The Greenfield Lake Amphitheater would have been filled with country music fans March 13. They would have been listening to former American Idol star Scotty McCreery singing live, probably crooning along at some point to the North Carolina native’s biggest hit, “Five More Minutes.”
But before then, the five minutes were up for the Wilmington area, the state and the nation when it came to gatherings like concerts.
It was another way everyone’s lives, and the way people do business, shifted rapidly this month as public health officials and governments put in place drastic measures to help slow the exponential spread of COVID-19.
The highly contagious form of the coronavirus, especially deadly to the elderly and immune system-compromised, is expected to affect the local, U.S. and global economy for an undetermined length of time.
Not even a hurricane.
“There’s a clear end to a hurricane or most other natural disasters,” said Adam Jones, regional economist with the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “I don’t know, and I’m not sure anybody knows, what the end of the virus looks like.”
Already, the virus has had a pro-found impact on one of the area’s major industries: tourism. The N.C. Azalea Festival, set for April 1-5, was canceled for the first time in its more than70-year history, and organizers were expecting 200,000 people to attend and spend money in the Wilmington area as a result of the event.
Area cancellations came in quick succession in the following days, including CFCC’s Wilson Center suspending its events for the next month.
On March 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that for the following eight weeks, organizers cancel or postpone in-person events consisting of 50 people or more throughout the U.S. as a means of controlling the spread. The recommendation came after Gov. Roy Cooper ordered that mass gatherings of 100 people or more be canceled in North Carolina and all schools in the state be closed, beginning March 16, for at least two weeks.
On March 17, Cooper issued ban on bars and restaurants having dine-in customers, but allowing them to continue takeout and delivery options.
President Donald Trump recommended that people avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
Before those measures were announced, the economy was already taking a hit.
“We’ve got a pretty sharp fall off that I think is taking place right now,” including in gross domestic product and “pretty much every-thing,” Jones said March 12.
For example, Jones said, “I would expect movie ticket sales to just fall off a cliff this week.”
And they did, with ticket sales reaching historic lows over the weekend, according to March 15 news reports.
At The Pointe at Barclay in Wilmington’s midtown, the complex’s movie theater anchor tenant The Pointe 14 was limiting ticket sales to100 or fewer in all of its auditoriums, according to the Stone Theatres web-site as of March 16.
Some businesses were closing temporarily or adjusting hours.
Shoppers at Costco off Market Street in Wilmington on March16 were urged to practice “social distancing,” or keeping at least 6 feet between themselves and other people, as they prepared to be allowed in a certain number at a time to the members-only warehouse store.
One business in downtown Wilmington that chose to temporarily close as a result of the virus was Edge of Urge, a clothing and accessory store with locations in down-town Wilmington and Raleigh.
“After another sleepless night, we have made the difficult decision to close up shop for a little bit,” a post on the store’s Facebook page read, echoing the sentiments of other local businesses making the same choice. “Social distancing is really the only thing we can do right now. We are brainstorming ideas on how we can keep our doors open without actually keeping our doors open.”
Kim Sarka Lake, owner of MUG and PIA (which stand for Most Unique Gifts and Paper Items Anywhere) at Landfall Center, said she’s being even more vigilant about cleanliness in her store.
“I think it’s important people know if they do come in the precautions have been taken seriously, and I do want to keep everyone safe; how-ever, that said, I am very concerned for myself and other small businesses who do depend on their customers and what’s ahead for everyone,” Lake said. “I think the thing is to not let fear take over.”
Other members of the business community also wanted to exercise caution about creating too much tension about the virus locally, since as of March 16 only one case had been reported in the Wilmington area –that of a traveler from Louisiana who lives in Brunswick County.
“If we all start overreacting, we will start to do more harm than necessary,” said Terry Espy, of commercial real estate firm and brokerage MoMentum Companies and president of Wilmington’s Downtown Business Alliance. “But we all need to be very aware and ready.”
Does the region’s experience with hurricanes help at all when it comes to being ready on the government side of things?
“New Hanover County, along with our municipalities and community partners, plan year-round for emergencies like hurricanes, infectious diseases and potential incidents at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant. Not only have we exercised for potential emergencies, we have also implemented those plans most recently during hurricanes Florence and Dorian,” New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet said of the 2018 and 2019 storms.
“We have learned a lot from those emergencies,” he added, “and, as an organization and a community, we are better prepared than we have ever been in the way we communicate and respond. For COVID-19, our team was able to use our existing pandemic influenza plan and create a frame-work specifically for COVID-19 that has been approved by our partners.”
But unlike a hurricane, the aftermath might not include quickly visible signs of recovery efforts.
“When a hurricane hits you naturally have spending immediately afterwards that will kind of get people working again as we repair the physical damage,” Jones said. “I don’t know what that looks like this time. I would assume people are going to be sitting on money [by not going out to eat, etc.] ... Hopefully we get some kind of bump, but it’s probably not going to be the sharp recovery we get after a hurricane.
The U.S. SMALL BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION is offering designated state slow-interest loans for small businesses and nonprofits that have been impacted by the coronavirus, according to the SBA website.
As part of the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, the SBA can offer small businesses with loans of up to $2 million to help them overcome the temporary loss of revenue.
The money can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills. The interest rate for small businesses is 3.75% and 2.75% for nonprofits.
The SBA is working to coordinate with state governors to submit a request for Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance, after which a declaration will be made for designated areas within a state.
North Carolina had not yet been put on the list of designated states as of press time, but if it is, applications can be submitted at sba.gov/funding-programs/disaster-assistance.
For more information, call (800) 659-2955 or email [email protected]