Coronavirus takes a toll on business

Some businesses forced to close, others change to serve customers.

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Curbside pickup from Leslie's on Monday. — Lexi Pline

Updated March 27

Cottle’s is closed. J.B. Blau’s four restaurants served their last takeout meals over the weekend. Offshore Ale has also shut down. And the businesses that remain open, like Leslie’s Pharmacy, are greeting customers on the curbside.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rise on the Island and across the country, businesses on the frontlines are feeling the burden.

Cronig’s owner Steve Bernier closed up-Island Cronig’s two weeks ago, and had the eight employees help out at the down-Island store, but in those two weeks he has lost eight employees, some who’ve had kidney transplants, or are pregnant, others who are just scared of contracting the virus.

“The ones who are still here are fatigued and worried,” Bernier said. “They’re tough as nails and they have big hearts. It’s the most beautiful combination.”

Bernier commended his employees, but said there was no end in sight, which he said can get disheartening.

“We live with it every day. I’ve started to see their knees starting to buckle, I’ve seen their spirits starting to wane, and all we can do is hang in there with each other and hope for the best,” Bernier said.

Warren Holmberg, owner and pharmacist at Leslie’s Pharmacy in Tisbury, said that their in-store operation is closed to the public, but they are continuing to do business through curbside service. 

“If somebody needs something from the store, whether it’s vitamins, shampoo, or makeup, we will bring it out to them,” Holmberg said. “We are coming out with gloves and masks on to protect our employees.”

Holmberg said that Saturday night was the last time a member of the public was allowed in the store. Once the first case was confirmed on the Island, Holmberg said, they were forced to shut down their store to prevent infection in the workplace.

“We have a very small crew, and if any of them get sick, we will be closed,” Holmberg said. 

The employees are sanitizing and cleaning the store as much as possible, and are searching for more stock of rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and other hygiene and sanitization products. 

“We were just able to get some rubbing alcohol products, and we are selling tons of those. We have also been trying to get hand sanitizer, but it’s nearly impossible.”

According to Holmberg, one of the pharmacy’s objectives is to get people their medications when they need them.

“We have a lot of people getting extensions on their medications because they just don’t know what is going to happen next,” Holmberg said. “We are doing our best to stay healthy and keep serving the community.”

Other Island businesses, such as restaurants, have gone to takeout only, or closed up shop altogether, and laid off staff in the process.

John Keene Excavation laid off its employees Friday morning, a move done as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic and in anticipation of an Island-wide construction moratorium, according to the company’s president, John Keene. The Friday layoffs were the first ever in the West Tisbury company’s 38-year history, Keene said. Keene described the layoffs as “a very difficult decision that ultimately comes down to trying to eliminate the risks of exposure to my employees, their families and my family, and the community at large.” 

Keene’s “pit,” where bulk material like mulch and sand is sold, closed Saturday afternoon. Right up to the closing of the gates, landscape contractors streamed in to load up on those materials and to dump brush. 

Keene said he expects to reopen his company as soon as it’s safe to do so. 

Peter Goodale of Goodale Construction Co., whose family owns one of the Vineyard’s two concrete plants (the other being Kenney Foundation Co.), said the company shut down on Tuesday, and expects to stay closed until April 7. Goodale said the company does remain on call for emergency work, and recently did such work by delivering Jersey barriers to the hospital to protect gas tanks. Goodale said despite the closure, all company workers remain employed. 

“This is going to hurt this Island very badly,” Goodale said of the work stop. He said the Vineyard was presently in “prime season” for all kinds of construction work.

Last Thursday, Mansion House announced in a Facebook post that it was closing as a result of concerns about the spread of coronavirus. 

“As of today we are not taking any reservations. We are very concerned about our year-round employees. We are helping in every way we can,” the post reads. “For those who live in employee housing, we assured them that their housing did not depend on showing up. Many will continue to work as we gear up for when we reopen. We hope that is sooner than later.”

The industry has reported the loss of 17,847 hotel jobs in Massachusetts as a result of the pandemic so far.

Massachusetts has received approval as an economic disaster relief area by the Small Business Association (SBA), according to state Rep. Dylan Fernandes.

Small businesses, many of them closed, or in the case of restaurants, serving a limited number of patrons, affected by COVID-19 are now eligible for low-interest loans. Restaurants and bars were ordered to close by Gov. Charlie Baker, and others have decided to close on their own to keep employees safe and heed the warnings of health officials about social distancing to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Affected businesses are encouraged to apply. The SBA can be contacted by calling 800-659-2955, or by email at disastercustomerservice@sba.gov.

The loans could help Island businesses suffering from closures stay afloat.

Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Gardella said all eyes are on Capitol Hill for business stimulus that’s part of an overall $2 trillion aid package. 

“Of course everyone is on pins and needles,” she said. “I’m optimistic it will provide relief.” She said it appeared to contain the aid small businesses want, which is not debt-based.

“A lot of small businesses aren’t in a position to accrue more debt,” she said.

Therein lies a hangup with the loan program from the Baker-Polito Administration, she noted. “They put $10 million in a fund, and 36 hours later $120 million in relief requests had been filed. What they found out very quickly was it was a drop in the bucket.” She went on to say the effort was well-meaning, and she expected them to boost the fund.

Gardella was bullish on a rebound for the season. “Leisure travel is historically the first thing that comes back,” she said.

She also said compared with Massachusetts, other parts of the country are going to fare worse once the pandemic subsides.

Based on numbers she asked for from the commonwealth, she said, if the 2020 season winds up suffering 30 percent downturn in visitor spending, which she thought was a reasonable estimate thus far, it would translate into a $57 million loss to the Vineyard economy, and a $5.5 million loss in state and local taxes.  

One phenomenon taking place in the economy right now is the withering of takeout food service, she said. Recently, she said, establishments offering it have stopped, sometimes as many as three businesses doing so per day. She did not know what was behind the choices, but thought coronavirus safety might be a factor. Restaurateur J.B. Blau previously told The Times the absence of alcohol profits would push those offering takeout to shutter, as he did. 

Stimulus

At press time, the U.S. Senate planned to vote on a $2 trillion federal stimulus bill that included the following support for citizens, states, municipalities, and corporations. The bill would typically go back to the U.S. House of Representatives. They are out of session right now, so unless the lawmakers can agree to pass the bill by unanimous consent (agreement of all members of the chamber), passage of the bill by the house may take longer. According to the Washington Post, the Senate bill would, among other things:

  • Send $1,200 checks to many Americans
  • Significantly boost unemployment insurance benefits, expanding eligibility and offering workers an additional $600 a week for four months, on top of what state unemployment programs pay
  • Create a $367 billion loan program for small businesses
  • Establish a $500 billion lending fund for industries, cities, and states
  • Assure that these taxpayer-backed loans cannot go to firms owned by President Trump, other White House officials, or members of Congress
  • Include $150 billion for state and local stimulus funds, and $130 billion for hospitals
  • Includes language that allows for an oversight board and creates a Treasury Department inspector general for pandemic recovery, to scrutinize the lending decisions and detect abusive or fraudulent behavior

Robert Arcudi, an Island accountant, told The Times the bill will be based on a person’s adjusted gross income for their 2018 tax return. Payments are lowered $5 for every additional $100 in income over $75,000 for singles, $112,500 for heads of household, and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly, according to Arcudi. A single adult earning $85,000 would get $700.

 

Updated to correct that there are two concrete companies on the Island. -ed.