Latest chamber survey results reflect mixed pandemic effects

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Diane Schwenke

The next 30 to 60 days could prove telling in indicating how Mesa County businesses fare in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think we’re kind of on the cusp,” said Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Loan programs could be ending and taxes are due. While restrictions on business operations continue, so does the pandemic. Depending on what happens, the outcome could be encouraging for local businesses or portend additional challenges, Schwenke said.

The latest results of a chamber survey of local business owners and managers tracking the effects of the pandemic similarly offers a mix of good and bad news, she said.

Fully 86 percent of those responding to a survey conducted between July 22 and 29 said their businesses have experienced income losses related to the pandemic. “Everybody’s feeling the pain,” she said.

Still, about 53 percent of those who responded reported their businesses still retained at least 12 months of operating reserves.

Of those who reported taking out loans through the Payroll Protection Program, 57 percent expect to receive forgiveness in repaying half to all of their loans.

The Payroll Protection Program offers forgiveness on the portion of loans used for payrolls if staffing levels as measured by the number of full-time equivalent positions at the time of application remained the same as of June 30. Otherwise, the money must be repaid.

Schwenke said business owners and managers have encountered uncertainy in the loan process, which could make them wary in seeking additional financial assistance.

Business owners and managers responding to the chamber survey also reported mixed results in enforcing a statewide order directing people to wear face coverings in public indoor spaces as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While 60 percent of those who responded to the survey indicated they haven’t experienced any effects, 5 percent reported that customers make it difficult to enforce the mask order. Still, 76 percent said customers comply or simply need reminding to wear masks.

Schwenke said she’s concerned that 19 percent of those who responded to the survey indicated they’re not enforcing the order. That puts businesses at risk for losing liability insurance or becoming a target of litigation. “There’s some real potential consequences.”

The chamber joined with Mesa County Public Health to implement what’s called the Variance Protection Program. The program recognizes businesses for implementing poublic health recommendations intended to slow the spread of the pandemic. That includes policies and procedures dealing with mask use, social distancing, facility capacity, cleaning protocols and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms. Businesses that earn a five-star rating receive window cling stickers and are included on an online list.

Schwenke said the program will help businesses attract customers in ensuring them their operations are as safe as possible “We hope it’s a more positive approach.”

The outlook for the pandemic and its effects on local businesses remains uncertain, though, Schwenke said.

What many believed would be a decline in COVID-19 cases as fall approached hasn’t materialized. According to Mesa County Public Health, 286 positive cases of COVID-19 cases had been reported in the county as of Aug. 3. Two deaths related to the disease have been reported.

Schwenke said she’s hopeful the resurgence of the pandemic that’s occurred in other states won’t occur in Colorado and prompt even more stringent business restrictions or even closures.

In the meantime, Schwenke  said she’s grateful for the business owners and managers who take time to participate in surveys and help the chamber track the effects of the pandemic. That’s useful information, she said, as the chamber works with government agencies and officials to both respond to the pandemic and advocate on behalf of local businesses.