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MERIDIAN — Tyler Blake, owner of Coned Pizza, was the sole worker on Thursday at his small restaurant in Meridian. On Wednesday, he laid off his entire five-person staff, as fears of contracting COVID-19 are leading potential customers to avoid restaurants.
"We're being affected pretty heavily by the pandemic," Blake said. "And a lot of small businesses and restaurants are in a similar position we are."
Blake closed the restaurant dining area while he continues to fulfill carry-out orders. The majority of Coned Pizza's income comes from its food truck service, and all the events Coned Pizza planned to attend through mid-June have been canceled.
"We're trying to decide if we want to close our doors and go get a job before it's too late or fight to stay open," said Blake, who co-owns Coned Pizza with his wife, Marina Blake. "We've already burned through our savings to try to keep our staff paid for as long as possible, but we just we had to come to a decision. It's a terrific mental burden to know that we can't sustain the people that count on us, that oftentimes live paycheck to paycheck, and they're going to be struggling to pay the rent and buy groceries."
Businesses around the country are shortening operating hours — or closing altogether — as federal, state and local governments are advising Americans to stay home and avoid nonessential travel and outings, including to restaurants and bars. Some state governments, including neighboring Washington, Oregon and Nevada, have ordered all nonessential businesses be temporarily stopped.
Meridian Chamber of Commerce CEO Sean Evans said the COVID-19 pandemic will impact all businesses in some way, and he hopes Meridian residents will support local businesses. He said he doesn't know how many businesses in Meridian are locally owned, but he estimated more than three-quarters of Meridian Chamber of Commerce's 655 members are small businesses, which often are locally owned.
"I would encourage our local community to support the local businesses during this time," Evans said in an email. "The local businesses provide employment for your friends and neighbors. Many of our local businesses are taking the lead to help during this time. Some businesses are offering free delivery to encourage people to shop local, this also helps reduce the exposure for some of our most vulnerable populations."
Mayor Robert Simison enacted on Friday a social distancing order for the next 15 days that says patrons of indoor and outdoor venues and events cannot congregate in groups of more than 10 people at one time, and must keep six feet or more between each patron/group. Meridian police will enforce the order, and those who don't comply could be cited for a misdemeanor.
Evans said business owners should look at the decrease in business as a temporary change in their business model.
"Look for ways to engage your customer with new products or services," he said. "Shift more of your resources to selling your product online and alternative ways of delivering your products to your customers."
Coned Pizza — which sells pizza in a cone — adapted to carry-out only orders, but those orders typically only account for about 20% of the restaurant's income, Blake estimated.
Blake said local business owners haven't received direction or help from local authorities on managing their financial situation.
"Nothing is being done quick enough," he said. "It's an hour-by-hour situation and they're taking days, to weeks, to make decisions. People's lives are changing by the hour. Businesses are closing down en masse, and a lot of small business owners and people in the hospitality, in the service and the tourism industry are getting shafted pretty heavily right now."
Gov. Brad Little announced Wednesday his office is seeking survey responses from small, non-farm business owners whose livelihoods have been disrupted by COVID-19. Responses to the survey will determine whether impacted businesses will be eligible for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration though Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance.
Blake said the SBA loan, which carries a 3.75% interest rate, is the only assistance available to him.
"They're still making money off us at this time," Blake said, referring to the interest rate. "That's still a loan. That's something that we have to pay back. Why would we take a loan out and hurt ourselves more to keep a business open that's failing? And things are only going to get worse."
When asked what sort of assistance he's looking for, Blake said, "anything to keep our bills paid, anything to help pay our employees."
"What would be super helpful is a freeze on rents and mortgages — that would give us a lot more flexibility — and maybe some kind of allowance that would allow us to at least pay our employees minimum wage," Blake said.
Blake said he and his wife will have to decide in a matter of days whether to close the restaurant.
"Just help," he added. "Help us."