HELENA — Eight months into the pandemic, COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Montana.
Local businesses are feeling the impact firsthand, with the prospect of closing permanently a real concern for many.
Not that long ago, Bad Betty’s Barbecue in Helena was swarmed with customers. They would often completely sell out of the entire stock well before closing.
During the pandemic, they’re lucky to see a quarter of that.
Owner Calvin Richards says if something doesn’t change, he may have to make some heartbreaking decisions.
“It’s day-to-day, it really is and I don’t think I’m the only one in town that is experiencing that,” said Richards. “We closed for a week last week, it was just getting to the point where it was costing me more money to be open than it was worth. We are- I don’t know it’s all very much up in the air. We could be closed within a week if things don’t go our way.”
In 2019, the street in front of Bad Betty’s was torn up the entire summer for construction, limiting traffic to the business. After two successful years in business, Richards plan was to weather the lean year and bank on 2020 being a normal year.
When the pandemic came, Richards was already down and for eight months it just kept kicking.
“The summer is usually what gives us the extra money to get through the winter, which is how most restaurants work, especially in Montana, “ said Richards. “Coming into spring we saw things coming back up close to normal, and then COVID happened and immediately there was a drop.”
Bad Betty’s Barbecue is currently looking at expanding operations to operate basically a small butcher shop, but Richards recognizes it’s a gamble that might not attract enough customer’s back.
No Sweat Cafe in downtown Helena has had similar issues finding customers.
“The initial shock [when things closed in March] was almost relieving, we’re always so busy,” said No Sweat Cafe Manager Eli Eller.
Pre-pandemic the small cafe would be overflowing with customers. On the weekends an hour or more long wait for a seat was a regular occurrence, with many customers happily obliging so they may enjoy an omelet or hash browns.
Eller says they don’t really have wait times anymore.
“Weekends are busiest, but it’s comparable to a busy Tuesday in the summer,” said Eller about the state of their customers. “A big part of the appeal of downtown was the Farmers Market, wandering around, seeing people and going to any number of different businesses and stopping into the one that struck your fancy.”
Eller says while there’s still plenty of reasons to come out, there’s also a lot to be concerned about too although maybe a bit overly so.
“It’s hard not to be afraid right now, and that’s what everyone is battling,” said Eller. “ Trying to figure out how to make our customers more comfortable. How to make them feel safe, Make sure there’s options for them if they need or want curbside service.”
Both No Sweat and Bad Betty’s have adapted their practices to be more COVID friendly. Strict cleaning procedures are followed and everyone is wearing a mask unless eating.
With COVID cases rising, less customers are going out, even just to pick up something. There’s also the looming fear of having to close for a period if an employee contracts the virus.
COVID relief grants from CARES Act funding have been a lifesaver for many mainstreet businesses. The State paid out more than $187 million through their Business Stabilization grant program to 13,000 businesses across Montana. However, grant dollars can only be spent in very specific ways and ultimately have only provided short term relief.
Of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act funds allocated to Montana, there’s not a lot left. The majority of the funds have been sent out or allocated with $1.23 committed to programs and $900 million paid out since all funding had to have been spent by the end of the year.
On Thursday, Governor Steve Bullock said they’ll be looking at any leftover dollars from the COVID relief programs, but Montana’s needs are larger than the leftover funds.
“The problem is there has been no congressional action since March,” said Bullock. “The paycheck protection program is gone and we’re eight months congressional inaction. Individuals, not just the businesses, the employees who then have to quarantine or isolate. While I’d like to see and remain hopeful Congress can get its act together, there’s very little that can be done from the state level for those businesses.”
At this point, a lot of businesses could care less whether an “R” or a “D” is attached to a federal official’s name. They just want to see additional support funded and sent out to help small businesses.
“WIth the current state of things, with numbers spiking in Montana, I don’t see this going away for a long time. There has to be some more stabilization money or, not just myself, there’s a lot of businesses in this town that have already shuttered their doors, and there’s going to be a lot more,” said Richards.
“In order to survive the winter for many downtown businesses, it’s absolutely necessary. It has to happen,” said Eller. “I don’t know to what degree. Does it need to happen minimally so we can all scrape by? I mean we’d take it, but it would be nice if there were more concern about small businesses than manipulating the Senate or Congress to try to get their candidate elected.”
In Helena, businesses are trying to support each other where they can. No Sweat Cafe purchases bacon from Bad Betty’s to use in their shop. Firetower Coffee, who also serves breakfast across the street from No Sweat, has blended coffee for them when a shipment was late.
These main street businesses are not competitors, but a community trying to weather a brutal drought.
“All these amazing businesses that offer so much down here, and it doesn’t take going in there every day to support the business,” said Eller. “If you want next summer to be able to eat at Murry’s or No Sweat or Firetower or wherever come in once a week. Maybe once every other week. We all miss you. It doesn’t take a whole lot to sure the local businesses up right now, it just takes a lot of people doing it.”