An APR News Feature
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many in Alabama are worried about the economic impact. Those who work in the food or entertainment industries could feel the biggest pinch.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to grow in Alabama. In response, businesses are being ordered to shut their doors, people are being told to stay home and restaurants are only offering deliver or curbside service.
Jim Page is the president and CEO of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce. He said organizations like his as well as business owners and their employees need to brace themselves.
“No matter how long this extended break period is, our local business community is definitely going to feel it," he said. "There is no question this will have a significant economic impact. The health, safety and wellbeing of citizens is first and foremost, but the economic fallout from all of this is something we’re certainly trying to watch and to mitigate as much as we can.”
Page said it may take a moment to feel the real impact though. This pandemic came at an odd time for a city like Tuscaloosa.
“Being a university community, we’re used to spring break and certain lulls during the year when the students are gone. The timing of this happening during our spring break, it won’t be as noticeable and recognizable as it will be until the coming weeks," he said.
Page said there are ways businesses can help themselves weather the coming storm.
“What we’re trying to do at the chamber in the coming days and weeks is really educating the business community on all the federal, state and local resources that will be available to businesses affected by this by way of financial assistance and other support.”
There is help for the individual workers who may lose hours or even their job due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Tara Hutchison is the spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Labor.
She said the state has relaxed the criteria for certain people to apply for unemployment, including, “those who are quarantined by a medical professional or government agency, those who are laid off or sent home without pay for an extended period by their employer due to COVID-19 concerns, those who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or those caring for an immediate family member who was diagnosed with COVID-19.”
She said they have even temporarily removed some of the old requirements.
“We have also waived the work search requirement for those claims that are associated with COVID-19, which means you normally have to be looking for other employment while receiving unemployment compensation and we’ve also waived the usual waiting week for these claims. The waiting week is generally the very first week of benefits which are withheld.”
Hutchison said these claims will be treated as a temporary layoff for now, "which means they are eligible for up to three weeks of benefits at $275 a week. That’s the maximum weekly benefit in Alabama.”
She said many of the unemployment offices are lightly staffed right now. So there is a way those looking to file claims can do so to keep the issue as efficient as possible.
“If they do need to file a claim, if at all possible, please do so online. We do have phone access to file a claim, but there’s only so many people to answer phones and so those phonelines are going to, if so many people are trying to call, are going to get busy signals and not be able to get through, if you’re able to do it online that would save everyone some time," she said.
Help is also being organized at the federal level. Terri Sewell is Alabama’s 7th district representative in Washington. She said no matter what relief bill comes from Congress, Alabamians need to remain patient.
“It is so important that we remain calm, but we also remain prepared. Prepared does not mean making a run on our supermarkets, it means getting the essential things you need and hunkering in and self-isolating and practicing social distancing and doing exactly what the CDC and our public health department has said," she said.
Sewell said while adhering to those orders may be tough, it is something all Alabamians need to do.
“We have to be the first line of attack, we as individuals in making sure we’re doing everything we can with our own personal hygiene to stop the spread of this virus," she said. "It's all about flattening that curve. We have not, in the United States, reached that peak yet, so we have to make sure we do everything we can to flatten the curve of this pandemic.”
She said the president is working on a plan she thinks could help individuals.
“I think it’s a really great sign that the White House is looking at providing direct benefits to individuals. I do believe that is the best way that we can stimulate our economy during this crisis," she said.
Sewell said there is something else she wants to see come out of congressional negotiations.
“Our hourly workers that work in entertainment and food industry, we want to make sure, first and foremost, that we get out paid sick leave. If folks are feeling sick, they get two weeks of paid sick leave," she said.
Page said that’s all well and good, but these businesses will need help soon.
“There has been talks about tax credits for businesses, which is great, but that doesn’t help cash flow right now. Those are the types of issues that we’re closely trying to monitor so we can relief to our businesses as quickly as possible," he said.
In the meantime, Page said there is something the community can do to help.
“We’re going to be encouraging our community to be more intentional than ever about supporting local businesses as much as they can in a safe and responsible manner," he said.
Page said it isn’t going to be easy, but business owners need to educate themselves and be alert.
“There is going to be help, there is going to be financial hardship. There is going to be help to mitigate it, but business owners need to be proactive in taking advantage of that assistance," he said. "I hope they will reach out to groups like the chamber to help them navigate those waters.”
The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama is teaming up with the Community Foundation of West Alabama to develop a community-based economic assistance fund for small businesses across the region.
More details on how to donate and apply for the aid can be found at the chamber's website.