COVID-19 In Columbia

Editor’s Note: Participants in this emergency CEO Roundtable discussion included: Matt Moore of Shelter Insurance Companies, Gary Thompson of Columbia Insurance Group, Susan Hart of Huebert Builders, Steve Erdel of Central Bank, Cameron Dunafon of Dunafon Enterprises, Connie Leipard of Quality Drywall, Dave Griggs of Dave Griggs Flooring America, Cris Burnam of StorageMart, Eric Morrison of Providence Bank, Rob Wolverton of Anthony Development Group, Annamarie Hopkins of Columbia Real Estate, Jeff Echelmeier of Williams Keepers, Paul Land of Land Commercial Real Estate, David Atkins of Alexander Forrest Investments, Jeff Lashly of Moberly Area Community College, Stephen Nagel of Machens Automotive, Anne Moore of D&M Sound, Randy Coil of Coil Construction, Melissa Murphy of Johnston Paint, Greg Steinhoff of Veterans United, Todd Hoien of Hawthorn Bank, Matt McCormick of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, Stacey Button of Regional Economic Development Inc, Bernie Andrews of Regional Economic Development Inc., Brian Treece, mayor of Columbia, John Glascock, Columbia city manager and Stephanie Browning and Scott Clardy of Boone County Public Health and Human Services.

COVID-19 is causing many things to be upended, including daily routines, jobs and events. However, one positive is that it’s also allowing local businesses to bend the ear of city officials — something that very rarely happens in the normal day-to-day in Columbia.

A total of 38 local business and government leaders, including City Manager John Glascock, Mayor Brian Treece and Boone County Public Health Department Director Stephanie Browning, joined an emergency COVID-19 CEO Roundtable on Friday to discuss how to get Columbia’s economy and businesses back on track.

The main areas of discussion included how to help non-essential businesses, federal funding projects and the local impact of them, long-term recovery and when Columbia will be back to the bustling city we know and love.

Reeling Retail & Restaurants

Local retail and restaurant companies, including the Columbia Mall, Taco Bell and Hoss’s Market & Rotisserie, are suffering most from the effects of the stay-at-home order. Rusty Strodtman, general manager of the mall, says currently only four retailers are open in the mall and overall the mall’s sales are down 100%. “Close to 1,000 employees have been furloughed,” he says. “So, there’s not much middle ground for us, we’re all or none and we’re at that none standpoint now. Just like we closed, I think we have to open it back up … slowly ramp it back up and allow stores to open that want to be open, we reduce our hours, we run a skeleton crew and then over time as we get more comfortable with traffic and sales, we slowly open it back up … Right now, we’re forecasting mid-May, but obviously we don’t have that in stone.”

Cameron Dunafon, owner of several Taco Bell franchises — including in Columbia — says his sales have been impacted more in the Midwest than up north. “In Missouri, we’re seeing sales down anywhere from 60 to 30%,” he says. “I think overall we’re at 30%. Compared to other locations, our northern locations, North Dakota and South Dakota, we are seeing sales down 10 to 20%, so Missouri has been impacted almost double our other territories.”

D&M Sound in Downtown Columbia’s retail sales are down 100%, Owner Anne Moore says. “Everyone is affected, and some of us have had to sacrifice more,” she says. “We are able to finish some of the jobs we have in new construction. One of the interesting things is a lot of our business is business-to-business, and those projects for the most part have been delayed indefinitely … That said, we’re getting a whole lot of calls for what we call ‘Zoom bars,’ which are an all-in-one microphone, video and audio for Zoom meetings for small spaces, so we’re working on things like that.”

Hoss’s Market & Rotisserie is fortunate in that they are able to still sell groceries and take-out, Co-owner Trish Koetting says, but the stay-at-home order still drastically reduced their sales. “In many ways, we’re very blessed at Hoss’s Market because part of our business model is take-out and it always has been so it wasn’t a reach when the stay-at-home order went into place for us,” she says. “The thing that really smacked us in the face was no catering. We lost 40% of total revenue generated by catering business … so in that respect it’s been very devastating.

“On the flip side,” she continues, “We’ve never felt more loved by the Columbia community than we have in the past few weeks. You really appreciate Columbians rallying around local businesses.”

Bailing Out Non-Essential Businesses

With the stay-at-home order expected to be extended, local businesses that were deemed “non-essential” see no light at the end of a very dark tunnel. David Atkins, CEO of Alexander Forrest Investments, has a potential solution. He suggested a waiver process to enable non-essential businesses to re-open their doors, with certain caveats. “Begin testing a waiver environment with maybe six to 12 businesses, where the process is created by the city or county, whereby a small business could subscribe to a best-practice system and submit a waiver to be able to open up based on those practices,” Atkins suggests. “Something more formalized for non-essential businesses, so they feel empowered to at least complete the form, have a conversation with a city or county official … and could be given the opportunity to formally pursue opening under a best practices type of behavior. Formalizing it could set business owners and leaders at ease and under a certain set of circumstances, they could legally and ethically with the government’s blessing open at a given time provided they go through the certain steps.”

Stephanie Browning, director of Boone County Public Health and Human Services, responded saying they are still operating under the current stay-at-home order, but she would consider a waiver process to allow some non-essential businesses to open before the order expires.

Overwhelmed Banks, Underwhelming Federal Assistance

One of the biggest relief programs the federal government has launched in response to COVID-19 is the Paycheck Protection Program, which is a loan that can enable small businesses to continue paying their employees — and if the business is able to keep its employees on payroll for an 8-week time period, the loan is forgiven.

