Updated: Mar 23, 2020
The drop in foot traffic and a reluctance to go out will leave shops and restaurants empty.
In Seattle, already hard hit by the outbreak, a recent survey found that 60% of small businesses there are considering wage cuts and staffing cutbacks, while 35% said they may have to close. More than 80% expect the situation to get worse.
While federal, state and local governments will need to step in with financial help and other policy measures, there also are some small ways that individuals, if they have the means, can help their favorite small businesses stay afloat through the crisis.
Buy gift cards
Purchasing a gift card to your favorite shop, theater or restaurant is an immediate way to put cash into the business, said Amanda Ballantyne, national director of The Main Street Alliance. That's exactly what Luz Urrutia, CEO of the Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit microlender, has done. "I just bought gift cards to every one of the [local] restaurants that I love. They get their cash today. And I'll be able to use it later."
Shop local -- online and off
Molly Moon runs several ice cream shops in Seattle, which already has been hard hit by coronavirus. Moon, who employs 120 people, said she's now considering "extremely reduced hours ... It's breaking my heart."
For healthy customers running errands, she encourages them in good humor to "stock up on pints for the hard times." For those who stay home, Moon invites them to buy gift cards and store merchandise on her company web site.
When it comes to shopping locally, health guidance from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control "is literally disrupting business as usual," said Abigail Ellman, a director at the Cooper Square Committee, a nonprofit working to prevent the displacement of residents and small businesses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Right now, Ellman noted, businesses are worried about how to make rent and payroll. Customers alone can't cure that strain, but she said "they need you to shop there. Support your local pharmacies and restaurants and businesses."
Take advantage of discounts
Taproom No. 307, a craft beer restaurant in New York City, is usually packed on Friday nights, and is really busy around St. Patrick's Day. As of this week, the place has been practically empty. "People are afraid," said co-owner Roberta Souza. It doesn't help that the restaurant is a place patrons come to watch live sports and most have now been canceled.
To entice customers who would rather stay home, Souza is offering a 20% discount on takeout.
In Seattle's Chinatown, restaurants are offering different types of deals to attract customers, said Monisha Singh, who runs the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, a nonprofit providing marketing, street cleaning and other services to local shops and restaurants.
Some are offering incentives for first-time users that order delivery through services like Uber Eats and Postmates, Singh said. They're also offering curbside pickup for takeout orders.
And in a bid to help neighboring businesses in the area, some restaurants in Chinatown are offering a 20% discount to customers who show them a receipt from their purchases at another small business, Singh added.
Many independently owned restaurants and food businesses that haven't previously done so are now getting on to delivery platforms like Uber Eats or Postmates, as Moon is doing.
How you pay may be a concern. If you're sick or in a self-quarantine or if you're elderly and at risk, you might use your credit card to pay over the phone, including the tip for the delivery person, and ask them to leave the bag of food outside your door, said Dr. Robyn Gershon, an epidemiology professor at New York University's School of Public Health.
"But if you are fine and not in a 14-day quarantine, there's no reason not to open your door and hand the delivery person a tip."
Tip a little more than usual
If you do go to a restaurant or bar, or when you order takeout, consider being a little extra generous on the tips for wait staff and delivery people, since their income will drop due to fewer patrons.
A bigger tip may not directly contribute to a restaurant's bottom line, but it does help others and it contributes to the spirit of goodwill and appreciation in the community, which can help with everyone's mood.