With profound eloquence and humanity, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gary Rivlin exposes the challenges faced by small businesses before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, including those created by consumer trends and government policies. He profiles the financial risks faced by three micro-enterprises in Pennsylvania – a restaurant, a hair salon and a gift shop. Rivlin grippingly explores contradictions in government policy, racial and class fissures, and the tremendous impact “mom-and-pop” shops have on US society and the economy. He celebrates their entrepreneurial grit and exposes the government’s inconsistent efforts to contain the economic impacts of the pandemic.
- Seeking new work opportunities, immigrants flocked to Pennsylvania’s resurgent economy in the 2000s.
- Even before COVID-19, small businesses faced fierce competition from big box stores and national chains, stretching their scant financial resources.
- Pennsylvania’s governor ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close during COVID-19; this disproportionally hurt small enterprises.
- In the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns, governments rushed to support big business, while largely sidelining mom-and-pop shops and family-owned enterprises.
- As the pandemic dragged on, micro-enterprises faced ruin.
- Following vocal rebellion from small business owners, government relief was extended and permission was granted for all businesses to re-open.
- Ultimately, government intervention saved many smaller entrepreneurial endeavors and, in fact, more small businesses exist today than pre-pandemic. Still, micro-enterprises face the same sweeping challenges confronting them before COVID.
Seeking new work opportunities, immigrants flocked to Pennsylvania’s resurgent economy in the 2000s.
The towns around Scranton, Pennsylvania once depended on coal. Coal mining in the region, which includes the towns of Tunkhannock and Old Forge, began declining in the late 1950s. There wasn’t much left by the late 1970s. People and businesses fled these towns until help arrived in the 1990s. Owing to the area’s proximity to Interstate 80 and the cities of New York and Philadelphia, AutoZone, Hershey and other distribution centers moved there. Amazon opened a huge warehouse, and Cargill a meat production and slaughtering plant.
“Job growth in the United States is fueled almost entirely by small businesses and not larger ones, which as a group tend to shed as many jobs as they create.”
This new economy delivered thousands of jobs that paid poorly but restored the region and its towns. Main Street bustled with independent shops, as the national chains set up operations on the towns’ fringes. Jobs attracted immigrants, mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean, who joined the established – and sometimes hostile – Italians, Irish and Poles, whose parents and grandparents made similar journeys decades before.
Even before COVID-19, small businesses faced fierce competition from big box stores and national chains, stretching their scant financial resources.
Despite facing widespread resentment and local laws that often manifested in overt racism, the region’s immigrants stuck it out. Many set up small shops, joining the hundreds of restaurants, hair salons, independent pharmacies and gift shops that made towns and small cities across northeastern Pennsylvania vibrant and livable. Eventually, established locals came to realize new immigrants didn’t threaten the region’s identity or economic success but would prove to be part of its revival.
“The story of small business has always been one of survival. Technology evolves, tastes change, markets shift, new competitors emerge.”
The United States government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a business as “small” when it employs up to 499 people. Most Americans consider a small business to be a mom-and-pop shop with up to a few dozen workers. Even before COVID-19 struck in 2020, starting and operating a small business required faith and dedication that often brought scant financial rewards. Few small businesses in America last a decade, but some in this area outlasted the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. They and others figured out how to survive cutthroat competition from, for example, Walmart, CVS and chain restaurants.
Most small operations have scarce financial reserves. With the arrival of the pandemic, experts predicted a mass extinction of small shops and restaurants across the country. Within a few months of the pandemic’s onset, JCPenney and Neiman Marcus declared bankruptcy. The majority of small business owners predicted they would follow suit if the pandemic lasted more than six months.
National chains such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack swept up the first governmental COVID-19 relief funds before small players had a chance to get their share. State governments imposed rules that allowed giants like Walmart to remain open as small shops closed. This exacerbated Americans’ years-long trend of spending an increasing share of their income at massive chains.
Pennsylvania’s governor ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close during COVID-19; this disproportionally hurt small enterprises.
Glenda Shoemaker ran a gift shop in Tunkhannock when the pandemic struck in 2020. She invested nearly all she had to keep her small card and gift shop afloat even before COVID-19. In early 2020, her business screeched to a halt. Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf, one of the state’s old-money elite, ordered all “non-essential” operations – including Shoemaker’s store – to close.
“Politicians repeat the same line: ‘Small business is the backbone of America.’ Yet even as they offer these words, they implement policies that favor the large, powerful and well-connected at the expense of the bantam-weight enterprises they believe are essential.”
For most of his life, TJ Cusumano witnessed the struggles his parents endured to keep their grocery store afloat. Against his parents’ wishes, he opened his restaurant – Cusumano’s – in Old Forge. Things were going well before COVID-19. After he had to close, revenue ceased and bills piled up. Cusumano switched to takeout, focusing on pizza. As with thousands of restaurant owners across the country who employed 15 million Americans, Cusumano couldn’t cover his pre-pandemic payroll.
