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A Test of Resilience in Illinois’ Heartland

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A Test of Resilience in Illinois’ Heartland

Small-business owners, a lifeblood of the state’s economy, struggle to ride out the lockdown. May 22, 2020
Covid-19
Economy, finance, and budgets

JoAnn Chumley didn’t go to college. Instead, she raised a family and built a career as a florist. Twenty-eight years ago, she started her own business. She doubts herself sometimes because she never got a degree, but her track record speaks for itself: for 24 years, she’s been a success in her field and an important part of her community. Chumley knows how to lend dignity to a funeral, add elegance to a prom, and show appreciation on Mother’s Day.

Chumley’s floral shop sits in a prime location on Main Street in Jacksonville, Illinois, about a half-hour drive from the state capital. Shops such as hers are the most prolific job creators in Illinois, where businesses with fewer than 50 employees provide jobs for 1.35 million people, or 26.4 percent of the state’s workforce. Owning the business means hard work and long hours. “There’s no day I’m not going into the shop,” she said. “Even on Sunday after church, there’s always something to do.”

Several years ago, Chumley’s husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, not long after beating cancer. In 2019, she decided to sell her flower shop so that she could stay home to take care of him. Covid-19 changed all that. Chumley has unwittingly entered a secret sisterhood, a group of women-led businesses in the heartland thrown off course as governments and economies struggle to navigate a global pandemic.

In March, Chumley’s business lost about $30,000—a small fortune for a shop that sells to a population of 18,500. She applied for federal assistance through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program but didn’t receive anything because the program ran out of money. For a time, funerals and Easter orders provided most of her business. “Most of the [floral] cards said, ‘Happy spring, stay safe,’” Chumley said. “I think I wrote that 50 times in one week.”

Melanie McCullough lives 125 miles away, in Bradford—a village of 780. Like Chumley, she’s 68. Both women have lost sons; both have built successful businesses.

McCullough spent 28 years working at Caterpillar, one of the largest employers in central Illinois. Four years before McCullough retired, her son died. A month later, her father died. For years, her world had revolved around work and raising three children, all on her own. After losing the two most important men in her life, McCullough dabbled in a small jewelry and soap-making business for a few years before opening a restaurant, Bradford Snack Shack, in 2018, with one of her daughters and two granddaughters.

The place is tiny, made out of cinderblocks painted pastel yellow, with a light-blue front door. Inside, McCullough’s team serves various ice creams, along with regular menu items—hot dogs, pulled pork, burgers—and a rotation of midwestern staples, such as home-style chicken and noodles and hot turkey sandwiches with fresh gravy, green beans, and mashed potatoes.

McCullough wonders what the future looks like after the Covid-19 closures end. For now, takeout orders are keeping the restaurant afloat. Bradford is an agricultural community, and farmers and agriculture workers are considered essential. Business has continued enough that McCullough hired an extra staffer to fill the carryout orders. “We’ve gotta feed our farmers and essential workers,” she said.

Still, business is far from normal, and supplies aren’t readily available. In addition to the pressures of Illinois’ stay-at-home order, McCullough says that she’s struggling financially to pay the higher minimum wage—mandated by the state, primarily to sustain workers in Chicago but with little consideration of the different cost-of-living and business margins in small towns across central and southern Illinois. McCullough applied for a small-business hospitality grant but did not get one.

Chumley and McCullough are survivors, but they need a playbook to emerge from this crisis. According to a new analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research, about 70 percent of small businesses nationwide have fewer than two months’ worth of cash on hand. Nine weeks into Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, restaurants and small businesses are either extremely limited in their ability to function or still closed. Pritzker has imposed the harshest shutdown measures in the country, according to a recent WalletHub study, and 1.1 million Illinoisans are seeking unemployment benefits. For business owners, the bills keep coming in, with little or no income to pay them. Many big firms can wait this out; many small businesses can’t. In Illinois, heavily reliant on small businesses, places like Jacksonville and Bradford will be hit hard.

“Do I want to keep on climbing all these mountains?” McCullough asks. “Not really. But will I? Yes. Because we provide a service to our community and because we provide jobs for our employees. It would be easy to throw up my hands and be done. I’m not ready nor am I willing to do that.”

On May 20, with pressure mounting from businesses and unemployed workers, Pritzker backtracked on his Restore Illinois reopening plan, under which restaurants and bars would not open until late June, at the earliest. Now, Pritzker says that bars and restaurants may be able to offer al fresco dining as soon as May 29. He’s reopening tennis courts and all state parks and permitting golf foursomes and gatherings of up to 10 people.

The details remain murky, though. Small retailers have been told that they’ll be able to reopen, but the Illinois Department of Public Health has not made clear how they can comply with current requirements. A full reopening is still a ways off. Pritzker plan suggests that it can’t happen until the state sees no new cases over a sustained period or a vaccine or cure has been discovered.

State leaders need to give businesses some assurance, with clear timelines and policies. Pritzker should start by seeking input from industry leaders and others affected by the shutdown to come up with a reopening plan that offers clarity and guidance for businesses and workers alike. Or he could borrow plans from other states that have already provided such instructions.

It’s unfair that for weeks, residents have been permitted to go to big-box stores such as Target and Walmart but can’t shop at mom-and-pop retailers. Even if allowed to reopen at the end of May, these smaller shops will operate at limited capacity, with sales unlikely to bounce back soon.

Lawmakers should think about how to foster a strong recovery for the long term. Economists almost universally agree that hiking taxes during or immediately after a recession is counterproductive. Illinois was one of the last states to recover from the Great Recession because its political leaders heaped on taxes and debt. This misstep can be avoided if politicians remove the looming threat of an income-tax hike in the fall, which would affect more than 100,000 small businesses, just as many might be starting to recover. Illinois can’t expect to take away people’s livelihoods for months and then tell them to pay more in taxes.

We’re all in this together, it’s often said—but some stand to lose a lot more than others.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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