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Local businesses navigating tough economic times

The economic impact of the pandemic has not been felt equally across industries. Many essential businesses that have remained open during the statewide shelter-in-place order have seen an influx of sales, while smaller businesses that had to close have suffered, said Pearl River County Economic Developer Blaine LaFontaine.

Two weeks ago, 100 businesses in the county were surveyed about the effect COVID-19 had on their business, said LaFontaine. Feedback from businesses in Poplarville, Picayune and the county indicates that small business owners of hair salons, gift shops and businesses in the dining and food service industries have suffered losses since the pandemic began.

While it is early to evaluate economic impact, industries like banking, insurance and real estate have seen no net loss, some have even seen an increase in activity or revenue, said LaFontaine.

Local businesses have been taking advantage of two federal programs that can help: the Economic Disaster Loan through the Small Business Administration and the Paycheck Protection Program, which is also running through the SBA.

The majority of businesses started the process to receive federal funds three to four weeks ago, said LaFontaine.

“There’s been some success stories of people who got a quick response and an equal amount of people who were still waiting,” said LaFontaine.

The majority of frustration with the federal assistance has come from people who were self employed, since state unemployment benefits were not previously set up to process the self employed, said LaFontaine.

Paul’s Pastry owner Sherri Thigpen is hoping the Paycheck Protection Program will help her get staff back on the payroll next week. The business has not received any funds yet, but the assistance is supposed to be finalized soon.

It was easy to participate in the program online, but it was hard for the application to go through because so many people were applying, said Thigpen.

Thigpen’s business has been closed for a month, and is reopening on May 6. During the closure, the bakery’s 35 employees had to be furloughed. Thigpen has worked at the bakery since her parents opened it when she was 13-years-old, and it had never been closed for a month before.

“Our business is very labor intensive because we have to have a production crew and a decorating staff and a front staff. We couldn’t make it just doing a curbside or delivery service,” said Thigpen.

The old slogan of shop local is more important than ever, said LaFontaine, as small business owners seem to have suffered the biggest losses and economic damages.

“It’s vitally important that instead of our retail leakage continuing to go to St. Tammany Parish, try to order out, continue to support local food and beverage and local retail areas as we can,” said LaFontaine.

Supporting local businesses gives the local government more tax revenue to reinvest in infrastructure like roads, and small businesses are often willing to support youth and community programs, said LaFontaine.

Preventing a second wave of COVID-19 and avoiding a large spike in cases or deaths by taking appropriate precautions will also be crucial to protecting the local economy, said LaFontaine.

Although the pandemic has damaged local businesses, it has not shifted the kind of industries operating in the county, said LaFontaine, or the Economic Development Council’s plan for bringing more industries to the area. The council is still focused on bringing in more businesses in the fields of distribution, aerospace, defense, polymers and light manufacturing, because they typically offer higher wages to county residents.