Dave Obee: Don’t expect everything to quickly return to ‘normal’

When these stay-at-home, stay-put, cut-your-own-hair days finally come to an end, as they will, do not expect everything to return to normal right away, or in a year, or ever. We are going to see fundamental changes in our communities as a result of COVID-19.

Some predictions are just guesses, but others are just about guaranteed. And those ones should cause all of us concern.

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At the top of the list: The looming devastation of local businesses.

Most businesses in Greater Victoria have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many will probably close for good.

In the past few days, we have been gathering thoughts from local business owners, and starting today, we will publish their words on our business pages. This is your chance to hear from people on the front lines, the ones being battered by an unseen enemy, the ones who might lose a lifetime’s work by the time summer comes.

Their stories are clear. Their messages are both sad and frightening.

Some local businesses have been ordered to close. Others have stayed open by observing all the precautionary rules in order to keep customers and staff safe, but have still seen revenue fall drastically.

Customers are willing to line up for an hour outside big-box stores, or wait patiently for a chance to get into a grocery store, a drug store, a liquor store or a dollar store — business categories that are, for the most part, keeping busy. Or they are ordering online. But local stores, the lifeblood of any community, are not being given a chance.

Consider those businesses offering personal care — barber shops, hairdressers, travel agencies, massage therapists and more. All have been ordered to close their doors to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus. The people who work there have lost their jobs. The business owners are scrambling to find money to pay the rent.

Consider shoe and clothing stores, the ones that just brought in their summer stock. They cannot sell that stock, but they need to pay for it. By the time they reopen, they might need winter stock — but where will they get it? Will their suppliers be willing to extend even more credit? And all of this assumes that the retailer has enough money to pay the rent after all those months with doors locked.

Consider auto dealers, which have laid off many of their sales and service staff members. If we can’t go anywhere, we don’t need a new car, or new tires, right? The dealers are suffering as well.

Then consider the longer view. Most of the local business owners I know do not have retirement savings in the same way that salaried people do. They have invested in their businesses, building them up and taking huge risks along the way. Their plan has been to sell their business to create a retirement nestegg. They are seeing that dream evaporate, and a lifetime of work vanishing into thin air.

Retirement for them has been delayed a decade or more. Some of them will spend the next few years stocking shelves or greeting customers at the big-box outlets, assuming they are hired there. This is not how it was supposed to end.

Many people seem to believe that when the economy is devastated, the wealthy will suffer — and who cares? But that thinking is not realistic.

Think of the people who work for the local stores that are in jeopardy. Their family members who rely on that income. Every business closure will have a ripple effect. An economic downturn hits the lower-income people the hardest, and creates massive social problems for all.

Too many local businesses will not survive this. That fact needs to be stressed, because if you have been safely isolating at home, still earning an income by working remotely, you might not be aware of what you will find when you emerge from your cocoon.

Please, do not be critical of those business owners that have tried to stay open, in a careful, limited way, in order to keep some dollars coming in. They recognize the dangers the virus brings, but they also have bills to pay.

The restrictions on our lives will be eased some day, who knows when. And when they do, please support those local businesses that remain. There will never be a more critical time to spend your money locally.

dobee@timescolonist.com

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