OPEN FOR BUSINESS: Supporting businesses and the community as pandemic continues  <font color="#6f6f6f">The Mercury</font>

The country and the region are seven months into the business impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. While Pennsylvania is in the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan for the state, there are still unknowns for businesses, as a “normal” business climate still eludes them.

Retail businesses, despite the approach of the holidays, may still experience lower sales due to continued unemployment in Pennsylvania. September’s unemployment rate was 8.1%, down from April’s high of 16.1%.

Restaurants that have relied on the addition of outdoor dining to help boost their business now face the prospect that people will find it too cold to eat outdoors, as indoor dining capacity remains at 50%. Legislation aimed at increasing restaurant capacity was approved by the Pennsylvania legislature in September — and a promised veto by Gov. Tom Wolf was delivered this week.

How can consumers help? What can we all do to support small, local businesses as the region continues to deal with the pandemic?

“We need to make the months ahead small business months — 2021 should be the year of the small business,” said David Zellers Jr., Montgomery County commerce director.

In a recent blog post, the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce addressed the issue.

“It has always been important to think, shop, and buy local — it keeps money within your community, and it helps people and families directly in your area afford everything from food and clothes to gifts for their loved ones. It’s no secret that this pandemic has affected small local businesses, with 58% of small businesses worried about whether or not they will have to permanently close their businesses,” the post stated.

“Every time you spend a dollar it helps support a neighbor, a friend, a family member. Those dollars are reinvested in the community time and time again,” Zellers added.

According to Rachel Ammon, marketing and communications director for the for King of Prussia District for the King of Prussia District, now is not the time to lose sight of the importance of community support for local businesses.

“While things have slowly reopened and restrictions are loosening, businesses still need our help. Now more than ever it’s important to support brick-and-mortar retailers and small businesses,” she said.

“Businesses are still struggling as kids go back to school and sports start up, and there is a sense of normalcy to a degree. But a lot of these small businesses are not operating at full capacity,” said Chris Lerch, director of marketing for SportsPlex Management Group, which owns the 422 SportsPlex in Pottstown. “A lot are still struggling to get by without having an end date and that makes it difficult for them.”

In its blog post, the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce encouraged the purchase of gift cards for restaurants, especially for those who may not yet feel comfortable about dining indoors.

“Gift cards are like interest-free loans, and they are a great way to keep your favorite bars and restaurants open with the promise of seeing them again when the weather warms up,” the blog post stated.

Both Lerch and Ammon have organized gift card programs through the pandemic that have been extremely popular.

Through his Hello 422 Facebook page, Lerch offered several rounds of the Shop Small To Win Big initiative. Lerch has announced another round of Shop Small To Win Big — which will run in conjunction with Shop Small Saturday — from Nov. 27 through through Dec. 6.

The King of Prussia District held three rounds of its gift card flash sale, part of its Get More, KOP campaign. The third and final round, which opened on Tuesday, Oct. 20, sold out in six minutes.

Zellers said consumers can take another step to support local businesses.

“If you have a great experience at a local business, promote them on social media. People always look to other people for ideas on where to go — let them know. Be a champion of small and local business,” he said.

One of the strongest things consumers can do to support local businesses and get back to “normal,” according to the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce and Zellers, is to wear a mask and follow local, state and CDC guidance about the virus.

“We will see things reopen as we continue to do well. Striking that important balance and recognizing that the more everyone works together to follow the guidance the more we can support our businesses. That is what it is all about at the end of the day,” Zellers said.

“Our local businesses can’t stay open if they’re home sick,” the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce blog post stated.

Rachel Cathell is communications and marketing coordinator for the Western Chester County Chamber of Commerce. She said local businesses make up the identity of the community.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown business owners the very real exposure to risks and has challenged them to rethink and redesign the way they do business. Moving forward, recovery is dependent on consumer comfort,” she said, adding that this time presents a “learning curve” for businesses and the community.

To keep the focus on small businesses, the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board — in partnership with Montgomery County and the county’s commerce department — has launched the Make It Main Street campaign. The $300,000 marketing campaign announced this week, is funded by the county with money it received through the CARES Act. The campaign will use advertising, billboards social media and public relations to encourage support of the small businesses that support the county’s tourism and hospitality industry.