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What will Michigan's Main Streets look like after COVID-19 is over?

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
An Evans Street Station restaurant server wearing a mask and gloves places a take-out order into a customer's car trunk in order to maintain social distance.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Evans Street Station is a fine dining establishment which is now limited to take-out orders because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small businesses forced to shut their doors are trying to figure out how to last through what could be months of being closed. Businesses still operating are figuring out how to keep going. 'Main Street' Michigan is doing everything it can to survive COVID-19 isolation.

Most downtowns in the state are pretty quiet these days. Shops that are considered non-essential are closed. Many of the restaurants where you used to go are now only doing take-out.

We watched as servers at the Evans Street Station restaurant in Tecumseh wore masks and gloves as they dropped orders into the trunks of waiting cars.

Beth Kennedy is the General Manager and a co-owner. She had to shut down her catering business and change how she served her restaurant customers who are used to dining in.

“We're doing our best. We're taking it day by day, week by week. You know, we're we're constantly reevaluating what we're doing and how we're doing it. We're trying to work smarter and streamline the menu,” she said.

Like many restaurants, sales numbers have fallen. Evans Street Station had to temporarily lay off some workers. But the business is hanging in there.

“We've got a tight ship, a solid crew. We're really lucky that we have a loyal long-time employees sticking with us. We're super grateful for that,” Kennedy said.

She says "grateful" because some businesses that are still operating need more workers for things like delivery services. But, there’s not much incentive to take a job unless it pays a lot.

Brian Calley is the President of the Small Business Association of Michigan. He says with the big $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, being unemployed can pay pretty well.

“So in Michigan, for example, the maximum unemployment that you could receive per week is $362 under the existing or the original formula. Congress would take that and add $600 to it. So it would be $962 per week for somebody who was receiving the maximum,” Calley explained.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Many businesses might be closed even longer than April 14th.

And that will be the case at least until the end of June.

Finding workers, bringing in enough money to meet payroll, paying the rent or mortgage, and keeping the lights on is tough for many of the small businesses still open. If your shop is closed, you’ve still got rent, utilities, debt service, and absolutely no money coming in.

The state and federal governments are offering some help: $394 billion nationwide. Some of the loans are forgiveable, but there are lots of strings attached. Banks and government agencies are overwhelmed by applications. 

Harvey Schmidt runs a group of pharmacies called Schmidt and Sons. He says his business actually has ramped up because it’s doing a lot more deliveries. That's to avoid a lot of people standing in the store waiting for prescritptions to be filled.

He’s a former mayor of Tecumseh and keeps up with other merchants in town.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Schmidt & Sons' Tecumseh location sits on the main street named Chicago Boulevard.

“I'm pretty sure that there are some businesses that are kind of on life support and they're looking for some help from this COVID package that came out of Washington. But quite frankly, I think it's coming through a little, little too slow. And it may result in, you know, some businesses not being able to survive," he said.

The federal government is already considering another $200 billion to help small businesses because there is such demand and such a devastating impact to the economy if a lot of small businesses close for good.

Schmidt says he’s proud of merchants and employees who are still on the job at the grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies and so on.  While not comparing them to health care workers on the front line, he notes those workers are at risk too.

“We really do have heroes within our own communities who are stepping up and servicing the needs of the people during the pandemic. I just think we need to say thank you,” Schmidt said.

The Small Business Association’s Brian Calley says there’s so much uncertainty with these two crises happening at the same time.

“One is a health care crisis and the other is an economic crisis. The health care crisis, I'm confident that our country will work its way through in the coming months. Our goal is to try and make sure that the economic crisis doesn't last years," he explained.

A lot depends on how people behave after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. For months, people will have been getting a lot of goods delivered rather than go to a store. Will people come out and shop like they used to do?

Or will they be skittish about getting out among other people?

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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