2020: The Year Small Businesses Were Left Out in the Cold

More than anything else, 2020 may be the year that small businesses were left out in the cold. Literally as of this month. 

The effects of COVID-19 on the small business community have been sudden, shocking and heartbreaking. I’m a web developer who works exclusively with small businesses, and I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve watched an already-struggling diner be forced to close, a marketer’s new business pipeline get so wiped out he could no longer afford me (and I’m very budget-friendly already), and a retail store go from reasonably prosperous to fighting for its life after a recent move.

In March people clung to the hopeful refrain that we could stick COVID-19 out for a few months and then go back to normal. I when my gym first closed for “two weeks” for a deep cleaning.

That never happened. In what seems destined to go down as this decade’s “Mission Accomplished” our elected officials irresponsibly declared that the curve was flattened by April and that we could “restart the economy” all while businesses continued shutting their doors and the death toll continued to rise from COVID-19.

Now people are inexplicably victim-blaming, telling small businesses they “should have saved up” and telling people to “get another job.” As if a prolonged highly contagious virus is just an emergency expense to have a fund for.

Let’s be real: Reopening the economy too early was never about supporting small businesses. Not when we had people demanding that things return to normal for their own sake, (paid) protesters waving signs saying “I want a haircut” and people complaining about recreational services like movie theaters and baseball games that are not essential functions of society.

Nor did the people insisting we reopen the economy without controlling the virus consider the long-term dangers of prolonged exposure. Though I suspect when you really want to have dinner and a movie you don’t think long term.

It didn’t have to be this way.

We could have initiated a stricter shutdown while giving people, families and small businesses tangible financial support. It would have been a relatively well-defined cost. It would have been an investment in public health and the economy. Which is what anyone who really wants to support small businesses should be advocating for.

We didn’t do that. Instead we implemented a series of temporary measures and programs that were tantamount to band-aids. Even the measures we did implement like the PPP were promptly abused by big corporations and venture-backed startups who wanted a slice of that “free money.”

While large industries were coddled as the government bought corporate bonds small businesses have gotten table scraps. They’ve had to be content with “Support Local” bumper stickers and some occasional $100 advertising credits through Facebook (the effectiveness of which are debatable but never mind).

Or, as writer Ryan Lawler put it recently on Twitter:

Remember: Making companies apply for loans to stay in business was a policy choice. Not providing funding to allow businesses to pay their employees during a shutdown was a policy choice. Sending employees unemployment rather than subsidizing their paychecks was a policy choice.

There is a world in which we could have lower unemployment and paid businesses to stay afloat while mitigating virus exposure but the US government chose rugged individualism and corporate Darwinism instead, forcing companies and workers into a choice between life and livelihood.

I’d prefer to live in that world and I feel like most of us do.

Make no mistake, it’s going to get worse. Winter means that we can no longer have outdoor dining or socially distanced business events outdoors. Heat lamps at restaurants are not going to be effective at 10 degrees with wind chill.

As for more institutional support? Don’t expect it. Literally as I was typing this article White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows flat out admitted that “we’re not going to control the pandemic.” 

Brace yourselves, everyone, because winter is indeed coming. Be good to each other and do what you can on the ground level to support your local institutions and businesses. Help, unfortunately, is not on the way.