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story.lead_photo.caption Times are tight at many locally owned businesses in Callaway County. Grocery stores and pharmacies are an exception — employees at Saults Drug in downtown Fulton were busier than ever Friday afternoon. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

The Callaway Chamber of Commerce has closed its doors — but chamber staffers are still eager to help local business owners navigate the COVID-19 crisis, Executive Director Tamara Tateosian said.

"The chamber staff will continue communications with the Callaway County business community to discuss their contingency plans and provide useful resources and information that they may need during this time," she said.

All chamber networking and training sessions have been canceled until at least May 1. The chamber building itself is closed to members of the public, including groups that hold meetings there, Tateosian announced Friday.

Chamber staff can still be reached by phone and email — and they're eager to help.

"We're all in this together," Tateosian said Friday. "If one business goes down, that impacts our entire community. We want to make sure our businesses can build again and thrive here in Callaway County."

Right now, thriving is a challenge for many small businesses, she acknowledged. In fact, business owners and employees are scared.

"Small businesses — one thing a lot of people don't realize — they're not making tons of money," she said. "They're making money to survive. They're in survival mode. It's not an easy decision for them to just close — they've got to think about how they're going to feed their kids."

Foot traffic is already down in most stores (excluding, of course, grocery stores and pharmacies), she said. A few local businesses have already decided to temporarily shutter.

"Some have decided to close for the time being, just to help with social distancing," Tateosian said. "They realize that maybe their goods and services are not what the community needs most at this moment."

Businesses temporarily closing include Olive and Grace, Well Read Books, Re-Made for a Purpose and Smockingbirds, among others.

Resources

Tateosian said the chamber wants to help all local businesses find resources and make plans, not just those that are already members of the chamber.

"My message to small businesses has been contact your financial institutions find out what they can do to assist you during this time," she said. "Contact your insurance company to see if they have any disaster relief."

Help is on the way in the form of low-interest loans through the Small Business Association following Gov. Mike Parson's signing of an Economic Injury Disaster Loan Declaration.

SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loans offer up to $2 million in assistance and can provide vital economic support to small businesses to help overcome the temporary loss of revenue they are experiencing. These loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can't be paid because of the disaster's impact. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for small businesses without credit available elsewhere; businesses with credit available elsewhere are not eligible. The interest rate for nonprofits is 2.75 percent. Loans may be repaid over the course of up to 30 years, according to the SBA.

Visit SBA.gov/disaster for further information.

The Missouri Department of Labor provides several ways for businesses to aid employees — even in the case of mass layoffs.

"If you're not registered with the Department of Labor, register now," Tateosian emphasized.

She highlighted two DOL programs: shared-work programs and mass claims.

The Shared Work Unemployment Compensation Program is an alternative to layoffs for employers faced with a reduction in available work. It allows an employer to divide the available work among a specified group of affected employees instead of a layoff. These employees receive a portion of their unemployment benefits while working reduced hours, the DOL explains on its website.

The Electronic Mass Claims Filing System is available to employers during a temporary mass layoff. Employee information provided by the employer allows the Missouri Division of Employment Security to file an initial or renewed unemployment claim on behalf of employees quickly and efficiently.

According to the DOL, employees who are laid off due to loss of production caused by the virus, or whose employer shuts down operations temporarily, are likely eligible for unemployment benefits. To learn more, visit labor.mo.gov/coronavirus.

Those seeking work in Callaway County have options, Tateosian said.

"We have places like the Dollar General Distribution Center that are hiring," she said. "They need 100 temporary workers. They're trying to get necessities to seven states, and they're busier than ever. Their staff is worn out, and they need relief."

The chamber can provide guidance on how to take advantage of any of the above programs. They can also advise on building a contingency plan, Tateosian said.

How to help

Tateosian said there are still plenty of ways for residents to support local businesses, even while maintaining social distancing.

"We want to encourage our local community to continue to support our local businesses in a safe and responsible manner by ordering takeout, shopping online and purchasing gift cards that can be used at a later date," she said.

Many Callaway County restaurants have introduced new curbside pick-up and delivery options.

"Some have been very innovative on how they deliver goods and services," Tateosian said.

The creativity extends beyond restaurants. Livestock and pets still have to eat during the pandemic, so Calwood-based Twillman Feed Services is currently offering curbside service. Cal-Air Mechanical is trying to limit foot traffic in the office but is otherwise doing business as usual. Wild + Well Studio, a yoga and pole-dancing studio that opened just this month in Fulton, has launched online classes "you can do in the privacy of your own home," Tateosian pointed out.

She encouraged residents to shop local as much as possible and do whatever extra they can to help small businesses stay afloat. (When it comes to in-person shopping, don't go out if you're sick, wash your hands and avoid close contact with others, she added.)

"If you can do takeout once a week and rotate around to other businesses, that's great," Tateosian said. "Or tip somebody just a little extra because tomorrow that person might not be waiting tables any more."

It's a pay-it-forward mentality, she said. Tateosian said she's proud of the way the community has already begun to pull together in the face of this challenge.

"This too shall pass," Tateosian concluded. "We don't know when it's going to pass, but it will. And the chamber is preparing to assist our businesses to get back up and rolling again."

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