5 ways cities, small businesses, and residents have helped keep the local economy afloat during COVID-19

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

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Local economies all across the country were hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 and many are still struggling over a year later. The city and state measures that were implemented in an attempt to contain the virus forced many businesses to reduce their operations to a minimum, close their doors for long stretches at a time, or even permanently. Research by JP Morgan indicated that six months into the pandemic, nearly 50% of small businesses had a cash buffer of 15 days or less, and a year-over-year restaurant visits tracker by OpenTable showed an alarming decrease compared to 2019. As the US enters another phase of the pandemic and with no end-date in sight, this situation bears devastating news to many local businesses.

So what can be done?

The newly approved Federal Stimulus Package and SBA programs are a good start, but money from these initiatives will take precious time to reach those who need it the most. Therefore, in order to keep businesses afloat, local government authorities, alongside residents and businesses themselves, have stepped up over the past year to fill the “time is money and money is time gap” in both traditional and innovative ways.

Here’s a summary of examples for what cities and their partners across the country have been doing to help out:

For information on how our local government partners are using Zencity to manage the effects of COVID-19 and improve crisis management, you can read more here.

1. Provide Business Stabilization Packages


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Local authorities have been dipping into their “rainy day” funds and creating benefit packages for businesses hurt by COVID-19. The key here is that these measures are usually effective immediately providing businesses the oxygen they need until federal funding is made available. These packages may include several of the following:

Local governments would also be wise to share with their local businesses information about opportunities offered by other organizations. Online tech giants like Facebook and Google have been proposing free ad campaigns and cash grants to small and medium businesses. The Opportunity Finance Network has also been offering financing opportunities for small businesses by regions so be sure to check out what’s available in your area (a tip we got from our friends at ELGL).

Forbes magazine has created a continually updated list of these more formal packages for businesses to be aware of and other cities to draw inspiration from.

Notably, as these programs grow in number, making their availability and application process known and accessible to local businesses is key but could be challenging. Cities have been working hard at promoting these packages through online local community and business groups (see great examples from Estacada, ORPerry, GA, and Beaverton, OR) and offering guidance and assistance in filling out the forms. This is particularly important for businesses run by the less tech-savvy or bureaucracy-proficient so that they are able to take advantage of these benefits as well.

2. Ease Curbside Regulation


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Once again, as restaurants may be restricted to pickup and delivery only, making these services easy and quick can help them increase sales volume. A simple measure local authorities have taken in order to promote food pickup from local restaurants is waving on-street parking fees like the Town of Chapel Hill, NC has done. In some places, such as Albany, NY and Detroit, MI, the city created a Restaurant Carryout Zone Program that provides restaurants with a free on-street carryout area for their customers. The restaurants are expected to deliver the food to the car in order to observe social distancing with and between their clients.

3. Encourage and Incentivize Residents to Shop Local


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In order to provide businesses with some immediate cash flow, many cities and businesses alike are encouraging residents to purchase prepaid gift cards for local shops, restaurants and cultural venues (see examples from Erie, PAPhiladelphia, PAOttawa, CanadaLos Altos, CA). In other places like in the cities of Burleson, TX and Edmond, OK local organizations offered matching funds to residents who purchased a gift card to incentivize them even further.

4. Use Your City’s Social Media for Promotion


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In cities of all sizes, we’ve seen local authorities using their important online presence at this time to promote local businesses. Simply advertising a detailed list or map of restaurants and businesses as the City of Chandler, AZ and the City of Springboro, OH did, can go a long way, as can shining a spotlight on a different venue each time as did Doral, FL. In other places, as in this example from the Quad Cities Region in Iowa, the organization involved increased awareness of the issue by raffling online a free takeout meal from a different restaurant each day. Encouraging residents to engage with the posts directly improves their visibility and organic reach, exposing many more to the initiative and the restaurants that it promotes.

For tips on how to make sure your online crisis communications gain better traction/visibility on social media, check out our data-driven guidelines here.

5. Help Your Businesses Get Creative (or don’t get in the way too much)


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Despite the state of the outbreak, the creativity and camaraderie that local businesses are showing at this time is certainly uplifting. Local gyms and private trainers are now experts at offering diverse online classes and even allowing members to rent out their equipment for the time being. Restaurants and bars are providing online cooking classes, mixology workshops and alcohol deliveries, while bookshops are hosting online reading sessions for children and adults. Some of these businesses charge a fee for these services, while others enact a pay-as-you-wish policy; nonetheless, keeping their name and brand in the consciousness of their clients is vital.

Some other places have repurposed their facilities to fit the needs of the current situation and make some income along the way. At the start of the pandemic, distilleries were helping out with crisis mitigation efforts by producing hand sanitizers mainly for the use of first-responders and vulnerable populations, as these examples from Spokane, WA and Lewisville, TX show. Another great example, that is still at play today, is restaurants that have converted their dining space into food and produce markets, like in Long Beach CA, in order to reduce the pressure on supermarkets and grocery stores. Newer initiatives, made possible by the COVID vaccine are businesses offering incentives to those getting vaccinated. In Cleveland, OH, for example, a local theater is giving out free popcorn through the end of April to moviegoers with a vaccination card and Market Garden Brewery is offering 10-cent beers to the first 2021 adults who bring their completed card. While these are all business initiatives, the county and city’s role in such cases is to consider easing (or ignoring) regulations when needed in order to encourage these and other innovative and adaptive solutions during these tough times.

The examples we share in this post go to show that in order for the places that make our cities so great to be able to bounce back from this pandemic, we need government, businesses, and residents to continually collaborate and provide each other with mutual support. We will continue to follow and share with you the great work of local authorities across the country as they adapt and respond to this new normal in resilient ways.

For tips on how to make sure your online crisis communications gain better traction/visibility on social media, check out our data-driven guidelines here

As you plan your stimulus fund allocation, make the biggest impact in your community with a robust community engagement strategy. Download our latest guide to learn more!