It may feel like an eternity since COVID-19 changed all of our lives, but it’s still actually less than two months since businesses in here found themselves faced with the harsh realities of this virus.
A quick reminder of the timeline – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation from Washington D.C. to announce the closure of schools on March 12th; a Thursday. By the following Sunday, the impact in our towns and villages began to bite.
I was working in the Clare FM newsroom that day. It was the same Sunday that a video emerged of crowds in one Temple Bar nightspot, resulting in the the closure of pubs and hotels by that evening. But, in truth, the situation in Clare had already moved beyond of that. Before being ordered to do so, many businesspeople had decided to not open the next morning, and most of those haven’t lifted their shutters since.
As a flood of calls and messages came into the newsroom that afternoon, each one alerting us to another closure, I remember feeling stunned at the unfolding reality, and how quick our world was changing around us. Instinctively we all knew this was coming, but this was sudden and shocking. For traders, restaurateurs, barkeepers, hoteliers and others, that shock undoubtedly amounted to pain.
This week’s Ennis Chamber survey details the impact of the virus on business, and it makes for stark reading. 80% of those who responded aren’t currently trading, and 70% of those have laid off employees. Half of businesses say they will need at least €30,000 to re-open, and some will need much more. Nearly 60% predict they’ll lose at least half their business this year.
A finding that struck me, however, is the 43% of businesspeople who said they’re feeling the impact of this situation on their mental well-being. Clare alone is home to nearly 9,000 businesses, so that suggests well over 3,500 business owners are stressed and anxious at this time, and that doesn’t count their staff who are also suffering.
Respondents spoke of the stress and upset of having to let those workers go, the shock of trading just stopping overnight and the uncertainty of not knowing when the situation will improve. The government’s publication of its Roadmap document on Friday last will help, somewhat, but when it comes to individual businesses my sense is that there is still huge uncertainty on how social distancing can be implemented, and whether shoppers will have the appetite or the money to go and spend when things do get back up and running.
So the calls for government supports are clearly merited. And it must be noted that support schemes are being put in place. To local government, calls for the likes of rates rebates will no doubt be met with a sympathetic ear, while the sight of a pedestrianised Ennis Town Centre looks increasingly too, in a bid to allow for social distancing (However, I would anticipate that there may be some opposition to that, as the measure has always been a controversial one in the town). No doubt other business-friendly measures will be enacted in other towns too, and I can promise you that Clare FM will be wholeheartedly behind them in a bid to support our communities.
The general message will soon take on a more optimistic tone, too. In time, when it is appropriate and in a way that is safe, Ennis Chamber will look to ‘Re-energise Ennis’ in the sort of campaign that will be repeated all over the country.
But the key part comes in how the public responds.
If a hesitant public, unwilling to go out and about, increasingly turn to online shopping from multi-nationals and multiples then that won’t help Trader Joe and Trader Mary on the local High Street. We must remember, that in some cases we can shop local AND online, or perhaps over the phone. But when we do venture out in greater numbers, our support of shops that, in turn, sponsor local sports clubs, Tidy Towns committees etc. will be crucial. That collective action will be key to surviving and thriving in the post-COVID world.
Before we click ‘Add To Basket’, we need to pause and ask ourselves if we can get what we need closer to home.
The people of Clare have been brilliant, always, in supporting their county and their clubs on the GAA field. In the past, (as it will be in the future), the sight of the Saffron and Blue in Cusack Park, Semple Stadium or Croke Park have been the visual embodiment of our strong community spirit. But now we need to harness that spirit like never before. The message to Shop Local may never have been more important, for the health of our economy and our communities. But it’s even more vital for the health of our friends and neighbours, who are fearful of a bleak future.