Local Businesses Struggle But Adapt To Pandemic

By: Tim Wood

It was a slower-than-usual summer for Chatham merchants, but some people were buying at downtown shops. FILE PHOTO 

CHATHAM – The town's business community is weathering the COVID-19 crisis despite significant losses, with some sectors down nearly 50 percent.

Hardest hit are accommodations, down 40 to 50 percent, and restaurants, which are off about 30 percent, said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Cavanaugh. Retail businesses are down 25 to 30 percent, she said, due primarily to the three-month closure last spring and the slow summer season that followed.

The drop in the accommodations sector was evident in the room tax for the third quarter of the year, from September through November. The town's cut of the tax was $455,021, a reduction of $478,281 over the same period in 2019, said Finance Director Alix Heilala.

“This is the lowest that it's been since I've been tracking it here in Chatham,” she said. The short-term rental tax, implemented in 2019, appears to have boosted room tax for the year overall. Receipts for the period July 1 to Dec. 31 were $2,127,607, compared to $1,688,131 for the same period the previous year, Heilala reported.

Cavanaugh told selectmen last Tuesday that smaller hotels and inns were hit hardest; larger properties, with more flexibility with space and staffing, fared better.

The drop in restaurant business was no surprise.

“The consensus is people are concerned or hesitant about dining inside,” Cavanaugh said, and restaurants benefited from offering outdoor dining and take-out. Gov. Baker's recent 25 percent capacity limit “is concerning,” she added. “Businesses are hoping that it won't be in place for long.”

Sectors that have done well during the pandemic include real estate, liquor stores, construction/home improvement and those that deal with products for the home, she said.

The new stimulus package signed into law last week includes a second round of the Paycheck Protection Program and “does give everybody some hope,” Cavanaugh said. Twenty-six Chatham businesses received PPP last year, and those that were not successful hope to receive relief during the next round, she said.

Support from local residents has been strong, she added. “They feel fortunate in that respect.”

Many businesses have had to make adjustments to account for lower revenue, including adjusting staff. Some owners have taken lower salaries or, in some cases, no salary at all, she said.

Chamber and merchants board members have visited businesses to find out what they need to stay open and social media and other marketing efforts have been increased, Cavanaugh said. Both boards will meet quarterly to review goals and ensure they are on the same page; lists of board members will also be released so people in the community can reach out, she added.

Despite the pandemic, the merchants association managed to hold several events and promotions, including Art in the Park, Pumpkin People in the Park and brought Santa to the community center in a “socially distant” snow globe, said President Susan Dimm. People also seemed to enjoy the new buoy tree in Sears Park, she added.

“My vision is to keep it going until it's as big as the tree in Rockefeller Center,” she said.

Expectations for the first quarter of this year “are weak,” Cavanaugh said. A number of local restaurants are choosing to close for the deep winter (see story, page 15).

Remarkably, no local businesses have closed due to the pandemic. Dimm said one shop was “on the verge,” after a series of unfortunate circumstances – some not related to the pandemic – but was able to negotiate with the landlord and keep the doors open.

“Everybody has been able to sort of struggle by, but you had to think outside the box,” she said. “This is not a normal year.”

Indeed, 2020 was “one for the books,” said Chair Shareen Davis. She applauded town staff for working closely to help the business community.

“We're not through it, obviously, but we're a stronger community and know what our values are,” Davis said.