No singular economic event of our times has had an effect as uniformly devastating as the abrupt shutdown of most of the US and world economy to slow the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

As National Guard Gen. Joseph Lengyel put it in late March, “It’s like we have 54 different hurricanes hitting every state, every territory, and the District of Columbia — some are Category 5, some are Category 3, and some are Category 1.”

Which is to say: You are not alone, even as you may be idled in your homes or isolated from your customers and employees. As of early April, 37% of businesses had already instituted a hiring freeze, and almost half said they were at least somewhat likely to lay off workers in the coming three months, according to an online survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Some 47 million people may lose their jobs in this crisis, and unemployment could exceed 30%, according to the Federal Reserve of St. Louis estimates.

Thousands of small business owners are in these same perilous waters—with no sign of safe harbor anytime soon.

Still, American entrepreneurs have always been resourceful and innovative, and stories of impressive pivots to at least keep some money flowing abound across the country. Here are some key steps small business owners have taken to navigating this disaster.

1. Acceptance

There is no time for the other four stages of grief right now, experts say. “As business owners, we have to be prepared to deal with the situation because it is what it is,” says Murray State economics professor Chris Wooldridge says. Personal finance expert Niklas Goke agrees: “The only thing you really control is to accept the situation in all its unpleasantness, take responsibility for it, and start where you’re at.”

2. Assessment

Your first step is to figure out what’s likely to happen with your cash flow over the next six months. While officials talk about COVID-19 peaking in May or June of 2020, the disease has had resurgences in places where it had been tamped down. Many past epidemics have also had secondary outbreaks before a vaccine is developed.

Thus, Wooldridge says, get real with your projections by asking yourself this checklist of questions:

  • What operating expenses can I cover? How can I adjust those expenses?
  • What can I reasonably expect based on what I know today? 
  • What am I selling in my business? 
  • What sort of traffic do I see?
  • Do I have any reserves? Is it possible to create any reserves?
  • Are there available borrowed funds?
  • Are there programs that are going to be available to provide assistance?
  • What is my business’s operating cycle? How long does it take to generate revenue and pay expenses?

This is how Cousins Subs, a Wisconsin-based sandwich chain with locations in three Midwest states, has handled the situation.

“We immediately put together a 90-day cash forecast with the ability to vary sales losses to help us model the cash we would need to make it through June 30,” says Jason Westhoff, president of Cousins Subs. “Knowing we would be short based on a sales loss of 50%, we were already in discussions with our bank for a line of credit. Beyond that, additional cuts were needed.”

Cousins also froze all capital spending, including development of new stores, and instituted an across-the-board 20% pay cut for all non-restaurant personnel as well as a 40% cut for managers. To share the pain, both Westhoff and the company’s director of operations sliced their own pay in half, he said.

3. Apply

The $2.2 trillion relief package signed into law last month has the most generous financial aid offering for struggling small businesses—defined as fewer than 500 employees—ever made available in American history.

Beginning April 3, small businesses can submit applications for funds under the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program if they were in business as of February 15, 2020. There’s no collateral or personal guarantee required, and borrowers can get up to 2.5 times the average monthly payroll costs before any recent COVID-related layoffs up to $10 million.

The beauty of the program, says Florida-based CPA Harvey Bezozi, is that it can be forgiven if they use the money to retain employees.

“Normally when the loan is forgiven, forgiveness debt is taxable income,” he says. “Not in this case. If they keep all their employees on and the loan is forgiven, there is no taxation on the loan forgiveness. It’s the best of everything. It’s free money. Everybody wins.”

Bezozi urges business owners to find an experienced, well-connected banker who can navigate the process—or call him for help. Time is of the essence, he says, because the Small Business Administration (SBA) has said these loans will be doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

In addition to the Paycheck Protection Program, the SBA has been accepting streamlined applications for low-interest loans under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (EIDL). The special application window, which presently lasts through September 30, 2020, reduces the paperwork to a simple online form and may even include an immediate $10,000 cash advance deposited to the corporate bank account. There is no restriction for how the money, up to $2 million, is used, but there’s also no loan forgiveness on the EIDL loans. Thus, small businesses should evaluate whether EIDL loans work for them.

