Robert Sayre and Jessica Strong know what’s financially at stake now that the coronavirus has hit Pittsburgh.
Sayre runs Mesa, a Mexican take-out restaurant employing seven in Oakland, near the University of Pittsburgh. His wife, Strong, employs 22 people through Flexable, which provides childcare at special events like conferences, networking sessions and weddings.
“Right now, we’re probably at 40 to 50% of what usual business looks like in this weather or at this time of year,” said Sayre, a Stanton Heights man who has three children with Strong, his high-school sweetheart. “At that level, we can kind of tread water and get by. If it drops much more than that, we’ll have to cut back on labor and look at other options, like borrowing money.”
Though officials were hesitant last week to measure or predict the financial fallout that the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, could wreak on Greater Pittsburgh, there are Jewish organizations offering help to those impacted financially by the global pandemic.
The Hebrew Free Loan Association —which Sayre and Strong have tapped in the past — recently announced it will offer no-interest loans up to $5,000 for individuals affected by the coronavirus and living in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. A co-signer is sometimes required. You do not need to be Jewish to receive the loan.
HFLA’s Coronavirus Financial Bridge Loan Program is intended to address lost wages due to being unable to work, childcare costs due to school closures, small business losses, cancelled study abroad programs, and medical expenses. Applicants must provide written substantiation of these costs.
“While this is an unprecedented health crisis, it’s also an unprecedented financial crisis,” said Aviva Lubowsky, HFLA’s director of marketing and development. “We know people are going to be affected by being unable to work, childcare costs due to school closures, colleges cancelling the rest of the semester, and even direct medical expenses from a coronavirus diagnosis. Hebrew Free Loan is here.”
This is not the first time Hebrew Free Loan has stepped in during a crisis that roared in the media and throughout the public consciousness. In 2019, it offered no-interest loans to federal workers furloughed and left without paychecks by the government shut-down.
The Jewish Assistance Fund is promoting its assistance to Jewish individuals and families as people prepare for financially stressful times ahead. That organization offers financial support without the need for repayment in the form of grants. More than 500 Pittsburghers live in homes the fund supported last year.
“We want people to know there are resources available — this is a commitment the Jewish community makes during usual times and unusual times,” said Cindy Goodman-Leib, JAF’s executive director. “People come to us with eviction notices and utility shut-offs — and we help those people turn their lives around.”
Those hit in the wallet by coronavirus also have Uncle Sam. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan law slated to provide $8.3 billion to address the pandemic, which includes up to $1 billion in small business loan subsidies to help those who suffer financial loss due to the outbreak.
“(That law) was a good first step in providing the resources needed to address the COVID-19 crisis, but more needs to be done,” Congressman Mike Doyle (D-District 18) told the Chronicle. “I support the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which would ensure free testing for the COVID-19 virus, expand unemployment assistance, and establish an emergency paid sick leave program to replace a significant share of lost wages, so that those who take leave to avoid spreading the virus — or due to illness or caregiving responsibilities — can pay their bills.”
The impact to Pittsburgh remains unknown. Last week, circumstances on the ground seemed to change by the minute, with businesses grappling with emergency planning, religious entities such as synagogues shuttering services, and schools — including local universities — opting to take their instruction online. As of press time, 10 confirmed coronavirus cases had been reported in Allegheny County.
The Asian American community was one of the first in Pittsburgh — about two weeks ago — to report an economic downturn, based on what some said was xenophobia about the coronavirus’ origins in Wuhan, China. Asian American advocacy groups said their members’ restaurants were seeing a 20-40% drop in revenue during the first five to six weeks of the outbreak.
Marian Lien, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, said she was reaching out to federal officials seeking microloans for businesses financially affected by the virus.
The number of passengers flying into and out of Pittsburgh International Airport also waned last week as President Trump restricted air travel into the U.S.
“The airline and airport industry have faced the threat of communicable disease before and have developed, trained and executed emergency plans and drills as part of our preparation,” said Bob Kerlik, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Airport Authority. “Obviously, the coronavirus issue overall is having a large impact on the travel industry, including decreased flights and passengers. Likewise, we expect to see an impact here as airlines adjust travel schedules.”
Kerlik did not cite any financial figures.
The trade group Airlines for America estimates the aviation industry worldwide could lose up to $113 billion in revenue due to the virus and its implications, national media reported. An official with the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on what the dwindling travel numbers mean to Pittsburgh businesses that depend on the traffic to thrive. Pittsburgh tourism officials also said they lacked the data to quantify the potential impact.
Strong, the Stanton Heights woman who runs Flexable, is realistic about the hit her business will take when organizations start cancelling events.
“Obviously, that’s going to default to zero — and we’re already seeing some events cancel,” Strong said.
But Flexable hopes to weather the crisis by reaching out to workplaces with essential employees, such as 911 operators and public utilities, Strong said. And Mesa, which Strong’s husband runs, is looking into starting delivery options.
“Nobody knows what to do,” she said. “Is stocking up on toilet paper going to save you? I don’t know, I don’t know. But we’re ready with childcare to help businesses in need. Our tiny slice is all we can do.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.