By Katy Brooks, CEO, Bend Chamber
This article originally appeared in The Bulletin on March 20, 2022.
As masks come off and we once again see each other’s full faces, we also see how the difficult years of masking, distancing and other requirements during the pandemic have deeply impacted small businesses here in Bend.
The resilience of our small businesses throughout the pandemic is both inspirational and heartbreaking at the same time. Restaurants, hotels, physical fitness gyms, hair and beauty salons, retailers and other service industries have literally sat at the front counter of COVID-19.
These are the folks with customer-facing, in-person businesses. And they have been struggling with the impacts of COVID-19 to their operations, their personnel, their customers and their supply chains for two long years.
From the “Stay Home Save Lives” mandate to every new Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule, these businesses have re- invented their operations, re-arranged furniture, found solutions, lost employees and increased their cleaning regimes. They also became the unwitting enforcers of masking, distancing and other safety protocols that weren’t always welcomed by customers and employees. And through it all, trying to hold on long enough to keep their doors open.
The stories we’ve heard at the Bend Chamber from these businesses are truly tales of human struggle and battles of will. Many sacrificed their savings, remortgaged or even sold their homes, while trying every option to receive grants from the stream of federal relief funds to keep them afloat just a little longer. Some businesses didn’t make it. And those who did have a lot of battle wounds to show for it.
We’ve heard stories of restaurants who struggled to find everything from produce to paper cups as supply chains became unreliable and production slowed, while at the same time they faced the challenge of finding enough staff to operate fully, or to open at all.
Salon workers wore masks to stay safe while working literally face-to-face with their customers.
And gyms and yoga studios have had to survive two years of limiting occupation, spreading out equipment and setting other requirements to protect their customers and staff. Similarly, shared workspaces, event and recreation industries have had to make physical adjustments and limit the number of customers and attendees.
Hotels using strict cleaning protocols and limited occupancy also struggled to find staff.
Retailers learned how to be experts at online shopping and curbside pickup. The list of businesses with customer-facing impacts has also included health care and others reliant on physical client contact.
Now that we are moving past restrictions, the glide path to “normal” for service businesses like restaurants, hotels, salons, gyms and others will be far from normal. With the unemployment rate dropping further to 4.1% this month the most pressing need continues to be finding employees.
The labor shortage is a complicated issue that had been building well before COVID-19. But we know the pandemic’s great resignation and retirement movement has contributed to the lack of available workforce. That’s why the state of Oregon has directed hundreds of millions of their federal relief funds and budget surplus during the 2022 session to start workforce development assistance and training.
The cost of living here is another critical factor turning away current and future employees, as they see rents rise and median home costs soaring to nearly $750,000. Small businesses feel this impacting their inability to find employees who want to work and live here every time they hang up a help wanted sign. Add to that the other rising costs of living in Bend and the lack of affordable or available childcare, and you’ve got a formula for keeping more of the workforce out of play.
Also, as we make the transition from pandemic to endemic, we should expect to see other lingering impacts. Supplies will still be iffy for a while. And the recent world events have greatly contributed to rising fuel prices and related costs, like food and other staples. Like every household, Bend businesses will feel the pinch as they try to fully open their doors.
Despite these ongoing challenges, Bend businesses continue to be brave. They’ve sacrificed and they’ve persevered. But for a full recovery from COVID-19 they face a long road, and we celebrate them for their resilience.
But we can all help. Buying local and going back to more normal routines will be welcomed by Bend’s small businesses. Now that our masks are off, let them see you smile and give a nod to their efforts to survive and emerge even stronger.