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How Michigan small businesses are trying to stay afloat amid COVID-19 shutdown

Dann Boyles and Chip Minor pose in front of Rebel
Courtesy of Dann Boyles
Dann Boyles (L) and Chip Minor (R) own Rebel, a gift shop in Grand Rapids.

As Michigan's stay at home order stretches into its fourth week, many small businesses around the state are working hard to stay afloat. They are having to quickly pivot how they do business while also trying to figure out what kind of loans and grants may be available to help them through the shutdown. 

Dann Boyles is the co-owner of a gift shop in Grand Rapids called Rebel. Boyles applied for a payroll protection loan being offered by the federal Small Business Administration. It is meant to be a boost to small businesses and keep employees partially or fully paid during COVID-19 shutdowns. 

“It’s taken us many years to find a team that was just, looking back, is just perfect. Everybody was just working so well together. And so it’s been important to us to try to support our employees as much as possible while also supporting ourselves. And so this grant money is something that’s available to help us recoup some cost with rent and with that payroll.”

Boyles’ business was placed on a waitlist for the loan, but many other business owners won't even have the chance to apply. On Thursday, the federal agency closed applications for the program because it has already run through the $349 billion allocated by Congress in the coronavirus economic relief package. 

Since there is little certainty about whether the loan will come through or how much they would get, Boyles said the Rebel staff has decided to funnel most of their energy into building an online store. Before the coronavirus outbreak hit Michigan, the store didn't have an online sales platform. So when Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay at home order, Rebel had to quickly pivot. Within a week and a half, they had a functioning online store where customers could shop.

Boyles said that although Rebel will ultimately lose sales without an open storefront, he's been heartened to see the Grand Rapids community rally around keeping local businesses afloat.

“I’ve just been so happy to see that sense of community remain, and not only remain, but seem as though we are going to come out of this stronger,” Boyles said.

Farther north, in Marquette, the world is just starting to wake up from winter and venture outside. But right now, Bugsy Sailor said, the streets look like a ghost town. Sailor is the founder of Upper Peninsula Supply Company. It sells U.P.-themed t-shirts, stickers, and other merchandise. In Marquette, Sailor said, most stores rely on a steady flow of tourism in the spring and summer to stay open.

“For us, the tourist season is incredibly, incredibly important. We hope that hopefully the economy is rolling by summer, and I think one of our biggest concerns is how eager people will be to travel," Sailor said.

Traverse City is another part of the state that relies heavily on tourism. It's also home to the family-run Moomers Homemade Ice Cream. Jon Plummer is part of that family. He said that while Moomers is in the midst of revamping their service model for a socially-distanced summer, they have found that grocery stores are ordering larger quantities of ice cream right now. While they've had to rethink some of their operations, Plummer said some things will never change. 

“The service portion, the handing the cone to the kid, the five-year-old kid, that’s jumping up and down with excitement to get an ice cream treat, may be postponed for a bit. However, the experience of ice cream running down their chin sitting on our deck overlooking our 80-acre dairy will continue,” Plummer said. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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