Check with your state or city too, because some local governments have created relief funds. Detroit, for instance, is offering grants of between $2,500 to $10,000 for businesses with fewer than 50 employees and less than $1 million in revenue in 2019 to spend on payroll, rent, mortgage, and utilities. has a handy list of entities across the US offering similar localized programs.

4. Adapt

Not every business can make switches to other revenue streams, but the COVID-19 crisis has sparked some impressive creativity.

In Detroit, for instance, the Atlas Wholesale Food Company saw 80% of its business supplying to restaurants, casinos, and other large institutions vanish after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order. Yet that left the company with a 65,000-square-foot warehouse of food at a time when grocery shelves were bare—so Atlas decided to try selling retail instead.

Atlas trucks visit two distribution points a day, cycling around the greater Detroit area during the week. Customers place orders for meat, pasta, and other staples on the website and come to whichever location they’ve chosen to get their goods. Within a week, sales in the direct-to-consumer model—which is approved by the USDA because of the circumstances—have matched what little restaurant business Atlas still has, CEO John Kohl said. 

“We pivoted almost immediately when the rest of our business shut down,” Kohl said. “Because of that we were able to hire back drivers we laid off and keep things going.”

Chaun Mueller of Chaun’s Catering in St. Joseph, Mo., has taken a similar tack. With pre-paid food deliveries arriving for canceled events, the company took to Facebook to offer home-delivered to-go meal boxes. They start at $8 and include a meat entrée, starch, vegetable, and dinner roll—plus a promise of COVID-related safety.

“We’re making sure we keep everything healthy and sanitizing everything daily,” Mueller says. “Every time we take an order out to different customers, we make sure we don’t cross-contaminate. We drop it off on their porch in a sealed bag; that way we’re not in direct contact with anybody.”

In Ann Arbor, Mich., the namesake of Jen Geer Photography had to come up with something different, too, when all those graduation, prom, and wedding shoots were canceled or postponed. Her solution was to offer free outdoor portrait sessions—from a safe distance—to her existing clients to keep traffic flowing to her website and keep her search engine results in good standing.

“I’m trying not to ride it out; I’m trying to think of creative ways to keep my name out there,” Geer said. “I want to remain top of mind, to say ‘Hey, I’m still out here, you can still hire me for a shoot.’ We’re not going to be in this forever. So far, all of the people I’ve done this for are ones who will hire me in the future.”

The list of intriguing ideas is endless. Here are a few more:

  • Duality Fitness in Denver is offering virtual workout sessions and renting exercise equipment to members.
  • Reason, an escape room in San Francisco, created a 1-hour video version of the experience in which you and your team are “trapped in the supply module of the International Space Station.”
  • Griffin Claw Brewing in Detroit has switched from making beer to making hand sanitizer to sell statewide.
  • The Salty, a retail donut shop in Miami, is partnering with Uber Eats and Postmates for delivery service.

5. Altruism

Elena Ledoux, the owner of Superb Maids in Las Vegas, saw most of the home-cleaning business disappear because of social distancing. Still, she found three ways to “give back” to her community:

  • First, she’s offered to pick up, disinfect, and deliver groceries to homebound clients.
  • Second, she asked her more than 5,000 customers around the region to offer donations of clothes and toys to a children’s charity, with her staff picking the gifts up and sanitizing them.
  • Finally, she has her staff cleaning Airbnb properties being donated for use to health care workers afraid of bringing the virus home to their families.

“Look around and see what the need is and address it, because as business owners, we’re resourceful,” she says, “It gives us a psychological boost to be able to do something about this disaster.”

Likewise, In Addison, Ill., the furniture and décor manufacturer Howard Elliott Collection reoriented their workshop to sew free protective masks for health workers. “It is nice to hear from these doctors who have reached out to express their gratitude,” Berk said. “But we are replying to them that they are the heroes and thanking them for all their efforts to care for us during this crisis.”

In this unprecedented and challenging moment, it’s critical to be aware of what is possible—and what is not. These are going to be some of the hardest months the modern world economy has ever endured, and small businesses are notoriously more vulnerable even in good times.

Try to keep an upbeat attitude and remember that none of this is your fault. But also keep your eyes and minds open to unexpected opportunities that can ease the pain. 

Steve Friess Steve Friess is a Michigan-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, New York Magazine, BusinessWeek and many others. He is also CEO of Bagels Etc., the largest wholesale bagel manufacturer in South Florida.
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