Salt Lake City, state leaders launch push to mitigate coronavirus impacts on businesses

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dylan Ewell and Patrick Liley pack up chairs as White Horse Restaurant and Bar prepares to close for 30 days, in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 16, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.

The Utah coronavirus outbreak and social distancing measures to curb its spread are already having an impact on small businesses — and the tourism and hospitality industries are among the hardest hit.

Visit Salt Lake, which promotes tourism in the capital city, has already seen seven confirmed cancelations of citywide conventions and events, totaling an estimated loss of more than $45 million in spending, according to Kaitlin Eskelson, the organization’s CEO.

“And those are likely just to be the tip of the iceberg as five other groups scheduled for April and May with a projected $17 million dollars in economic impact have asked about canceling,” she said at a news conference Monday overviewing the economic impacts of the virus.

Additionally, Eskelson noted, eight downtown area hotels have lost a combined 170 groups, representing 21,300 rooms and more than $4 million dollars in revenue. As the state enters what is typically its busiest season for meetings and conventions, she said there’s a “very real” possibility that hotels will run at 20% occupancy or less rather than the typical 75% to 80%.

Restaurants and bars were expected to be hit particularly hard, too, following an announcement Monday that such establishments in Salt Lake County would have to halt all sit-down service to curb the spread of the virus.

On Monday, a group of business leaders and government officials gathered at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce to announce new measures to help businesses weather the economic storm, including the creation of a state economic task force that will work to address impacts on companies.

“We need to see what we can do to protect and mitigate against a significant economic downturn and this task force will help us to in effect determine what we should be doing to help minimize the negative impact of the coronavirus,” Gov. Gary Herbert said.

That task force will have its first meeting Tuesday at 9 a.m., he said.

Herbert also encouraged businesses to promote social distancing and encourage employees to stay home at the first sign of illness.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Monday that she would ask the City Council Tuesday for $1 million in immediate funding “to begin the process of helping local businesses offset the loss of revenue.”

Citing an ongoing survey conducted by the city’s Economic Development Department that found 76% of city businesses reported a decrease in revenue of more than 10%, she encouraged businesses to apply for that funding so they can make payroll, pay bills and keep their operations going.

The goal, she said, is to have the city’s Economic Development team administer a flexible term, low interest rate loan program to help offset revenue costs as a result of the coronavirus. Businesses will also have access to some $50 billion in federal assistance through the Small Business Administration following the city’s emergency declaration, she said.

Matt Caputo, owner of Caputo’s Market & Deli in Salt Lake City, said his business hasn’t been as impacted as other restaurants in the Salt Lake Valley, since the organization has a grocery component that specializes in traditionally preserved foods.

But he urged Utahns to think about local eateries and support them when possible to ensure they’re around once the coronavirus scare is over. With the closure of sit-down service, he encouraged consumers to order take out from local independent restaurants or purchase gift certificates to help companies stay afloat.

I would like to encourage everybody to think about supporting local food businesses," he said. "You see, Amazon is doing very, very well. Jeff Bezos will do fine. He does not need your support. The national grocery store chains? Swamped. Think about local businesses.”

While much of the conversation Monday focused around businesses, several government leaders also addressed the impact on workers, who may have their hours cut or even lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus. Hourly workers, many of whom aren’t paid if they leave work, are expected to face particular hardships.

According to the 2019 Current Population Survey, 45% of Utah workers had some kind of paid time off. Nationwide, it was 55%.

Herbert encouraged Utahns who have lost their income because of the virus to reach out to the Department of Workforce Services and to seek unemployment resources. And Mendenhall asked landlords and property owners to “exercise flexibility” and to “be compassionate as you consider the impacts of this crisis on your tenants.”

“Even if they are not sick, they may be forced to take pay cuts because of school closures or business furloughs or even to care for their loved ones,” she said, noting that the city will look to expand rental assistance programs.

Herbert said it was yet to be determined if the state would seek a moratorium on evictions, as some other communities have done in recent weeks.