment claims. He additionally said he recognizes the payroll concern, and is looking to unemployment compensation for even part-time employees as well as limiting fixed costs for employers. Lamont added that one of his “priorities” right now is working on a small business bridge loan program.

“We’re powering through this together,” Lamont said on the call.

Beyond policy response, AdvanceCT is also involved in helping Social Venture Partners in its initiative to promote philanthropy in areas of economic need that the state has not yet addressed. Denious said that he is mostly working with the private sector, but the public sector is involved too.

“We are trying to create a clearinghouse for the philanthropic response so that it gets matched up with what the state has in terms of its needs and where we know that there may be gaps in policy response,” Denious said.

Denious said that he believes the state is doing the most it can right now to assist businesses, however it is up to them to take advantage of what’s offered.

“I’d say that the state is doing everything it possibly can quickly to provide assistance,” Denious said. “But I think again, it’s going to be each business doing what they can to take advantage of some of these programs and/or pivot however they can to conserve cash and just get to the other side of this.”

Working Together

Is Denious optimistic? “Absolutely,” he said.

We have a tremendous network of companies here. We have a lot of energy and enthusiasm to get to the other side of this and I think we’re very definitely gonna get through it,” he added.

Tobias said that the best way businesses can support each other now is to express understanding and support each other through these difficult months.

Recognizing that look, we’re all impacted whether the landlord or myself or employees, everybody’s negatively impacted, and how can we help each other?” Tobias said. “Because the more that we do that, hopefully the faster we get back to recovery.”

He added that despite the difficulty and uncertainty of this time, he believes there will be a way through this bleak period.

“There’s gonna be a future and hopefully it’s a bright future,” he said. “And if we work together, we’re going to get there.”

Calling for Community Support

Though each business offers customers different avenues of support, they all have one common call to action:  don’t forget them.

“The best thing we can do is just remember small businesses,” Maxwell said, adding that though shoppers cannot support Outdoor Sports Center now, it’s critical to shop and support his store and other retailers upon their reopening.

LaBant added that she has felt “tremendous support” in this difficult time from the community already. She said that an easy way to help support local businesses is through the purchase of a gift card.

“We are overwhelmed at the support and generosity of our community,” LaBant wrote. “So many of our beloved guests have shown up for us in big ways. From words of encouragement, to folks ordering takeout while we were offering it and to those who purchased gift certificates–it has touched our hearts and we are so grateful.”