A month ago, Kodiellen Campbell was making quill pens and leather-bound journals at Visker & Scrivener, 406 23rd St., an island shop selling ink, scrolls and other oddities.
It was a bit of an odd job, the kind you might find at shops around downtown Galveston that cater to people looking for mementos from a trip to the island.
Campbell isn’t working at the store anymore. Many of its sales happen at fairs, festivals and other events around the island. So when the city of Galveston announced plans to cancel all events through May, and with people advised to avoid unnecessary travel, the store’s customer base vanished.
With no events, there wouldn’t have been any way for store owners to pay her wages, Campbell said. It’s a situation that many of her friends who work in retail, bars and restaurants downtown are also facing, she said.
“You can’t just bring the economy to a standstill and expect people to survive,” Campbell said.
Now she’s trying to find some online work to pay the bills, she said.
Millions of Americans, including tens of thousands of Texans, are attempting to navigate a new world of joblessness and pandemic. Many are trying to figure out how to secure unemployment benefits, while hoping a $2.2 trillion relief bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump on Friday would bring them meaningful relief.
The bill might become remembered for the thing it promised many Americans: $1,200 or more in direct, untaxed money to their bank accounts for financial relief. But the massive spending package also includes additional support for people who are unemployed or whose businesses are in jeopardy.
Down the block from Campbell’s old workplace, Kim Cherryhomes had closed the doors at her clothing shop, the Tangerine Boutique, at 2218 Postoffice St.
“I just was not comfortable,” Cherryhomes said, adding that closing the business meant letting three staff members go. She’s trying to expand her online store, but had made very few sales, she said.
Cherryhomes hoped she would be able to secure a small business loan to help her pay rent and pay off supplies she purchased before the coronavirus pandemic.
“It could ride us out until we get reopened,” Cherryhomes said.
Things are tough for small businesses because everyone is struggling financially and no one wants to spend money, she said.
WILL IT HELP?
Through the early part of the pandemic, people and businesses have tried, through more or less traditional means, to get financial help.
More than 156,000 Texans filed for unemployment benefits during the past week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The rush of filings, up to 30,000 a day, has overwhelmed the Texas Workforce Commission’s website and phone lines and caused the agency to extend its hours and hire more staff. People have reported it taking days to for them to be able to access the commission’s website or phones.
Some businesses are able to apply for no-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, similar to the kind available after disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.
The bill will make getting access to money easier, said Jeff Sjostrom, president of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership.
“I think the biggest benefit of what I’ve seen so far is that it’s really going to put the local banks in the driver’s seat,” Sjostrom said. “It appears the local banks are going to be given the opportunity to administer these dollars and so it’s not going to be an application to a federal agency.”
That’s good news in Galveston County, where local banks already have experience and structures in place to make disaster loans to business, he said.
“We’re so far ahead of the curve,” Sjostrom said. “Disaster preparedness is in our blood. We’ve got community lenders that have proven time and time again that they will step up and help the local business community. This is something we do.”
But there are valid questions about for how long the massive stimulus bill will stabilize things, said Harris “Shrub” Kempner, owner of Kempner Capital Management in Galveston.
“It should be enough that we will be suffering much less than we had feared for the next four or five months, maybe longer,” Kempner said, adding that the real question is how fast the government will be able to support all of the new financial programs. He predicted another stimulus bill would be proposed within a month.
The size, scope and speed of the package shows just what the country can do when it’s in a wartime mode, Kempner said.
“It would have been a shocking concept a month ago,” Kempner said. “On a day-to-day thing, when you have the normal tug-of-war between various people who want a piece of the pie, plus the normal caution about not overspending, it’s like pulling fingernails”.
FEAR AND WAITING
It will be weeks before people begin receiving the stimulus checks and other benefits. During that time, many will continue to learn more about the relief package and the benefits for which they qualify.
Emma Robinson, of La Marque, is a substitute teacher in the Texas City Independent School District who didn’t know whether an agreement she signed remained binding in light of the pandemic and schools moving to distance learning.
“We sign an agreement not to file for unemployment during the summer months when school is not in session,” Robinson said. “Do we have to honor that agreement now that our substitute teaching work is gone?”
The school district on Friday confirmed that substitute teachers are free to apply for unemployment, said Melissa Tortorici, district spokeswoman.
Other small businesses have hung on to whatever work remained and are still making decisions about the way forward.
Vanessa Lopez, of Texas City, employs five other women in her cleaning company, Nessa’s Cleaning.
“We’ve continued working, mostly cleaning vacation rentals, but this week we put our heads together and decided to shut down next week in the interest of safety,” Lopez said. “We don’t want to risk exposure to the virus.”
As the number of known cases has risen in Galveston County, Lopez and her workers have grown more concerned about whether the virus might be present in the places they clean.
“We wipe everything down and disinfect everything, but we don’t know who’s been here, where they’ve traveled and whether they’re carrying the virus,” she said. “It’s very scary financially, but also mentally and physically.”
Some clients have sent Lopez information about benefits her company might be eligible for under the federal relief package and she will be looking into it, she said.
“I feel pretty sure we could get help,” she said.
In the meantime, she will be giving each of her employees a “small check” to tide them over until the virus stops spreading and work picks back up, she said.