When it was first rolled out, most banks were instantly overwhelmed with questions and applications. “We basically pivoted on a dime and went full-bore to helping clients try to digest more legislation in a couple weeks than we normally see in multiple years,” Jeff Echelmeier, CEO of Williams Keepers, says. “The PPP program was certainly the most time-sensitive. It’s been a challenge because the speed with which they came out with it, they weren’t able to answer all of the questions. The real challenge is for those businesses that aren’t really going to be able to either open or certainly won’t be going full-speed within an 8-week period, so their ability to meet their commitments of the forgiveness really don’t exist if they can’t open for another four to six weeks or even until the fall for some of the restaurants or bars.”

Steve Erdel, CEO of Central Bank of Boone County, says local banks have been overwhelmed by applications for the PPP program over the past two weeks. “In Columbia over the last couple of weeks, our bank has done 717 loans for $89 million that are going into the hands of our local businesses,” he says. “The funding for that program has now reached its limit and there’s a push to ask Congress to increase funding. I think about payments to individuals and keeping people working and until we can get back up to speed, putting this kind of money back into our local small businesses and letting them pay salaries to the people they would otherwise lay off is a big deal.”

Participants in the COVID in Columbia CEO Roundtable. 

Long- vs. Short-term Recovery

According to Mayor Brian Treece, the city is focused on both short- and long-term recovery. During the roundtable conversation, there were only 10 active cases of COVID-19 in Boone County.

“We have excess capacity of 400 hospital beds we can use to address this crisis,” Treece says. “That allows us to do something sooner than St. Louis with 1,000 cases can only dream about. Because Stephanie took the responsible action we did early on, that may let us start re-opening our economy sooner, but I do think we have to do that methodically.”

When it comes to long-term recovery, he’s not just thinking about this upcoming fall, but ultimately the actions and steps that the county takes in the next two to four weeks will make the difference of whether we have another phase in the fall.

“All of the retail operations and restaurants I’ve talked to, while March and April have been difficult, the revenue loss in a September and October would look even worse,” he says.

“I really want to seize this as an opportunity to think that I don’t know that we ever get back to normal in the next 12 months, and by normal I mean what we were doing a year ago with more jobs growing faster than the state and nation as a whole and 1.6% unemployment … it’s going to take us a while to get back to that, but what I do think we can do is ask ourselves, how can we be stronger than before, how do we use these newfound relationships that albeit are leaner but potentially more profitable to really build a Columbia that is resilient to these types of economic downturns?”

Measures to Watch Before Re-Opening

Prior to re-opening Columbia — and Boone County as a whole — Public Health and Human Services has specific measures they’re looking for. “The first thing we want to see is businesses continuing all measures to do social distancing, we need to keep that 6 feet apart and make sure there’s no close contact occurring … that’s one thing that’s absolutely essential,” Scotty Clardy, assistant director of Boone County Public Health and Human Services, says. “The other thing we’re going to want to see is folks in a vulnerable population being a whole lot more careful than some of the rest of the population.”

Another metric that may be used is 14 days with declining cases, Browning says. “I know we’ve already flattened the curve, so we’re comparing declining versus flattened and see where that takes us,” she says. “Testing is key and we have it available but it’s not as widespread as I would like … Our healthcare system is doing well so I’m not worried about that capacity. We have a bid out this week … for trying to find an isolation quarantine facility, so that is a tool we may have come next week.”

Currently Browning says she is feeling confident in Boone County’s ability to respond to the crisis. “The University and Boone are doing a great job with testing — that’s probably the thing that set us apart from the whole rest of the state, that GeneTrade is right here in our backyard … and Boone, the University, VA Hospital and Providence Urgent Care started testing right away,” she says. “We’re getting our results within 24 hours or less, sometimes if it’s a morning test we’re getting results by the end of the day. In other places it’s still taking seven to eight days at times.

“We are working on some plans … talking about how to have a gradual phasing back,” she continues. “We can’t just flip on the light switch and come back to life, if we do it would be catastrophic for this community. We are really trying to refine that now. It’s sort of similar if you want to look, there’s lots of models out there but it’s got some similarities to the American Enterprise Institute model.”

Jason Zerrer, founder of Providence Urgent Care and an employee of Veterans United, says “It’s been a fascinating experiment in corporate private medicine, being a doctor and being able to do what I’ve been able to do at VU, screen testing people, moving people home quicker, isolate them quicker because I’ve been able to see them virtually.

“We’re going to back out of this thing just the way we ramped up into it,” he continues. “We sent high-risk folks home well over a month ago and as things start to loosen up and as businesses open on May 4, everyone feels like okay we’re done, we did it, but not so fast on that.”

He explains that low-risk people and those who recovered from the virus will be okay to go mostly back to normal, but high-risk people will need to still be very careful. Antibody testing will be very useful in helping get people back to work, he says.

“Our messaging has changed from flatten the curve — and now that that’s been done — to hold the line, which means all those who can continue to work from home until this curve gets down to the bottom are doing all we can to stay there,” Zerrer says.

While there are pros and cons to potential solutions to the pandemic’s economic impacts, one thing that Columbia business leaders and government officials can agree on is the strength of our community. Together, Columbians are stepping up to help each other in ways we didn’t think were possible, proving once again that Columbia is — and will always be — a place we’re proud to call home.

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