“We are all in this together.”
That’s how Kellie Walker — who owns The Beautique Tanning & Essentials on Paint Rock Road in Oneida — describes the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on small businesses like hers.
Walker, like dozens of other Scott County business owners, was forced to close her shop last month by order of the governor. A new era was ushered in: One where things like massage therapy, tanning, pedicures and even hair cuts were considered non-essential. For some five weeks, those businesses went without income.
But even as they faced uncertain times — awaiting a signal from Gov. Bill Lee that they could reopen and not knowing when that would happen — those businesses began to lean on each other. Then something remarkable happened: They reached out to the community, and the community engaged.
If there is a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic — which hasn’t had much of a health impact in Scott County, with fewer than a dozen people sickened, no hospitalizations and no deaths — it might be an awakening of sorts: a realization by the community that it can only be vibrant with its small, independently-owned businesses.
Stacey Swann has been executive director of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce for more than a decade. During that time, the chamber has steadfastly promoted shop-local campaigns. But never have they seemed to take root like they are now. And the kicker? The chamber isn’t even visibly running a shop-local campaign at the moment. It has just sort of been an impromptu effort by the community and by the businesses themselves.
“It’s been crazy how these small businesses have all supported one another through this,” said Swann. “And the community has really stepped up.”
“The small business community has been phenomenal in having each other’s back,” Walker said. “While trying to keep people engaged on social media, we have many who purchased gift certificates from us for giveaways, and The Beautique did the same for those small businesses. We realized we are all in this together and it’s going to take us relying on each other to be successful once we were able to reopen.”
It was an interesting paradigm: the very businesses that were feeling the brunt of the economic side effects of the coronavirus outbreak — forced to close, their revenue streams drying almost completely up — continued to give, awarding prizes they had purchased from each other through social media giveaways.
But it has engendered a wave of goodwill, and its payoff will likely reverberate beyond the Covid-19 disruption itself.
“Since our opening day last Wednesday, we have had several redeem those gift certificates and now say they will be customers of ours forever,” Walker said
The chamber of commerce jumped aboard the effort, as well, holding giveaways of gift certificates to local businesses and merchandise from those businesses through Facebook.
“When people started finding out that we were doing this, individuals came in and donated, businesses called and donated; it just came from all over,” Swann said. “We didn’t have to ask for anything; it was all donated. We have enough for two more weeks of give-aways and then we’ll wrap it up. We never intended for it to go this long but people keep giving us new stuff so we keep giving it away.”
The entire effort began not with the businesses that were forced to close, but some businesses that were able to remain open. Swann uses Scott County Florist as an example. Owners James and Penny Paul didn’t have to close their shop, “But they felt so badly for the people who were shut down that they’d go buy gift cards and give them away to their customers, as a way to support other businesses,” Swann said. “And, a lot of times, if the customer won, they’d turn around and buy another gift card from another business. Before long, our businesses that were shut down were buying gift cards from each other.”
As the effort grew, the community began reaching out to the impacted businesses more and more. Swann pointed to K-Nails. Owner Nick Nguyen had clients who would send him donations — the money it would usually cost for a manicure or pedicure. “They didn’t want aynthing; they just wanted to help him out,” she said. It would’ve been easy for Nguyen, who did not qualify for a stimulus check and was struggling to qualify for unemployment, despite losing 100% of his business revenue, to invest that money into himself. Instead, he turned around and purchased 2,000 face masks and donated them to the Scott County Health Department.
Nguyen also announced Monday that, on Sunday, his business will be giving away food and supplies for 200 families with children or elderly members. The distribution will begin at noon, first-come, first-served, with no questions asked.
“I’m so proud of our businesses,” Swann said. “The way they’ve all supported this community through some hard times is just overwhelming.”
Businesses have now begun to reopen. Restaurants began reopening their dining rooms on April 27. Some have long since reopened; others are still in the process of doing so. Retail stores reopened on April 29. And close-contact businesses reopened on May 6. Some businesses — like the Capitol 3 Theatre — remain closed for now. But, for the most part, the local economy is functioning once again.
That doesn’t mean everything is rosy, of course. Everyone involved acknowledges it will take a while for things to get back up to speed.
“With over a month without income, we will continue to feel the effects of our closure’s impact,” Walker said of The Beautique. “Like many other businesses, it will take us months to regain our loss.”
But the businesses are also seeing the community anxious to welcome them back.
“The community has been so supportive of The Beautique, especially since we were able to reopen last week,” Walker said. “We are seeing some of our highest numbers since we began a year ago and we are so thankful and appreciative.”
Swann said she feels like there is momentum to build on — especially if a second wave of coronavirus infections is not seen in Scott County.
“I think it’s just going to get stronger and stronger,” she said. “I feel like people have learned the value and importance of shopping at home. I think a lot of them have figured out that local stores can carry items if you give them a day or two to get it ordered.
“One thing about this is if you order an item from Amazon and it’s not an essential item, you have to wait,” she added. “It’s not a long time, but it’s a day or two. You aren’t getting it the next day like we were used to. So, more than ever, we need to think about shopping in our community. We’d like to keep people here, keep them local.”
Swann said it was an entire community effort to get through the initial coronavirus panic — not just from the residents of Scott County, but for elected officials like State Sen. Ken Yager, who she singled out for his support in Nashville.
“Sen. Yager has been a rock star,” she said. “He and his team have updated us daily. We have not missed a day of updates. He’s taken everyone of our phone calls and he has gone to bat for us. I really think that’s been a blessing for the entire community.”
Even when things were at their worst amid the shutdown, some local businesses chose to remain open — and they thrived. Specifically, hardware and building supply stores like Lumber King, Salvage LLC, Potters Ace Hardware, and Winco.
“I’m really proud of those stores,” Swann said. “They stayed open, and they were diligent about keeping their stores clean. I know it was stressful and hard on them, but they worked really hard. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t done home improvement projects of some kind during this.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about “new normals.” Perhaps, in Scott County, the new normal can be a community investment in local business. Swann hopes that is so, for businesses like The Beautique, and K-Nails and Scott County Florist, and for all the businesses like them — as well as the hardware and building supply stores, which are among the most impacted when people leave town to pick up supplies.
“Those hardware stores that stayed open, I hope people remember them as we’re going back to normal, and give them a chance before running out of town to Lowe’s,” Swann said. “I get that you can’t get everything here, but let’s give them a chance. Let’s give all our businesses a chance. They deserve it.”