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Coping with the COVID Crisis in the Midst of the Holiday Rush: Nine Takeaways from Our December Surveys of Small Business Owners and Main Street Programs


January 25, 2021 | Coping with the COVID Crisis in the Midst of the Holiday Rush: Nine Takeaways from Our December Surveys of Small Business Owners and Main Street Programs | By: Michael Powe, Ph.D., Director of Research, NMSC | 

Photo credit: Cindy Shebley

In early December, as the COVID-19 crisis intersected with a peak moment in the holiday shopping season, we surveyed small business owners and Main Street programs to learn more about how they were managing. You can read a full overview of our methods and findings here and you can explore the data based on state or coordinating program in the interactive map at the bottom of this post.

Here are nine takeaways from the results:

1. Small businesses have let go of a substantial number of employees through the pandemic thus far. 51 percent of small business respondents indicated they had fewer staff in December than they did at the start of the pandemic. Across all 1,061 small business owners answering our questions about staffing, there was a net loss of 2,380 jobs—an average of more than two jobs lost from every business respondent.

2. The smallest businesses are suffering. Of the 372 business respondents with only one or two employees in February 2020, 106 (28%) had lost one or both of those paid staff by December. The numbers of job losses with these businesses add up to a small portion of the overall job cuts, but each job lost from these skeleton crew establishments is surely felt sorely and personally.

3. While most small businesses respondents cut staff, at the same time, most Main Street programs have seen net business growth.
51 percent of Main Street programs reported they had more new business starts than closures between the start of the pandemic and December 2020. Across the 353 communities where respondents provided the numbers of business closures and business starts, there was a net increase of 160 businesses.

4. The pandemic produced a lean entrepreneurial environment with widespread hardship but more businesses overall. We’ll need to explore what’s happening in these first three points with more research, but one potential explanation is that many small businesses are straining financially and growing lean to remain open. 64 percent of Main Street program respondents reported hearing from business owners who had taken on additional credit card debt, bank loans, or new lines of credit to stay afloat through the pandemic, and 63 percent reported hearing from business owners who were leaning on savings, retirement accounts, and other assets. It could be that while some small businesses are adapting and coping to stay afloat, other entrepreneurs (or ‘COVID-preneurs’) see an opportunity to launch new enterprises in Main Street areas--thus, limited business closures and more business startups.

5. Businesses in rural places had relatively fewer cuts to jobs.
The responses we heard sometimes differed depending on whether the respondent worked in a major metropolitan area, a smaller micropolitan area, or a rural area separate from bigger cities and towns. For instance, the small business survey data suggests staffing reductions were more severe in communities in metropolitan areas, where there was an average net loss of 2.7 jobs per community, than in more rural micropolitan areas or areas outside metropolitan or micropolitan areas, where there were average reductions of 1.5 jobs per micropolitan community and 0.4 jobs per rural community.

6. Main Streets in rural places also often had stable or growing ranks of small businesses.
Similarly, rural areas were less likely to have had a net loss of businesses. 29 percent of Main Street program respondents in rural places outside metropolitan and micropolitan areas reported a net loss of businesses during the pandemic thus far, compared to 33 percent of respondents in micropolitan areas and 40 percent of respondents from metropolitan areas. And conversely, in rural areas, 59 percent of respondents said there was a net increase in the number of operating businesses, compared to 50 percent of metro-area respondents and 52 percent of micro-area respondents. Perhaps this is part of a new trend of entrepreneurs leaving bigger cities and looking for business opportunities in smaller towns and rural places?

7. Main Street staff are feeling the strain of the pandemic in their own programs. 63 percent of programs expect to have reduced budgets in 2021, but 58 percent say they will maintain or increase their level of business support offerings in the future. This comes in the wake of a period during the pandemic when 91 percent of programs say small businesses’ needs for support services from their program had increased, including 65 percent who said those needs had increased substantially. So, to recap: programs worry their budgets will decrease even as the demand for business support activities have increased, and in response, programs expect they will try to do more with less. In light of that crunch, it’s not surprising that 44 percent of programs say they’re either somewhat pessimistic or very pessimistic about sustaining their organization and its programming and activities in 2021.

8. Prior to the renewal and expansion of the Payroll Protection Program in late December, small businesses and Main Streets were nearly unanimous in their calls for government relief.
At the heart of our early December surveys were questions about the need for action from the federal government to support small businesses and Main Streets. We heard widespread calls for help: 98 percent of small business owner respondents agreed that Congress needed to take immediate action to provide additional federal financial relief to small businesses. 80 percent of Main Street programs expected to see a net loss of businesses by March 2021 if new federal financial relief wasn’t offered, including 29 percent who expected the net loss of several businesses. 88 percent of small business owner respondents were concerned about the risk of permanent closure if no federal financial relief was passed, with 29 percent reporting they wouldn’t last beyond the next three months without support.

9. We will continue gathering data to track how small businesses are faring in Main Street communities and throughout the country, and we could use your help in building a case for continued support. Though we are pleased that Congress and the previous Administration acted in late December to renew and expand the Payroll Protection Program, we will be watching closely to understand whether the program is widely used and helpful. If you are a small business owner or know of small business owners in your community who might be interested in taking our quick SMS surveys to track impacts of COVID-19 and other business changes, please text the word SURVEY to 833-945-1313 or fill out the form here.

Read a complete writeup of our survey methods and results here. Or explore the data for your state or area in the interactive map below.