Monday, September 21, 2020
Sept. 21, 2020

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Lawmakers, Clark County businesses discuss impact of coronavirus

Urgent need for capital evident during livestream discussion of pandemic’s effects

By , Columbian business reporter

A new survey of Clark County businesses shows that a majority are suffering a severe financial crunch, and virtually all say COVID-19 has had some effect on their operations.

That was the main takeaway from a Friday event hosted by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, which offered a snapshot of the county’s business climate two months into the coronavirus crisis.

State Sens. Ann Rivers, Annette Cleveland, Lynda Wilson and Reps. Brandon Vick, Larry Hoff, Paul Harris, Vicki Kraft, Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier all joined the livestream to offer a recap of the 2020 legislative session and field questions from local business owners, along with Chris Green from the state Department of Commerce.

Local business struggles

Chamber CEO John McDonagh opened the event with the latest results of an ongoing survey that the Columbia River Economic Development Council has been conducting to gauge the pandemic’s economic impact.

In March, 83 percent of respondents expected to see significant revenue losses. A subsequent tally on May 11 found that 95 percent of respondents had experienced declines in weekly revenue, and 70 percent reported losses of more than 50 percent.

Fifty-one percent of respondents said they’d had to temporarily close their businesses. Only 4 percent reported closing voluntarily rather than due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order.

Forty-nine percent of local businesses reported that they were still open, but only 15 percent said they were “fully” open, defined as operating at 75 percent or more of capacity.

Forty percent of respondents said they’d reduced staff hours, 22 percent reported having at least some layoffs, and 13 percent said they had implemented hiring freezes.

Eighty-nine percent of respondents said they had applied for or were considering a Small Business Administration loan, and 57 percent said they were seeking additional financing options such as bridge loans from their lenders.

The survey also asked local businesses to list their biggest current needs (respondents could pick more than one answer), and the results overwhelmingly pertained to capital.

Sixty-five percent said they needed money for rent, 59 percent said payroll, 44 percent said supplies and 10 percent said they needed funds for worker retraining. Utility assistance, licensing, insurance, taxes, marketing, safety training and IT and software expenses also were mentioned.

The survey included responses from more than 250 businesses across the county, and 75 percent of responses came from businesses with fewer than 10 employees. About 79 percent of Clark County employers fit into that category, according to the CREDC, collectively employing about 15 percent of the county’s workforce.

Legislative plans

The rest of Friday’s livestream was a Q&A session with Green and the legislators. The COVID-19 crisis dominated that half of the conversation as well.

The lawmakers initially discussed the possibility of a special legislative session later in the year, and several of them expressed support for the idea, although they noted that nothing has been scheduled.

Regardless of when the Legislature next meets, lawmakers on the call said the state’s budget will be a major factor driving the proceedings. Several cited a recent unofficial forecast from the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, which predicted that Washington’s projected revenue could decline by $7 billion in the next few years.

An updated forecast is expected in June, Harris said, but he and other legislators on the call stressed that the full budgetary impact of the COVID-19 crisis is difficult to calculate because nobody knows how long the pandemic will persist.

“The longer it takes, the deeper the hole,” Wilson said.

Several attendees pressed Green and the lawmakers on the issue of financial support for the business community, particularly the Working Washington Small Business Grant program, which Gov. Jay Inslee announced in early April.

Grants from that program are expected to start rolling out in the coming weeks to about 2,200 applicants, Green said, but he cautioned that the demand far exceeds what’s available in the program’s $10 million pot of funding.

Some of the legislators also sounded a note of caution about expectations for direct payments from the state. Hoff pointed to the estimated $7 billion deficit as an impediment to future grants, and Vick noted that the federal government is better positioned to provide direct capital assistance because it can print money and go into debt. Washington’s constitution requires the state budget to be balanced.

“If you’re waiting for the state to write you a check, that’s probably not the right strategy,” he said. “Sorry.”

Vick and other legislators said they would focus on finding ways to help businesses that don’t involve direct payments, such as by making local government processes more efficient and trying to minimize the impact of regulations. Vick and Stonier both mentioned changes to the state’s business and occupation tax as another idea under discussion.

Attendees also quizzed Green and the legislators on other issues with the potential to impact business operations during the pandemic, including broadband internet service and the availability of child care services.

Cleveland discussed the creation of a bipartisan Economic Recovery Committee in the Senate, and she said the efforts would include a subcommittee devoted specifically to tackling the issue of child care during the coronavirus recovery.

Stonier mentioned another team of lawmakers focusing on the issue of broadband access, particularly for students who are now doing all their schoolwork from home.