Local businesses, nonprofits, struggle and seek help during pandemic
COVID-19Coping with pandemic difficult for small businesses

Local businesses, nonprofits, struggle and seek help during pandemic

Government aid helps, doesn't cure woes

Little’s Shoes on Forbes Avenue is doing what it can to service customers and pay employees during the pandemic. 
Photo by Shayna Yogman
Little’s Shoes on Forbes Avenue is doing what it can to service customers and pay employees during the pandemic. Photo by Shayna Yogman

Small businesses and nonprofits in Squirrel Hill and Greenfield — like those around the country — are experiencing a range of complications in the age of COVID-19. Only some of the problems are being remedied by government aid.

As a nonessential business, Little’s Shoes, which employs more than 20 people, was forced to close its doors in March to patrons. It continues to hobble on with online orders and, in some cases, even delivery.

“We’re trying to scratch and claw,” said owner Justin Sigal. Operating online “is better than nothing. And we’ll be here for the community if we’re open. We’ll be here.”

Little’s was one of the Pennsylvania businesses to receive aid through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, though Sigal declined to indicate the amount of its award.

“(PPP) was just a great opportunity,” said Sigal, whose Forbes Avenue business has been owned by his family, longtime members of Rodef Shalom Congregation, for more than 35 years.

Federal aid is helping many. Through April 16, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) approved more than $342 billion of forgivable loans through the PPP. Before the fund ran out of money recently, Pennsylvania was the sixth highest state recipient of aid, netting nearly $16 billion, SBA spokeswoman Janet Heyl said.

Heyl, who works downtown, was not able to provide a list of local recipients of SBA aid.

“The banks let us know it would be difficult,” Gene Barr, president of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, told the Chronicle. “We knew it was going to be bumpy. But the money is getting pushed out.”

Barr stressed there is no one-size-fits-all solution for businesses in the state.

“It really does vary by employer and there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there,” he said.

Barr said he wants to see officials tackle issues like liability, which could trigger lawsuits against state businesses after the stay-at-home orders are lifted. He remained optimistic, though, last week.

“I have confidence in this country,” Barr said. “I have faith in the American people to come back.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh also received an SBA loan to offset its cost of salary and benefits while serving the public during the crisis, said Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing. The organization — and its national counterpart, the Jewish Federations of North America — scheduled and led webinars for Jewish groups when it realized SBA funds were first-come, first-serve.

“We urged Jewish organizations to work with our finance team to get their SBA applications in as soon as humanly possible,” Hertzman said.

One of the organizations that took part in the Federation webinars was The Friendship Circle, a Jewish nonprofit based on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill that brings people of diverse abilities together. Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, the organization’s executive director, confirmed Friendship Circle secured PPP funding but would not disclose the amount.

“It’s not social distancing, it’s physical distancing — the ‘social’ is something we’re still providing,” Rudolph said. “We’ve been able to move to a virtual platform and everything’s been well-received.”

Others struggle.

Ilene Scoratow, who has owned and operated the Squirrel Hill-based business Another Mother — which provides help with laundry, cleaning and shopping — since 2014, immediately felt the impact of COVID-19 when places like spas and Air B&Bs stopped operating and had no laundry or cleaning needs.

“My commercial business clients all are shuttered — I hope when they lift the bans, they’ll be able to recover,” Scoratow said.

Scoratow typically employs up to six independent contractors, based on seasonal needs. Right now, only one other person is working with her. When Scoratow filed paperwork with the SBA, she heard she might be eligible for $1,000 in aid per employee.

“The SBA told me I should hear something in two weeks and I haven’t heard anything,” Scoratow said. “Now, there’s no money. I am not convinced we’re going to get it.”

Scoratow has seen an increase in shop-for-hire requests but that’s a smaller portion of her business than laundry work.
“If people have a need to do their laundry, they should call us,” she said. “We’re happy to serve those customers.”

The stay-at-home order has not resulted in dire business outlooks for everyone, though.

The Pop Cakery, for example, is thriving and owner-operator Nechama Huber has been working some nights until 5 a.m. in her commercial-grade kosher Greenfield kitchen to keep up with orders. She’s bouncing from shipping customized cookie kits for kids to decorate, to launching a new care package of sweets just in time for Mother’s Day.

“I can work at all hours and get things done. In one week, I get two weeks of work done,” Huber said. “I saw more of a need (when stay-at-home orders started) than a need to shut down.”

Her business is booming, she said, especially U.S. Postal Service shipping and local delivery of her homemade and customizable cookie kits.

“That’s very popular right now because people are looking for things to do with their kids,” Huber said. PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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