COVID-19 in Appalachia: The state of businesses

Photo courtesy of the Washington County Visitors Bureau.

Note: This is the first story in a multi-part series detailing the effects of COVID-19 on Appalachian Ohio and how local residents, businesses and health professionals are responding to best serve their region. You can read later parts here: on communities; on health and testing; and on telemedicine

When the Farrar brothers of Marietta were forced to close their glass repair shops, they stopped working on cars and decided to change gears. 

Instead of fixing car windshields, co-owners Dennis and Ron Farrar started making face shields. In the week that followed, personal protective equipment was sent out to hospitals and firefighters throughout the region. One shield even made it all the way out to a nurse in California. 

Throughout Appalachian Ohio, businesses of all sizes have done their best to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those still open have used creativity to stay afloat, while others are stepping up to serve their communities. 

For many, it will be a struggle in the coming months to even stay in business at all. They will rely on a wide array of new programs offering investments, loans and payroll assistance. There remains a concern as to whether this help will be enough, and if the funds are being distributed fairly throughout Ohio to include Appalachian communities which may be in greatest need. 

Carrie Ankrom, president and CEO of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce, isn’t surprised to see local businesses get involved to fight COVID-19 and serve local residents. The community of about 13,500 people along the Ohio River in Washington County has weathered its share of devastating floods and economic downturns in years past. 

“We always persevere,” Ankrom said. 

Finding ways to help

First came the closure of schools and the banning of mass gatherings. Next went the bars and restaurant dining rooms. 

The strictest directive went into effect on March 24: a stay-at-home order from Gov. Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, the state’s health director. This forced the temporary closure of all businesses deemed to be “non-essential.”

Their brick-and-mortar locations closed to foot traffic, entrepreneurs like the Farrars thought of ways to help their communities. There are examples of this throughout the region.

In Athens, Brenen’s Coffee Cafe began prepping daily boxed lunches to give away to families in need. Other local businesses started chipping in money to pay for the boxed lunch effort. 

Bellisio Foods recently hosted a frozen food giveaway in Jackson County. Though Bellesio had to cancel its annual Easter Egg hunt, the company opted to distribute goodie bags to area children. 

A group of businesses in Guernsey County donated PPE masks to the Cambridge Fire Department to assist the first responders.

Just over the state line, Grand Central Mall in Vienna, West Virginia has partnered with other businesses in both states to is partnering with small businesses to make care packages for area hospital workers. The packages include water, snacks, soft drinks and encouraging letters written by local children.  

“They’re panicked, they’re worried about their own businesses,” Ankrom said of the area’s entrepreneurs, “but they’re offering help when someone else needs help.”

Ankrom has heard plenty of creative ways the Chamber of Commerce’s members have kept sales up in these challenging circumstances. An Italian restaurant is sending meals out to various “drop-off points” throughout Washington County. Since people can’t come to the restaurant, the owner is coming to them. 

With many people working from home, hotels in the Marietta area are offering their rooms as cheap workspaces with peaceful privacy and free internet. 

“It’s been really interesting to see how people react in this situation and how they persevere and continue their sales,” Ankrom said. “It’s been eye opening.”

Putting Ohio manufacturing to a new use

The biggest endeavor yet to get businesses involved was announced on April 1 — the Ohio Manufacturers Alliance to Fight COVID-19. 

The idea is to encourage manufacturers to redirect their efforts toward making personal protective equipment. With health professionals in desperate need of more equipment, and the state receiving just half of what it requested from the national stockpile, DeWine has set a goal of sourcing production of PPE within Ohio’s own borders.

The Alliance, a collaboration between public agencies and private businesses, began with a host of partners located throughout the state. In first announcing the Alliance, DeWine put out a call for interested businesses to reach out to organizers at repurposingproject.com to suggest ways they could help out. Within a day, DeWine said more than 500 additional businesses had offered their services. 