In Hazelton, Vilma Hernandez, a recent immigrant from the Caribbean, worried how she would pay the bills on her now-shuttered hair salon. Luckily, her husband’s health insurance continued after his job put him on furlough. Hernandez was accustomed to the foibles of life as a micro-entrepreneur; the rate of entrepreneurship in her native Dominican Republic was, as in most other countries, much higher than in the United States.
In the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns, governments rushed to support big business, while largely sidelining mom-and-pop shops and family-owned enterprises.
As it did after the 2008 financial meltdown, government rushed to the aid of big business, ignoring Main Street after COVID-19 shut down the economy in March 2020. Though the SBA works hard for small business and accomplishes a great deal, its annual budget is less than what the United States spends on defense in a single day. SBA’s impact on smaller businesses is limited because it serves firms of up to 500 employees – big firms relative to many small enterprise standards.
“The job of saving small business, along with the rest of the US economy in the wake of COVID, fell to a man whose most salient skill seemed an ability to suck up to his boss.”
US Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin led efforts to rescue the nation from record-breaking unemployment and collapsing state budgets. Mnuchin worked both sides of Congress to piece together a $2.2 trillion emergency fund that would provide unemployed Americans with a $600 weekly supplement and businesses with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to help them meet payroll. Unfortunately for small business, lobbyists got three words added to the PPP. These words, “per physical location,” made the funds available to any restaurant or hotel with fewer than 500 employees in any one place, meaning that giant, multibillion-dollar firms had the same access to PPP as family-run operations.
As the pandemic dragged on, micro-enterprises faced ruin.
Shoemaker realized she had outstanding orders and no way to pay for them. She canceled every order she could. She kept going to her shop, even though no customers appeared. Like other shop owners on her street, she felt she needed to be there and didn’t want to sit at home. Shoemaker’s small shop was a Hallmark franchise, which meant that at least half her stock had to be Hallmark products. But Hallmark also sold its cards and merchandise at cut-rate prices at Walmart and CVS and through its own website. Large retailers kept selling their wares in physical and online locations.
Shoemaker had almost nothing in the bank to get her through. As the weeks turned into months, she wondered whether her business would fold altogether. Even as buying surged from the government stimulus, most customers went to big box stores or shopped online. Shoemaker worried, too, about the movement to support “living wages.” She knew any increase in the minimum wage – even to $10, let alone $15 – would ruin her; Shoemaker could not increase her prices to offset wage hikes without losing her remaining customers to Walmart.
“COVID hit the restaurant sector particularly hard. An estimated two-thirds of restaurant workers were laid off or furloughed, according to the National Restaurant Association.”
In Old Forge, Cusumano turned his restaurant into an open-air grocer, while continuing his thriving takeout business. Despite this income, the restaurant’s mortgage, at $4,000 per month, vastly eclipsed his roughly $1,000 in monthly profits. He suspended his payments and worked with a friend doing construction several days per week. The federal supplement meant his employees were earning more doing nothing than they had earned working full time at the restaurant.
Following vocal rebellion from small business owners, government relief was extended and permission was granted for all businesses to re-open.
Cusumano experimented with meal boxes and turned to outdoor dining, having invested in a patio the previous year. Though the majority of Pennsylvanians agreed with the governor’s lockdown, small businesses facing bankruptcy grew more vocal and rebellious.
The new Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) would not provide significant relief to small businesses, including those belonging to Cusumano, Shoemaker and Hernandez, though they were the program’s target. They had laid off most or all of their employees, and the grant would turn into an interest-bearing repayable loan if they didn’t spend 75% of it on payroll within eight weeks of receipt. Meanwhile, big franchise businesses like Shake Shack took $10 million in PPP, and Ruth’s Chris landed $20 million. A media backlash forced both companies to return the funds, but they exemplified the trend of large businesses plundering relief funds.
“Personal independence and the prosperity it creates seems almost as integral to our collective sense of American exceptionalism as giving birth to the world’s first democracy.”
By June 2020, Pennsylvania granted permission for all businesses to reopen. Cusumano offered outdoor dining and was able to bring some employees back. Elsewhere, employers couldn’t entice workers to return because the $600 supplement remained in place. But every employee Cusumano invited back returned. His re-opening, even at a fraction of the previous volume, was a success.
With the assistance of a $500 local small business grant, Hernandez installed the plexiglass barriers and hand-washing stations she needed to reopen her salon. She also applied for a loan under an extended PPP plan for small, disadvantaged businesses like hers. As she waited for the PPP money, Hernandez did business at a reduced capacity, fighting to make ends meet.
Cusumano was now earning profits similar to those prior to the pandemic with half the staff. But he had to put in nonstop hours seven days a week, requiring him to neglect his wife and their newborn child.
Ultimately, government intervention saved many smaller entrepreneurial endeavors and, in fact, more small businesses exist today than pre-pandemic. Still, micro-enterprises face the same sweeping challenges confronting them as before COVID.
By 2021, an additional $1.9 trillion in government relief was offered under the American Rescue Plan by newly inaugurated President Joe Biden. Government relief programs included CARES Act funding, Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), tax credits for business, a new Restaurant Revitalization Fund and a refined PPP. The SBA now set out to help low-income areas and small businesses run by women, veterans and people of color. Special set-asides aimed to bolster genuinely small businesses with less than $500,000 per year in revenue.
