The April 27, 2011, tornadoes that ripped through Tuscaloosa dealt a $2.45 billion blow to the city and leaders fear COVID-19 could be even more destructive.
People could see the tornado as it ripped through town – in some cases on live television. It was clear where it was dealing its death and destruction. COVID-19 is moving through unseen, affecting everyone and every business, even without touching many of them.
The escalation from hand-washing to social distancing to shutting down dining in restaurants and bars came faster than some small businesses expected.
Even before the University of Alabama went from an extended spring break to ending on-campus classes and activities for the remainder of the semester or before Tuscaloosa County was included in the initial counties to face more drastic COVID-19 curbing measures from the Alabama Department of Public Health, Audrey Vermilyea was on social media urging fellow small businesses to support the community and each other.
Vermilyea and her husband, Paul, own Monarch Espresso Bar in downtown Tuscaloosa.
When the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Alabama and schools began to announce they were closing for two and a half weeks, Vermilyea sent out an Instagram post offering to feed any student who relied on school for meals.
Then her attention turned to fellow small business owners, sending out a call to support them and tagging as many of them as she could.
“There was a little bit of a panic button as we, along with other small business owners, started to feel the gravity of what was to come,” Vermilyea said. “I’m just even talking about Tuscaloosa specifically and the way our seasonal business is set up. Usually, the next six weeks are a beautiful time for businesses here. They kind of help float through the summer.”
Jim Page, president and CEO of the The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, said businesses are used to a slowdown during spring break. They’re not used to losing half of what is usually a busy semester.
“Spring break is kind of baked in to be a slow time for most people – not only to the college students to get out of town, but a lot of families will go on vacation,” Page said. “So, we’re kind of used to a lull during this particular week. But it’s really going to be felt next week when we would expect everybody to be back in town and going back to their normal spending habits, and that’s just not going to happen.”
That’s what Vermilyea envisioned.
“Realizing it’s not going to look the same, it’s going to look really different, inspired us to say let’s get in front of this as much as we can and really try to join together with other businesses right now,” she said.
There isn’t a firm date or plans for the Alabama A-Day football game. Graduation commencements are canceled and while the weather has been mild with flowers blooming, there won’t be any students to get outdoors and welcome in the spring.
“It’s huge,” Vermilyea said. “Honestly, April is usually the best month of the year.”
The loss of graduation ceremonies is particularly tough, Page said.
“You think about us being about 62% or so out-of-state students, an event like graduation where you have parents and grandparents and siblings flying in from all over the country and staying in our hotels and staying in our bed and breakfasts for an extended period of time – that’s not going to happen this spring,” Page said. “So the trickle-down effect to our restaurants, to our bars, to every facet of our economy is going to be felt in a significant way in a college town. We’ve got to band together and weather this storm.”
To that end, Vermilyea said Monarch is looking at ways small businesses can band together.
“We are trying actively to partner with other small businesses and find creative ways to kind of unite – whether that’s presenting ideas to local government or finding ways to partner to drive sales,” she said. “If there is anyone who has ideas, we would love to partner.”
Vermilyea doesn’t want to envision Tuscaloosa without the small businesses that give it character.
“They are what makes Tuscaloosa great,” she said. “It’s the small businesses that make people love their city and what make visitors excited to be here. Thinking about what that looks like without the diverse number of businesses is a scary thought. We knew this was not only going to be a hard time for us, we’re not really alone in this. This is something that is going to be felt in our city, in our country, across the world. The best way to strengthen all of us is to be able to encourage people to shop local in any capacity they can right now.”
“Small business is the backbone of our economy,” he said. “Nobody is immune to this situation – every business, every industry is going to be affected by this in a significant way. But the small businesses who are operating on pretty thin margins to begin with, they’re going to be significantly affected. Communities have to rally together to support them.
“What we’re telling people is to be intentional about supporting local businesses. That’s always the chamber mantra is to ‘buy local,’ but it’s never meant more than it means right now. So, I want everyone to think about supporting that small business in a safe, responsible manner, but as much as you can,” he said.
For businesses like Monarch that are able to offer curbside service, patrons can continue to buy coffee and food. Vermilyea encourages customers to buy gift cards and purchase merchandise online from businesses that offer it.
“We’ve been so encouraged by people who have texted in orders and have been using the window,” Vermilyea said, referring to the walk-up window at Monarch. “There’s a whole range of what people can do during this time, whether that’s even just praying or sending encouraging words. That’s helpful. We appreciate every little thing people are doing and just encouraging us.”
Small businesses in Alabama got news of some relief when Gov. Kay Ivey announced March 21 that the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program is available to qualified businesses in the state hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Page said the West Alabama chamber is offering that and other resources on its website to assist and support small businesses.
“We’ve got to try to do our best to keep the economy going through these difficult times,” he said. “This is the new normal for a period of time. We’ve got to do all we can to try to weather this storm so that we can come out on the other side and try to keep our economy strong.”
For Page, COVID-19 reminds him of the tornadoes of nearly nine years ago.
“No question this is going to rival the tornado,” he said. “This community banded together and was resilient and certainly there were businesses affected more than others. But in this case, nobody’s immune to it. Everybody is going to be affected. This is going to be widespread and then the recovery is going to take some time.”
But Page said Tuscaloosa showed great resolve after the tornado and he expects nothing less with this disaster.
Vermilyea is heartened by the response so far.
“I would say we’ve been nothing but encouraged by people who live in Tuscaloosa and people who have since left and are looking back and saying, ‘Hey, we appreciate y’all. We want to see you guys through this,’” she said. “That’s been the thing that’s definitely kept us going and given so much light to this. People have probably said things they wouldn’t have said to us a couple of weeks ago and it reminded us that we’re appreciated here and so is every small business in Tuscaloosa. So we’re trying to do our best of just reminding others that we’re going to get through this together.”