Several companies throughout Appalachian Ohio have jumped on board. Among them: Solvay Specialty Polymers and Thermo Fisher Scientific in Marietta and Miba Bearings in the Morgan County village of McConnellsville. 

Solvay is a materials and chemicals manufacturer that employs 350 people at its Ohio plant. Site manager Wally Kendal told the Capital Journal his plant made an agreement with Boeing to jointly produce face-covering masks for the medical industry. 

For Kendal and those employed at the plant, this work is personal.

“I’ve got family members who are nurses working on the front lines who are wearing these masks every day,” Kendal said. “It’s certainly rewarding … we tell our employees that what they’re doing is really essential, and this gives them some positive feedback that they are making a difference.”

Programs to help businesses

Fortunately for business owners, the list of resources made available to them during this pandemic is seemingly endless. The amount of aide is nearly as daunting as it is exhaustive. 

The CARES Act approved by Congress in late March allocates money toward various grants and loans available to small businesses. The Paycheck Protection Program offers direct payroll help through a loan that will be fully forgiven if used for small business expenses. 

At the state level, the public-private partnership JobsOhio has several programs for business owners in the Buckeye State. Two were announced on the same day, March 31, but offer disparate levels of help.  

JobsOhio’s Workforce Retention Loan Program offers forgivable, interest-free loans to assist with payroll needs. Businesses can receive monthly draws for up to six months, with aid potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We are working directly with these companies so they can maintain their current employment levels during the pandemic,” JobsOhio spokesperson Matt Englehart told the Capital Journal. 

The catch is that only “JobsOhio qualifying client companies” are eligible to receive this money. Asked to explain what this means, Englehart said eligibility was for businesses that have already have an “executed agreement” with JobsOhio. This necessarily shuts out smaller businesses who have not before worked with the state’s development corporation.

JobsOhio also announced it was investing $2 million toward helping businesses in Appalachian Ohio.

Whereas the first program offers forgivable loans, those given to Appalachian businesses in need are described as being long-term, low-interest loans. An “Investment Committee” will meet every two weeks starting on April 9 to review loan requests.

Applicants are told to request however much money they need, but the $2 million program can only go so far. The program encompasses 32 different counties making up one-fifth of the state’s population. If theoretically split evenly, each county would receive just $62,500 in total for local business.

State Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, serves in the House Majority leadership and has been vocal with his criticism about the differences between the two programs offered by JobsOhio. He has long accused JobsOhio of ignoring the Southeast Ohio region that he represents. 

“Does this seem right to you?” Edwards asked constituents on Facebook, complaining the Appalachian loans would have “an extremely high interest rate.”

Asked what the interest rate would be, Englehart did not give specific numbers. He said the Investment Committee would consider several factors including risk and the amount of the loan to determine varying rates. 

The governor has signed an order asking for lenders to “work with” small business owners to possibly suspend payments through the summer. The state wants businesses to have enough money left over when the shut-down order is lifted in order to be able to effectively restart their operations.

Gov. Mike DeWine is seen during a COVID-19 press conference. The governor signed an executive order meant to protect small businesses from foreclosure during this pandemic. (Screenshot courtesy OhioChannel)

Business leaders are using digital means to get this information out to entrepreneurs. In Marietta, Ankrom said her Chamber of Commerce has begun hosting “virtual town halls” on Zoom and Facebook to educate them on the resources available. 

“We’re trying to ease some of that chaotic anxiety,” she said.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said he and Ohio mayors have been doing the same for a statewide business audience.

“I was frankly just amazed at the creativeness and ingenuity of how they’ve pivoted during this time to try to supply new things that are needed in the economy,” Husted said at a COVID-19 news conference on April 3.

The best thing businesses can do, Ankrom said, is to keep reading up on the programs, find out what is most applicable to them and hope they receive the help they need. The Chamber leader described feeling optimistic about how the region would fare in the weeks and months ahead. 

“We’ll get through this,” Ankrom said. “We always do.”

Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.