Work is bustling inside the auditorium of Vashon’s one-room movie theater where the last crowd that lined up outside the box office to purchase tickets packed in to watch a film nearly two months ago.
Ever since Gov. Jay Inslee shut down arts venues, restaurants and bars in March, instituting the state’s first social distancing measures as the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold in Washington, a skeleton crew has been making repairs and upgrades to the historic building in town, said owner Eileen Wolcott.
Many of the old seats are coming out — a long-awaited project, though removing them is a big job — and Wolcott has been busy painting. To keep the progress going and compensate her three remaining employees, several weeks ago she applied to the first round of funding from the federal government’s $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) administered by banks for a loan amounting to eight weeks of payroll. The loan may only be forgiven if it is used to cover payroll costs, and most mortgage interest, rent, and utility costs, over the eight week period after the loan is made.
Wolcott said her application made it through. But she has yet to hear back.
“I’m still hopeful. I keep getting these notices like, ‘you’re in the queue,’” she said. “But nothing’s happened yet, although I see other people seem to be getting their stuff, so maybe it’s going to happen this week. I don’t know, but that would be awesome to get that help.”
Wolcott said she is excited to show off the changes to the community, though with no other income to speak of she has some fear. In the meantime, Wolcott said scores of islanders have bought gift certificates for future showings, helping immensely in the short term with bills. But a lot of that money, she said, will be paid back to the studios, meaning that the theatre will need to sell a lot of tickets or risk not making any profit.
“I guess I’m more worried about this next year than I am about this time right now, so we’ll see what happens when we open,” she said.
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help with the theatre’s expenses.
With Inslee’s latest “Safe Start” order, signed on Monday, Washington’s economy is poised to trickle back to life in staggered phases, barring any increase of COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations. It continues a ban on public gatherings and keeps many businesses closed through May 31, while permitting some construction activities and selected outdoor activities. Smaller counties that have been spared from the worst of the disease can move to open more businesses than the Gov. will initially allow by applying for variances.
In a press conference last Friday, Inslee said The Washington Department of Health along with modelers from The Institute of Disease Modeling continue to see evidence that social distancing is suppressing the spread of COVID-19 and that transmission rates in Puget Sound are down. But that’s no reason to stop taking necessary precautions now, he said.
“I’ve got to … recognize something that all of the Washingtonians have to realize, and that is that we have not won this fight against this virus,” he said. “It is even more important now, the individual commitment of Washingtonians, to help their communities thrive, and the individual decisions all of us will be making in the next weeks and months to come [are] really going to determine whether we succeed to prevent huge fatalities in our state.”
Inslee said that an incremental approach to reopening the state is the best way to prevent deaths. His approach has been criticized by some conservative groups and activist Tim Eyman who takes issue with school closures, but the “Safe Start” plan is the most forward momentum that commerce in Washington has seen since the onset of the pandemic.
But now that the government has finally begun issuing the forgivable loans so small businesses can keep the doors open and their employees can stay on the payroll, some are finding that it’s still a waiting game.
Slow and steady
At Mica’s Kitchen, owner Michaella Olavarri was busy Monday serving up orders for patrons who called ahead for take out. She is still waiting for word on her PPP money — any day now, she said. But Olavarri did receive an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the federal Small Business Association (SBA). The loans don’t need to be paid back and can provide up to $10,000 to make up for lost revenue. It wasn’t much, she said, but “enough to keep me alive.”
“I’m at least paying my rent and making weekly payments to all my utilities and trying to make payments, and you know, using the rest for payroll until sales go up so I can keep some staff on,” she said.
The EIDL disaster loan eligibility requirements have recently been adjusted and only agricultural businesses can apply for funds now. More information is available online.
Olavarri added that as she prepares for the island’s busy season post-Memorial Day when she expects to need five or so part-time workers in the kitchen, she isn’t sure what to expect, but will set aside whatever she can for salaries and rent. Gift card sales are salvation, she said, adding that while some customers are still ordering off of her menu and often paying more to help her succeed, sales are still down compared to what they were.
“We’re doing the best we can,” she said.
Sam Williams, who leads the business support branch of the Vashon Emergency Operations Center (EOC), said PPP money is coming, albeit slowly, and making its way to island businesses and nonprofits. The focus now, he said, is mainly on reopening, and discussions are underway with the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce about how to support the island’s businesses during a gradual transition to life before the virus.
But that’s if they can stick it out. Williams said he is most concerned about how regulations such as limits on capacity imposed on restaurants may affect workers in the months ahead, and if it will be possible for every type of storefront on Main Street to generate enough revenue under adverse conditions to stay afloat.
“How many businesses will not be able to survive because, one, the shutdown is too extreme for them to lose that kind of revenue, and [two] … because it’s not a light switch, it may take a while to come back, and so do they have the power to hang in there?” He said.
One way the EOC and chamber could assist business owners to attract new patrons is to develop ways to help prospective customers feel welcome and safe from harm in retail shops, getting a table at a restaurant or taking a seat at a bar, Williams said. He added that social distancing and capacity requirements will necessitate creative thinking, noting the extensive list of resources provided by the chamber which include specifics about financial institutions that can assist small business owners to apply for relief or find assistance if they have not done so already. For more information, visit vashonchamber.com.
‘We’ll figure it out’
Of course, no one ever said the process of applying for federal assistance would be easy. Heidi Jackson, executive director of Vashon’s DOVE Project, said that by the time nonprofits were allowed to apply for PPP money after the first round of funding it ran out within 24 hours, leaving the organization in line to receive nothing until lawmakers provided for more.
“The process for them, I’m sure, is an amazing headache. They’re trying to distribute billions of dollars of money in two seconds with no system in place to do so,” she said.
After a few weeks spent mostly in the dark, The DOVE Project received PPP money earlier this week. But Jackson pointed out that nonprofits face a unique hurdle because of how PPP money may interact with other grants they already receive.
“The concern is that if you get the Payroll Protection [funds] covering payroll, and if you have other funding sources that also cover portions of payroll, then you run the risk of double-dipping. You can essentially have funding to cover the salary of one employee multiple times,” she said.
Jackson added that thankfully, the organization’s funding partners, including King County, have been flexible and are working with The DOVE Project to ensure that they are supporting the program’s service model, which the agency has adjusted as needed because of the coronavirus.
The county, for its part, is responding to the economic toll of the pandemic, offering a number of resources for small business owners such as grant opportunities and information about available loans online. After press time, the county council’s Committee of the Whole, chaired by councilmember Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon, took up a discussion about amendments to Executive Dow Constantine’s recently proposed $57 million emergency supplemental budget. As part of that discussion, McDermott told The Beachcomber he would push for an additional $2 million in funding for small business support in unincorporated areas to add to the budget.
No one has a crystal ball to predict if the economic relief efforts will be enough for small business owners to resist the worst possible outcomes of the pandemic, but the island community will find a way, said Chamber President Cheryl Lubbert, who owns Nashi Orchards perry and cider company.
“One of the things that I have been talking a lot about in my business is the idea that out of crisis comes opportunity,” she said, invoking the Great Depression of the 1930s that she said ultimately inspired progress. “Give us a good challenge and we’ll figure it out. That’s the thing about people who live on Vashon.”