COVID-19 impacts local businesses


Courtesy of the CDC

In the United States, there have been 800 confirmed cases of and 27 deaths as of Tuesday, according to The New York Times.

Joe Schulz, Managing Editor

Local businesses have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created financial hardship for the Oshkosh Outlet Mall, Rock and Country USA, small businesses and workers.

Jason White is the CEO of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that promotes business in Oshkosh.

White recently sat down for an interview with The Advance-Titan regarding the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses.

Here’s the discussion:

Q: In general, how are businesses doing right now? Obviously, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve heard manufacturing is doing pretty well, but other industries are struggling.

A: For manufacturers, while they have had their challenges, we have a shifting economy because the lockdowns obviously stopped a lot of spending on nonessential items, or at least reduced consumer spending. People were still spending money on medical care, food, toiletries, things like that: things they needed. We have a lot of paper product manufacturing, business or food manufacturing, or packaging of grocery stores. Places like that have probably had record years because some of those businesses were making staple products that everybody needs. And some of them weren’t making essential items, so maybe those types of businesses were down. But they also had the partnerships and the capacity to build new things like medical shields that you see people wearing as alternative masks. Even though those businesses struggled early on; I think by and large they have a positive outlook six months in.

Q: Besides manufacturing, how has the service industry managed the pandemic?

A: Retail, service and hospitality are the segments that are probably struggling the most, but it’s a mixed bag. Look at chiropractors, for example. They’re very upfront and in your personal space, but my wife goes to a chiropractor regularly. I think that’s also because she feels safe there. When you look at retail, I think big-box retail has done well, but Main Street retail has really struggled.

That’s because Walmart was seen as essential early on, but your local Main Street business was not. Those are smaller businesses that don’t necessarily have the cash flow that a big-box retailer might. We’ve seen a lot of that, but we’ve also seen some success. The SBA [Small Business Administration] came through [Oshkosh] and we visited a little shop, Adventure Games, that relocated from Oregon Street to Main Street and they’ve done well through online sales. So I think you do have some examples of success like that.

Q: Before the pandemic, retail and hospitality was Oshkosh’s bread and butter, especially with events like Country USA, Rock USA and EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. With Rock and Country USA going under and EAA’s future looking uncertain, what does the future of “Event City’s” economy look like with the future of so many events uncertain?

A: The CVB [Convention and Visitors Bureau] is working on a “Love Oshkosh” campaign in recognition that none of our businesses will truly be back until we reduce [COVID-19] cases and mitigate the spread, to give people confidence to go traveling again. In the meantime, there is a pivot going on. I think EAA not having an event in 2020 was probably a smart idea, not to bring 600,000 people to Oshkosh. But at the same time, the question remains: What does that mean for 2021?

I think there’s possibilities for Rock and Country USA to come back, maybe not in the same capacity, but at least come back because that was a profitable event. I do think there will be an AirVenture event next year, but what will that look like? We may have to limit the number of vendors or number of people until we get our cases down.

I think to build confidence, the state should articulate what the distribution plan is for the vaccine. In the meantime, we have divided government that can’t agree on a solution to balance the interests of businesses and the safety of the citizens. So I think as long as that division remains, not just at the state government but also at the federal government level, it’s going to hold us back from being able to deal with the pandemic quickly to keep people safe, raise confidence and improve business conditions.

Q: Could you elaborate on how the pandemic and the economy are really the same issue and not two separate issues?

A: For businesses, it’s a double-edged sword because you can say, “Keep this open because they’re struggling, they really need those customers.” Whether they’re forced to close or not, the market — or coronavirus cases — will keep their business down dramatically. That’s the Catch- 22; there’s really no other way around that.

As soon as there’s a business exposure or a case, they’re shut down. Or if their employees are sick, they’ve established a reputation that it is an unsafe place, so that’s where the Catch-22 is.

Q: Even before COVID, there were some issues with the local economy and a lot of those have persisted. We had a labor shortage, and more specifically, a shortage of highly skilled workers in manufacturing. Have those issues persisted?

A: I think we’re in the same place we were in March. There’s a lot of entry-level and skilled labor jobs out there, and right now, seasonal jobs. There’s a lot of places looking for workers. We’re aware of some labor barriers and we’re always trying to reduce those barriers. Transportation is one for some. We have our Winnebago County Catch-a-Ride program, which tries to help that.

But the hope is that for many of these folks, who maybe are no longer working or are unable to work in retail, hospitality and restaurants, can find either a new opportunity with one of these sectors that is hiring or they can be maybe trained into a new career, but that’s difficult. We really have to try to understand the psychological toll this takes on people, going from one situation one day to a completely different one the next.