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Five ways you can help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic

We might not be able to walk through their doors right now, but we can support them in other ways.

Kitchen staff prepare meals at Batter & Berries in Chicago on Monday.
AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

For millions of small businesses in the United States, the coronavirus has been a kick to the gut. Many fear they may never recover.

You can help them.

We all have favorite restaurants and other small businesses we frequent, and we all want to do what we can to make sure they’re still standing after the worst of this pandemic passes. We might not be able to walk through their doors right now, as we practice social distancing.

But we can support them in other ways.

1. Buy gift cards

Gift cards provide ready cash for restaurants, shops and theaters at a time when businesses might be finding that just paying the rent and meeting payroll is a nightmare, says Sam Toia, president & CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. Enough gift cards, he said, could mean the difference between a business closing for good or eventually re-opening. And once the coronavirus threat has ebbed and that favorite restaurant reopens, you’ve got a place to go to celebrate.

Keep in mind, of course, that gift cards can’t be redeemed if an establishment goes out of business for good.

2. Get stuff delivered

Have food and other goods delivered to your door. If you are sick or quarantined, pay over the telephone or online, and make sure to tip. If you can, make that a big tip.

Sixty percent of Chicago’s 7,500 restaurants deliver. They need that business. Twenty to 25% are considering closing — not even doing carryout — for the duration of the virus shutdown, says Toia.

3. Keep in touch

Rather than go your separate way because a business has closed or you’re self-isolating to the max, seek out a middle ground. Instead of canceling a regular service, such as for lawn care or a cleaning service, offer to continue to make a small regular payment that will go toward future service. Like gift cards, it would help the business’ cash flow.

4. Shop locally online

When shopping online, buy from local businesses whenever possible. Be patient if an establishment, having never transacted business in this way before, struggles to adapt to a new way of doing things.

5. Boost the best via social media

Remind your social media friends that now is the time to step up, simply by doing business by phone and online, for the small businesses and shops — the hair salons, hardware stores, restaurants, clothing stores and the like — that they’d hate to see go under. Share links to your own favorite businesses.

Unfortunately, for all of this, it may never be enough to save millions of small businesses.

According to a survey by Software Advice, a Texas-based company that specializes in software applications for businesses, 34% of all small businesses in the United States have been hit by customers canceling appointments, meetings and purchase orders in the past two weeks because of the virus.

If that survey is done again in a week, we’d be willing to bet, that percentage would be double or more.

JPMorgan Chase Institute says 47% of small businesses have less than two weeks of cash on hand.

A plea for industry specific plans

“The truth is, it isn’t enough,” the co-owner of a North Shore hair salon told us on Wednesday, after describing plans to stay connected with clients while her shop is closed. “We need direct aid packages — zero-interest loans, grants, rent and mortgage holidays. I feel in my bones that the salon is going to be closed until sometime this summer — maybe longer.”

It would help, this shop owner said, “if our elected leaders would stop trying to patch the boat with duct tape and work with business folks to put together industry specific plans to deal with the scale of the problem headed our way.”

Across the country, state and local governments are moving in that direction, showing by example what we should be seeing more of in Illinois.

Seattle is deferring business and occupation taxes for many businesses. The city also is expanding its Small Business Stabilization Fund — a source of direct cash assistance — and providing technical assistance to business owners seeking relief from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

New York has a plan to offer interest-free loans of up to $75,000 to retail businesses with fewer than 100 employees that have suffered a drop in sales of 25% or more. New York also is considering offering grants that would cover 40% of payroll of two months to businesses with fewer than five employees.

In Birmingham, Ala., the city and corporate partners are working to create a fund to support local small businesses through low-interest loans.

On Thursday, we are told, Mayor Lori Lightfoot will present her own plan for helping small businesses in Chicago. We look forward to seeing it.

Our bottom line? There’s a good argument for cutting checks of $1,000 to millions of Americans to boost buying power during this economic crisis, as the Trump administration is considering. But will that be enough to save small businesses?

The Centers for Disease Control recently warned that the pandemic could rage on for another 18 months. That sounds to us like an excellent argument for government, at all levels, to come to the aid of small businesses right away, hard and fast.

In the long run, a regular paycheck beats a check in the mail.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.