Black Chamber Of Commerce Chair: Lack Of Safety Net Exposed By COVID-19

Apr 24, 2020

Gov. Roy Cooper's decision to extend his stay-at-home order is tough to accept for many small business owners, even if they understand the reasoning behind it. Shante Williams represents many small business owners as chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce.

Lisa Worf: What do you think of the governor's decision to extend the stay-at-home order?

Shante Williams
Credit LinkedIn

Shante Williams: Well, you know, as a member of the African American community and head of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce, I understand it. And I really do think it's the right decision. Our community is seeing this COVID-19 crisis on both sides of the fence, both being greatly affected by the virus, but also watching our businesses close. And so they're having to choose between having a life in form or having a great quality of life in their business. And that's just a hard choice, a hard dilemma. So I think he made the right decision.

Worf: Now, African Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 with a higher percentage testing positive for the disease. How mixed are your members' views over this decision?

Williams: I'm seeing they're pretty split; it's almost a 50/50 commentary. While we're seeing the health disparities laid bare with our health care system. While we're presenting later, maybe not getting the testing for COVID, in a real way, people are experiencing death of family members and they're really scared and fearful for their families.

Some of them are having to close their businesses and, you know, joining ride-sharing jobs or do grocery shopping. And they're putting their families at risk because their businesses have closed. It's almost straight down the middle at this point. And, you know, the solace is we'll live to fight another day, I think is where a lot of us have landed.

Worf: I imagine there's a real feeling of a Catch-22 here.

Williams: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's a false choice between, you know, being safe and being secure or creating, you know, some economic viability for your family. And that's just a choice that we should not have to make as Americans or as members of the United States. And I'm really, at this point, feeling like, you know, this shows us how fragile the safety net is in our country and that we are so marginally attached to the economy that ultimately we have this choice: Risk your life or risk the lives of someone that you love or continue to build your business.

Worf: Is this shutdown harder on black-owned businesses?

Williams: I won't say it's harder. I will say black-owned businesses coming into this situation were under-capitalized, generally under-invested in, were already being affected by the changes in the economy or being forced out because of higher rents in their buildings. So they came in with less savings. They came in with less stability. And so as soon as you have something that causes a major hit to your revenue, you may be out of business.

We were getting reports as early as two weeks into this stay-home order that businesses were shutting down -- and shutting down permanently. Now we are on the what, this is the fifth week, maybe almost of this stay-at-home order, and we're seeing a lot of people actually starting to send their resumes to the Black Chamber because they are saying, "Hey, can you get my resume out now? I've had to close my business." We've had our membership rolls increased by something like 260% because people are now looking to the next step. And so that tells me that there are businesses that not only had to furlough workers, but they may not be coming back.

Worf: So they've given up at this point?

Williams: Yeah.  With no way to make a living via your business, they've had to say, "OK, what is the next step here?" So we're really hoping and pushing to work with our local leaders, you know, hoping to see something that in the mid- and long-term makes makes it easier for these businesses to come back and to rejoin the economy if they've had to shutter their doors.

Worf: What do you think the biggest challenges are for those who do survive this to reopen?

Williams: You know, it's going to be a question of, you know, is there sufficient capital to reopen the doors? Because after all of the protections are taken away, the biggest challenge is going to be, do I have enough money to kick-start the engine again? So just maybe citizens within the city that are a little more skittish to come out, so the revenue generation is not going to go back to what it was, there's going to be this slow, gradual increase. And if you're undercapitalized, if you don't have enough money in your business, you may not be able to survive the reopening because you've still got to bring on those employees. You still got to fire up your engine. And if you just don't have enough coal to put it in the tank, then you just may not even survive reopening. That takes a big effort.

Worf: That's Shante Williams, chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce.

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