Mar 18, 2020 - Economy

The coronavirus pandemic is hitting Main Street

Illustration of a hanging sign that reads "Main St." swinging and hanging from one chain

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America is grinding to a near halt to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. It's wreaking unprecedented havoc on the restaurant and retail industries — and their millions of workers.

Why it matters: Amid all the discussion about how the pandemic is roiling Wall Street, its most acute impact is being felt on Main Streets around the country.

Between the lines: It'll be some time before official economic data bears out what plenty are hearing anecdotally. The Economic Policy Institute estimates the crisis will claim 3 million jobs, including many employed by small businesses, by the summer.

  • In one of the earliest signs of layoffs, state labor departments, like in Ohio and Connecticut, say that more people than usual are filing for unemployment benefits.
  • New York's labor department tells Axios its unemployment hotline received 8,758 calls as of noon on Monday — a 70% increase from the 2,542 calls they received at the same time last week.

What they're saying: One Manhattan server who learned this week that the restaurant she works at is closing indefinitely says neither she nor her colleagues are confident they'll be able to find gig work to tide them over. She's attempting to file for unemployment benefits, but New York's website is repeatedly crashing, because of the high volume of applications.

  • "If you’re a career server, there's always that threat that your position isn’t secure, but there's also always another restaurant," she says. But now the entire industry has gone dark at once.

Even small businesses that are still open because they are considered "essential" are struggling.

  • Small, independent grocers and drug stores are having trouble keeping their shelves stocked, just like the big chains. But unlike their bigger rivals, they don't have huge, long-established global supply chains to tap into to restock quickly.

The big picture: "This is all uncharted territory. We just have not experienced anything like this before in modern history," says Beth Milito, senior executive counsel at the National Federation of Independent Business.

  • The group has been fielding nonstop calls from small business owners seeking advice.
  • "We are in crisis mode."

For workers, all this means swift layoffs — often at a moment's notice.

While giant companies like Apple and Starbucks may be able to pay frontline workers as they weather the pandemic, very few local or small businesses can continue to do so without any cash flow.

  • One restaurant worker in Providence, R.I., who was temporarily laid off tells Axios: "It's the right decision from a public health perspective ... but it's going to be really difficult for service workers, especially tipped workers."

The Federal Reserve has been trying to stem the pain with financial crisis-era measures that could ultimately help Main Street. It's encouraging banks to lend to struggling businesses and to extend debt payments for those that need it.

Also promising: Cities, states and businesses are stepping in to allay fears about economic hardship as the coronavirus runs its course.

  • Maine said it would lend as much as $2 million to small businesses suffering as a result of the coronavirus.
  • Amazon and Facebook are among the companies offering cash grants to small businesses.
  • San Francisco and Boston put a stop on rent evictions — a step that could help jobless workers facing a piling number of bills. New York State and Kentucky have passed similar measures.
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