“A 2021 Kabbage survey found that 84% of its respondents agreed with the statement that PPP saved their company.”
Hernandez received $20,000 in CARES Act funds; Cusumano obtained about $150,000 from PPP and EIDL; and Shoemaker received $27,500 from the PPP. By May 2021, the great majority of Pennsylvanians had received vaccinations. For them, mask mandates were over. Relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, customers eager to get out and shop or dine, and an economy juiced with rescue funds meant business was strong and improving.
Cusumano now enjoying steady revenues from the business, quit his construction side hustle. Flush with money from the PPP and EIDL and steady revenues, he reinvested in his restaurant. Hernandez was serving old and new customers – her business was thriving. Shoemaker signed a one-year lease on her store and turned down an offer to sell her business.
The challenge for small business owners has become keeping up with demand, partly due to supply chain issues. For many, however, including Cusumano, Shoemaker and Hernandez, a lack of labor has proven to be the greatest hurdle. With virtually every industry hit hard by a workforce reluctant to return, wages rose. The government reduced the unemployment insurance supplement to $300 per week, but minimum-wage workers remained financially better off doing nothing than working. Many are reevaluating their lives and commitment to work. Additionally, millions of former food service and minimum-wage workers have taken higher-paying jobs in warehouses and other industries.
About the Author
Pulitzer Prize and Gerald Loeb Award–winning journalist Gary Rivlin has reported for The New York Times, Newsweek and Fortune.
Table of Contents
Map of Northeastern Pennsylvania ix
Chapter 1 Heavy Is the Crown 21
Chapter 2 Governor Richie Rich 34
Chapter 3 Fearless 42
Chapter 4 The Coronavirus Comes to Hazleton 61
Chapter 5 Washington 84
Chapter 6 Preexisting Conditions 95
Chapter 7 The Old Forge 113
Chapter 8 Governor Dictator 133
Chapter 9 Bikini Season 153
Chapter 10 Family Reunion 167
Chapter 11 The Corner Druggist 179
Chapter 12 Extinction-Level Threats 195
Chapter 13 People Hate Us on Yelp 205
Chapter 14 It Takes a Village 218
Chapter 15 10 Percent Capacity 228
Chapter 16 The Fall Surge 240
Chapter 17 Makersville 248
Chapter 18 The Hammer and the Dance 253
Chapter 19 Starvation Mode 262
Chapter 20 “Surviving Long Enough to Survive” 271
Chapter 21 Maxed Out 279
Chapter 22 Wait Till Next Year 290
Chapter 23 Dream Small 302
Afterword: Onward 310
Notes on Sourcing 331
The book is a journalistic and empathetic account of how several small businesses in the US struggled to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, while also shedding light on the broader challenges and opportunities facing small business owners in the country. The book follows the stories of three main characters: Mike, a restaurant owner in New York City; Lina, a hair salon owner and immigrant from Colombia; and Jen, a gift shop owner in Pennsylvania. The book also introduces other small business owners from different sectors and regions, such as a bookstore owner in San Francisco, a florist in Chicago, and a gym owner in Texas.
The book covers topics such as:
- The impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions on small businesses, such as loss of revenue, customers, and employees; increased costs and debts; and mental and emotional stress.
- The response of the federal and state governments to support small businesses, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), and other grants and loans; as well as the challenges and frustrations of accessing and using these funds.
- The adaptation and innovation of small businesses to cope with the changing market conditions, such as pivoting to online sales, delivery, and curbside pickup; offering new products and services; and creating new partnerships and collaborations.
- The resilience and perseverance of small business owners and their employees, as well as their sense of community and solidarity with their customers, suppliers, and peers.
- The future prospects and outlook for small businesses in the post-pandemic era, such as the opportunities for growth, recovery, and transformation; as well as the threats from competition, regulation, and uncertainty.
The book is a well-crafted, well-sourced, and well-balanced reportage of the plight and promise of small businesses in the US during the Covid-19 pandemic. The author uses personal anecdotes, interviews, data analysis, and historical context to provide a rich and compelling narrative. The book is not only informative but also engaging, as it portrays the human side of small businesses, their hopes and fears, their successes and failures, their joys and sorrows. The book is also fair and nuanced, as it acknowledges the diversity and complexity of small businesses, their strengths and weaknesses, their opportunities and challenges.
The book is suitable for readers who are interested in learning more about the role and importance of small businesses in the US economy, society, and culture. It is also suitable for readers who are curious about how small businesses have been affected by and responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. The book is not suitable for readers who are looking for a technical or academic guide on how to start or run a small business. It is also not suitable for readers who are looking for a definitive or prescriptive solution on how to save or revive small businesses.
The book is a valuable contribution to the public discourse on small businesses. It provides a realistic and empathetic perspective on one of the most vital and vulnerable segments of the US economy. It exposes the challenges and difficulties faced by small businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. It also celebrates the achievements and contributions of small businesses to their communities and the nation. The book is a must-read for anyone who cares about or supports small businesses.