More than 300 Chippewa Valley business people gathered virtually Thursday morning for an online town hall meeting hosted by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce for information on how local companies can cope with the coronavirus.
Advice ranged from ways businesses can start to address the financial fallout of being closed, how to determine if they can stay open, keeping storefronts safe while streets are deserted and finding ways to help out-of-work employees.
An immediate step businesses were advised to take is to contact their private lender to discuss their options for money needed to weather a closure.
“If you have not reached out to your financial institution, accountant, do it now,” said Dave Minor, chamber president and CEO.
Knowing what is available through private sector sources will be important, he said, so businesses can weigh that with any public assistance available now or in the near future.
As of Thursday morning, government aid programs for businesses were low-interest loans mostly intended for small companies.
“What we have is limited and most of it is tough to come by,” said Luke Hanson, executive director of the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp.
Small businesses are advised to at least submit applications for loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration because getting that information reviewed and approved takes weeks.
“It may be that you don’t need it when the time comes, but it saves you three to four weeks,” said Aaron White, Eau Claire’s economic development manager.
Panelists were hopeful for the $2 trillion relief package being pushed for approval today by the federal government and eager for details on when that money will reach businesses and unemployed people.
Scott Rogers, the chamber’s governmental affairs and workforce director, praised Congress for acting fast on legislation that includes payments to individuals, corporate relief, unemployment benefit extensions, more small business loans and help for health care and local government.
“It took a lot of work, but lightning speed as far as government goes,” he said.
Based on questions submitted to the panel of business leaders, area companies were still working to determine if they were exempt under Gov. Tony Evers’ order issued on Tuesday that sought to keep more people at home to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Businesses unsure if they are “essential” under Evers order were advised to carefully read his order, which included five pages devoted to different products and services that qualify for that status.
Should businesses still be unsure after consulting those or need more clarification, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has a form companies can complete through its website, wedc.org, to determine if they are “essential.”
“For the most part, most manufacturers, distributors and supply chain companies are deemed essential businesses and can continue their operations,” Hanson said.
While many small shopkeepers are staying home to obey Evers’ order, a question arose that asked if they would be allowed to periodically check on their businesses to ensure there’s been no theft or damage.
Small business owners who are concerned about their storefronts while they are staying at home can still go out to check on their buildings, White said.
Eau Claire police are running their regular patrols and have been warned of the potential for “mischief” to occur while few people are on the streets, he added.
White also stated the police will not be doing checkpoints, traffic stops or otherwise requiring that people carry documentation stating that they work at an “essential” business.
As businesses shutter for an unknown amount of time, their employees are looking for options for maintaining some income and benefits.
Some area employers are opting for furloughs instead of layoffs, Hanson said. The distinction with a furlough is companies can continue providing benefits including health insurance, but employees can apply for unemployment because they aren’t being paid.
“That is just one of the options that I know of that is going on,” Hanson said.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which is found online at dwd.wisconsin.gov, is where employers and workers can go to find out about unemployment benefits and other information related to COVID-19 related closures.
While some businesses have shut down, others such as grocery stores and other food-related companies have been seeking temporary workers.
The city’s economic development division is working to help connect those employers with job-seekers.
By the end of this week, White said the city hopes to have that job board posted to its economic development webpage and the Downtown Eau Claire Inc. website with a listing of companies that are hiring, positions they are looking to fill and who to contact to apply.
The local chamber is planning more of the online gatherings, which businesses must register for in advance so they can watch and pose questions to panelists who speak via webcameras.
Of Thursday’s panel, the only two in the same location were Minor and Rogers.
“Scott and I — though it may not look like it — but we have measured it and we are six feet apart,” Minor said, referencing the distance that health officials are advising people to keep between one another.