Chamber survey results reflect optimism and concern over pandemic

Diane Schwenke

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Grand Valley business owners and managers responding to a survey remain optimistic conditions will improve over the next six months.

But the coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions continue to affect their operations. And some of those who laid off employees have made staffing reductions permanent.

“They’re focused on recovery, and they’re making concrete steps toward working through this,” said Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber has conducted four email surveys over the past two months to track the effects of the pandemic and determine how best to help businesses.

The results of the latest survey, completed June 12, indicates businesses have moved toward more normal operations in terms of customers and revenue. Moreover, business owners and managers are optimistic conditions will improve further over the next six months.

Concerns remain, though, over a surge in COVID-19 cases that could result in closures, the effects of an economic downturn and the legal liability if an employee or customer contracts COVID-19.

That makes uncertainty and lack of control among the biggest challenges businesses face, Schwenke said.

Out of the 186 businesses that responded to the latest survey, 40 percent reported the pandemic had affected income less than 25 percent. About 29 percent of businesses reported income had been affected between  25 percent and 50 percent. Nearly 20 percent of businesses reported their incomes had been affected more than 50 percent.

In reopening under the latest phase of a Mesa County variance to statewide pandemic restrictions, nearly 45 percent of businesses reported they’re operating at more than 75 percent of normal operations in terms of customers and revenue. More than 21 percent of businesses reported operating at 50 percent to 75 percent of normal. Nearly 19 percent reported operating at 25 percent to 50 percent of normal.

About 54 percent of business reported no difficulties in complying with Mesa County

Public Health guidelines. Another 38 percent deemed compliance somewhat difficult, while nearly 8 percent called compliance very difficult.

Schwenke said capacity limits and social distancing practices are more challenging for some businesses to implement than others, but remain preferable to closure. “It’s difficult, but it’s better than the alternative.”

Of the businesses reporting layoffs and furloughs related to the pandemic, more than 49 percent reported bringing back half to all of their staffs. About 9 percent of business reported bringing back a quarter to half of their staffs. Nearly 15 percent indicated they’ve brought back less than a quarter of their staffs.

Another 27 percent of businesses reported, though, that layoffs prompted by the pandemic were permanent.

Taking into account revenues, reserves and loan funds, more than 54 percent of businesses reported they could sustain operations for more than a year if the economy doesn’t improve. About 25 percent could remain in business six to 12 months and about 14 percent two to five months. About 6 percent reported they could last only two months or less.

Asked to look ahead six months, nearly 43 percent of those responding to the survey said they expect conditions to be much better, but not yet back to pre-pandemic levels. Nearly 40 percent forecast better slightly better conditions, but down from earlier this year. More than 10 percent anticipate no change. Nearly 8 percent said they believe conditions will be back to normal.

Concerns persist, though, chief among them the effects of an economic downturn, an increase in COVID-19 cases that results in closures and additional government mandates and fees.

Schwenke said owners and managers also are worried about legal liability if an employee or customer contracts COVID-19 at their businesses. Federal legislation offering liability protections could be included in additional pandemic measures coming out of Congress, she said. In the meantime, the best defense could be a good faith effort to follow local guidelines.

The uncertainty and inability to exert any kind of control make the situation all the more challenging for businesses, she said.

The chamber plans to conduct additional surveys to track pandemic effects. The Grand Junction Economic Partnership joined with Colorado Mesa University to conduct an analysis of the effects of the pandemic on the Grand Valley economy, the first phase of which includes a survey of 500 businesses.

Schwenke said the  chamber continues to respond to the effects of the pandemic and business concerns by offering webinars and other resources to inform owners and managers about restrictions and funding options. Work also continues on other issues, she said, including new laws enacted by the Colorado Legislature.