COVID-19 in Tulsa

A woman crosses Fourth Street near Main Street in downtown Tulsa on Tuesday. Downtown was sparsely populated as many are working from home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World

The coronavirus pandemic is devastating some sectors of thousands of small businesses in the Tulsa metro while helping others, at least in the short term.

“There are some, like restaurants and some of the small shops, that are really feeling it,” said Colleen Almeida Smith, executive director of the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s Tulsa Small Business Connection.

“There are others that have not been affected ... and are actually having good business,” such as locally owned convenience and liquor stores, she said.

Of the Chamber’s roughly 2,200 members, 80% are small businesses, or those with 50 employees or fewer, she said.

And those are only Chamber members.

“There’s tons ... thousands more,” that are not members, she said.

Some small businesses, such as locally owned restaurants, have been forced to lay off dozens of workers after being forced to close or curtail operations last week amid advice from state and federal officials that people should stay home.

“I’m not going to lie. I’m scared,” said Lisa Riley, owner of three Pinot’s Palette locations, where customers can learn to paint while drinking wine.

Riley, who closed her locations Tuesday, averages 3,000 customers per month.

“It’s just really scary,” she said. “You feel responsible to pay your staff. In talking with other small business owners, that’s the first thing we cry about — ‘I feel so bad for my team.’”

Weldon Bowman is owner and founder of W Design, an architecture and interior design firm downtown with 19 employees.

“The restaurants have been devastated. The entertainment industry has really been hit hard. The hotel industry is going to feel it,” he said.

While not under the same direct orders to close as restaurants, theaters and bars, other small businesses have been shut down just as effectively by the sheer lack of customers. And the owners wonder how long the businesses can survive without income.

“It’s amazing how many different industries are being affected,” said Carla Robinson, neuro muscular therapist.

Her clients include stroke victims, cancer patients and injured athletes who rely on Robinson’s treatments, but nearly all of them have canceled appointments for the foreseeable future.

“I have a home and office to pay for. I have two kids in college,” Robinson said. “This can’t go on very long before I won’t be able to pay for stuff.”

Worried about a disruption in the supply chain as China went through a shutdown, Jay Gulick ordered extra inventory for his restaurant supply business. But now that Tulsa is going through a shutdown, the inventory has nowhere to go.

Sales have dropped as much as 70% this week at Curtis Restaurant Supply, Gulick said. How long can it stay open under those conditions?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “We would have to make a lot of changes if it goes on a while, but how long can we wait to make those changes? I don’t know. There are going to be a lot of tough decisions to make.”

Tommy Coulter, owner of SMOKE Woodfire Grill and MAD Eats at SEVEN6MAIN, had to lay off about 60 to 70 of his kitchen and wait staff after he closed his restaurants. He told them go on unemployment.

“It’s tough. For a new segment and a new location in the scheme of Owasso, we were doing well, so it’s kind of a shame,” he said.

“We had some pretty good momentum so far going into this year for the first two months; sales wise we were doing well,” he told the Owasso Reporter.

“We’re trying to put ourselves in a good position where when the dust clears, we’re going to be able to re-open quickly, bring back all the people that we can,” he said. “The intent is to bring everybody back as soon as possible, rehire all the same staff.”

Almeida Smith said the Chamber is trying to get information about Small Business Administration loans and other coronavirus-related help out to affected members.

The SBA is offering low-interest federal disaster loans for working capital to Oklahoma small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of the outbreak.

This funding will be provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act that was signed by President Trump.

To qualify for the program, the state must submit documentation of business losses for at least five businesses per county.

If approved, an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance declaration will make disaster loans of up to $2 million available to small businesses and private, nonprofit organizations to help alleviate economic injury caused by COVID-19.

According to the SBA, these loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that cannot be paid because of the impact of COVID-19.

The interest rate is 3.75% for small businesses without credit available elsewhere and 2.75% for nonprofits. Businesses with credit available elsewhere are not eligible for the program.

Bowman, who is also chair of the Tulsa Small Business Connection board, said many small businesses will be seeking lines of credit from banks as a stop-gap measure until SBA loans can be approved.

He said that while some businesses have been hit immediately by the pandemic and resulting closures, others are still bracing for a slowdown or halt.

“We’ve had some residential clients who had plans to build a home and they’ve put those plans on hold,” he said. “We’ve also had some businesses that are holding off.

“Now, they are reconsidering because of the uncertainty,” he said.

Also, he said other businesses such as construction companies and contractors could be facing a longer-term challenge if large out-of-state manufacturing facilities of doors, windows and other materials end up shutting down.

“If that happens, construction would come to a halt,” he said.

Bowman said uncertainty is a huge factor currently for small business.

“For the last week, I’ve been in nonstop communication with my accountant and business manager, planning for the worst-case scenario,” he said.

“Like a lot of businesses, now we are trying to tighten up and save wherever we can in order to weather the storm,” Bowman said.

“I’m very optimistic that if everyone just went to their (sheltered) space for a few weeks we can get through this ... but if it is for a few months, that is a whole different thing,” Riley said.


Gallery: Restaurants offering curbside service and other options following closures

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Michael Dekker

michael.dekker@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @michaeldekkerTW