- Rob Donnelly
What will life look like on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic? Will we shed our sweats and return to the office? Stroll mask-free downtown? When can we gather en masse to watch movies, hear music?
No one has definitive answers to these questions — including the 15 thoughtful Vermonters who share their observations, worries and predictions in this week's cover story, "After the Fire." The ambiguity before us is unprecedented — and fascinating, perhaps, if you are lucky enough to be healthy and have a job that is secure, safe and can be done remotely.
But if you're a local business owner, it's torture. Resurrecting even the smallest commercial enterprise requires planning, money and marketing — and some sectors of the economy have been called back to work with scant notice. Vermont real estate agents found out on a Friday that they could return to work after the weekend. Golf courses got a single day's warning.
On Monday, Gov. Phil Scott announced that retail stores could reopen one week hence, provided they limit the number of customers to 25 percent of capacity. They've got seven days to rehire and train workers who, thanks to a federal supplement to state unemployment benefits, could be making more money by not working than they did in their previous — and now significantly more dangerous — jobs.
For that and other reasons, not every local merchant will be able to reopen immediately. To assist, this week Seven Days built and launched an online directory to get the word out about who's selling what and how — in person and online. We recommend checking the local Register before shopping on Amazon. Let's keep those dollars here, where we need them, instead of sending them to Jeff Bezos.
Meanwhile, restaurants are eagerly awaiting guidance that has yet to come. In a recent email, Penny Cluse Café chef-owner Charles Reeves put the delay dilemma in perspective: "Purchasing, training, prepping, teching up will all take time, and we'd like to hit the ground running when we safely get the green light," he wrote. "Even just to hear 'not before June 15' would frame things significantly."
Assuming they get back up and running, restaurants face another challenge: Can they make enough money to operate while meeting anticipated social-distancing requirements? Last weekend a coalition of local restaurateurs started circulating a petition calling for "easily accessible direct aid" to prevent an estimated one-third of Vermont's food establishments from going under.
Seven Days has been reporting the news nonstop through the pandemic. But the difficulties of our fellow businesses imperil our media company, which depends almost entirely on advertising and event revenue to pay the bills. When that income was reduced by half overnight, we asked our readers for help, and you responded generously. Our Super Readers subscriptions are now generating more than $1,500 a week — the approximate cost of a full-page ad — to help fund our journalism. As Seven Days was being produced on Tuesday, we learned that our first collaboration with Vermont Public Radio, about lax oversight of Vermont's eldercare facilities, won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative journalism. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the "Worse for Care" series seems prescient now.
Like many other small businesses in Vermont, Seven Days also applied for a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The money subsidized the restoration of pre-pandemic staffing levels and allows the sales team to breathe a little easier for the next six weeks, while they roll out some free products and services to help their clients — our advertisers.
What awaits after June 16, the day our golden carriage turns back into a pumpkin? We're doing everything humanly possible to prepare for a new reality, whatever it turns out to be.
That means keeping an eye out for opportunities. As serial entrepreneur Alan Newman told Paul Heintz in this week's cover story: "I think that, long term, there could be some real positives coming out of this." Here's hoping that strengthened community support for Vermont businesses and local media are among them.