Pam Cauthen doesn’t need many words to describe how she’s feeling as the manager of the Ann’tiques, 1830 W Main St. in League City.
“It’s looking grim,” she said.
As local and state agencies have imposed more and more rules aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, Cauthen has turned to the online marketplace eBay in an attempt to move merchandise. But that effort isn’t going well, and she’s now looking at the possibility of the store closing indefinitely as soon as Thursday, she said.
The slogan “Shop Local” has taken on urgent, even dire meaning, as city officials and business leaders race to help boutiques, restaurants and other independent businesses survive social distancing orders and closures by various governments. Like never before, chambers of commerce and government officials are creating games, challenges and marketing campaigns to inspire residents to spend money in their hometowns to stop what they fear will be a long-damaging or, in some cases, fatal blow to small businesses.
In the meantime, several area businesses are shifting business online and offering steep discounts to entice potential customers.
“Everything, at this point, counts,” said Terrie Ward, co-owner of Texas Artisan, 2800 Marina Bay Drive in League City. “Every transaction makes a difference. As retailers, we have to be creative. But consumers also have to make a concerted effort to keep small businesses in mind, rather than to do the default thing and shop on Amazon.”
Ward estimates small businesses like hers can bear, at most, about 60 days of government restrictions and social distancing before many start disappearing, she said.
As of Tuesday, there were 21 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Galveston County, according to the health district. Nationwide, more than 44,183 people had been diagnosed with the virus as of Tuesday afternoon, and more than 544 people had died, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And, late Tuesday, a county order telling most residents to stay at home took effect and will remain in place until April 3.
With local businesses feeling the hurt, the League City Regional Chamber of Commerce is launching a Bay Area bingo for business promotion, wherein residents fill out a bingo chart when they complete different activities — such as shopping local online, buying a gift card, ordering takeout and sharing a small-business’ post on social media, among others, said Dewan Clayborn, president and CEO of the chamber.
Those who complete the bingo chart will be entered in drawings, he said.
“This is not the time to be frantic and scared, but assess and scale your business,” Clayborn said. “Business owners need to look to gain additional sales online and through marketing campaigns.”
THE LOCAL CHALLENGE
Earlier this month, the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce launched a “Buy Galveston First” campaign and a 14-day challenge to support local businesses.
Chambers also offer members classes and information as operators look into options such as small business loans, said Gina Spagnola, president and CEO of the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“We are going to survive, but it’s scary,” she said. “Our retailers went to market, shopped and got things prepared for two weeks worth of spring break. But now their credit cards are maxed out and they’re looking at having to shut down.”
In La Marque, Charles “Tink” Jackson, city manager, launched a week-long campaign encouraging locals and others to take advantage of takeout options at La Marque restaurants by entering them in a drawing.
“All week, we’ve encouraged people to buy carry-out and drive-through meals at local restaurants and save their receipts,” Jackson said.
The receipts are either posted on the city’s social media page or emailed to the city and collected for a drawing on March 29. The winner will win a $100 gift card to use at a local business.
“I put up the money; I want to make clear it’s not taxpayer money we’re giving away,” Jackson said. “And you don’t have to be from La Marque to win. We want everybody from Texas City and all over the county to come over and eat at our restaurants.”
‘IT’S NOT THE SAME’
One of the most popular eateries, judged by the number of receipts posted on Facebook, is Benito’s, 1309 1st St., a Mexican food restaurant that’s been in La Marque for 50 years. Manager Will Andino and his mother, the owner, are the last two working after having to send their servers home when they went to strictly take-out service last week, Andino said.
“The last two days were pretty good, but it’s not the same as with people in here,” Andino said. “We’re usually busy with lots of people.”
Andino doesn’t want to even consider the possibility of Benito’s permanently closing, he said.
“We’ve been here for 50 years and that just can’t happen,” he said. “We’ll leave it up to God and the people of La Marque to get us through.”
Texas Pit Stop BBQ, 2216 I-45 N. in La Marque, saw a small uptick thanks to the Dine in La Marque campaign, manager April Leach said.
“Business has slowed down drastically,” Leach said. “We’re making just enough to get by on take-out meals, but last night we got really busy for dinner.”
‘OWNED By LOCAL FOLKS’
The La Marque campaign embraces locally owned restaurants and chains equally, said Colleen Merritt, the city’s public relations director.
“A lot of our franchises are owned by local folks, and they all employ locals,” Merritt said. “I think it’s just about encouraging people to think about options to dining in or dining at home. Every time you place an order somewhere, you’re helping somebody keep their job.”
It’s a bleak picture for many small businesses, said Peter Heim, owner of The Spice & Tea Exchange of Galveston, 2309 Strand.
Heim had one sale Monday and only one as of noon Tuesday, he said.
“There’s nobody here now,” Heim said.
Heim has been sitting alone in the shop to answer calls after he had to furlough his employees, he said.
He’ll be able to pay them through the end of the month, but isn’t sure what will happen after that if the federal government doesn’t step in with aid, he said.
“We’re going to make every effort to keep paying them,” Heim said.
Heim’s shop is allowing consumers call to have products picked up or delivered, he said.
If people think about purchasing something, they should first think about local businesses, he said.
‘HANGING IN THERE’
Haak Vineyards and Winery in Santa Fe already has had to lay off two people, said Gladys Haak, co-owner of the business.
“We have a skeleton crew working, only to complete bottling,” Haak said. “We have lots of wine that has to get in a bottle, because it can go bad.”
The winery is selling wine and will deliver it to customers in their cars if they call ahead, she said.
“We’re hanging in there, but I don’t know for how long,” Haak said.
No one had called the winery about any special buy-local efforts, but Haak was hoping local residents would recognize the business was hurting and reach out, she said.
“We give at least four donations a week to charities, and now it’s time to pay back,” Haak said. “We need the business. If you need to drink wine, you can call us.”
PRICED TO MOVE
Luis Briones, owner of Friendswood Frame and Gallery, 150 S. Friendswood Drive, said he was resorting to heavy discounts and improvisational sales to stay afloat for the time being.
“I’m taking a lot of the business home and listing products online,” he said. “I’ll give out my cell phone number and run sales through my phone if necessary, telling people they can pick up the merchandise when the shelter-in-place order is released.”
Even some money coming via heavy discounts is helpful when it comes to generating enough revenue to pay employees, rent and other overhead costs, he said.
“There are going to be casualties,” Ward said. “But at the end of the tunnel, for the businesses that make it, I hope the community as a whole understands how important supporting small businesses is. They are the true infrastructure of America.”
Reporters John Wayne Ferguson, Keri Heath and Kathryn Eastburn contributed to this report.