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Covid Relief Welcomed By Business Owners, But They Still Face An Uphill Battle

Photo of banquet table with appetizers.
Benjamin Altenes
Cuisine Unlimited has catered events in Utah for years, including some for KUER. The company is one of many small businesses in the state that has been devastated by the pandemic.

Maxine Turner started her company, Cuisine Unlimited, nearly four decades ago. Over the years, it grew from a small family business into a company with 50 employees. It caters major events like the Sundance Film Festival, runs cafeterias that serve hundreds of employees in corporate buildings and operates the cafe at the state Capitol during legislative sessions.

That is until the pandemic decimated the business. Turner said her sales in December, usually the company’s biggest month, were down about 95% from 2019. On Christmas Day, she said she had to do a last round of layoffs, leaving her with just two employees.

Turner is one of many business owners across the state eagerly awaiting federal support funds, which, after months of negotiation, have finally resulted in another round of COVID relief. The $900 billion stimulus package provides $284 billion in forgivable small-business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which was first rolled out under the CARES Act in March.

The loan program can be used for payroll expenses, rent and utilities, as well as other operational costs and COVID-related protections such as buying sneeze guards and personal protective equipment.

Bringing Employees Back

Without a new relief package, Turner said she would’ve had to close her company’s doors indefinitely starting this month. The federal funds — if secured — would help prevent that. They won’t bring her business roaring back overnight, but she said they will likely help her outlast the pandemic and rehire many of the employees she had to furlough.

“I have employees who have been with us for decades,” she said. “To lose them to other industries, to even other food services who are still operating, means I’d have to start from ground zero in rehiring, retraining and building the company again. To be able to hold on and maintain the staff becomes critical.”

But getting staff back might be difficult for some companies. Melanie Robinson, CEO of the 60-year-old live events company WEBB Production, said she had to let 50 of her 125 employees go. The business has been able to survive by transitioning to online events. They have put on more than 100 since the pandemic began, but those are much less lucrative than live events and don’t require as many people to put on.

“We're trying to use [our furloughed] employees where we can as events arise, but there are definitely a handful of people that are out there waiting for live events to come back,” she said. “We worry that we are going to lose some of our talented workforce who just can't wait it out for a whole year.”

She said some employees have been forced to find work elsewhere or have moved out of state to live with family. And she wonders if the limited PPP funds — which will only cover about two months of payroll — will be enough to bring them back.

“It's tough because if they think it's only a two month stint, then that's not going to be enough for people to maybe walk away from what they're doing now,” she said. “So I do think it's going to have to come hand in hand with the hope of being back closer to normal, if not all the way to normal, to know, OK, this is stable.”

Getting Past The Pandemic

Robinson said her clients are hopeful live events can return around June or July.

Turner of Cuisine Unlimited said while she can bring some people back, there still won’t be much work for them. Many of the events and companies she used to cater for have stayed online into 2021 and many office buildings are still closed as people work from home. The company has shifted its business model to individual takeout and delivery, catering drive-in movies and serving meals to firefighters battling wildfires. Many of those efforts will continue as much as possible through at least the first few months of 2021, she said.

“If we get this PPP, we are going to be volunteering all over the place,” she said. “I will [serve] nurses in every hospital throughout this valley to keep, number one, my staff busy and, number two, support this community.”

Both Turner and Robinson said they are working now to get their applications in as soon as possible for the next round of PPP loans. Turner said she hopes this round rolls out more smoothly than last time — when many businesses were unable to secure loans initially. She was told, though, not to expect any money until at least the end of January.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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