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Small businesses should be ‘front and center’ in COVID relief package | COMMENTARY

Khari Parker and his brother Shawn own Connie's Chicken and Waffles. They are pictured at their Fells Point location in the Broadway Market.
Khari Parker and his brother Shawn own Connie's Chicken and Waffles. They are pictured at their Fells Point location in the Broadway Market. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

As small business owners, we welcomed the COVID emergency relief bill Congress approved in the waning days of 2020, a disastrous year for many of us working to keep our operations afloat and our employees on the payroll.

Unfortunately, the rescue package falls far short of what’s essential to sustaining small businesses, the backbones of our communities, as we approach the darkest days of the pandemic and with a COVID-19 vaccine still many months away for most Americans.

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That’s why this week we joined more than 1,600 other small business owners from 48 states across the U.S. — including more than 75 from Baltimore — to virtually take our concerns directly to members of Congress and urge them to embrace a comprehensive, long-term recovery agenda that puts us front and center.

Every small business owner in Baltimore and beyond knows that navigating this continuing uncertainty requires more than Congress’ survival stopgap measure. At times during the pandemic, revenue at our small businesses, Wild Kombucha and Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, went down by 80%. At Wild Kombucha, we were forced to lay off half of our team in order to survive.

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We also know that with help from Congress, small businesses can survive the pandemic, support our employees, continue contributing to the economy and be of service to our communities across the country.

Here’s what it will take:

  • Short-term pandemic survival policies, including access to long-term capital to cover up to six months of payroll, benefits and fixed operating expenses; rent deferrals or assistance; a temporary liability shield; and tax incentives to help small businesses reopen;
  • Medium-term pandemic recovery policies, including streamlined Request for Proposal processes for small businesses, and incentives to encourage larger companies to use more small business vendors;
  • And longer-term policies addressing age-old challenges facing small businesses owners and their employers, including access to quality, affordable health care and child care.

Trust us, this is not where small business owners expected to be when this year started. Before the pandemic hit, Connie’s Chicken and Waffles anticipated rolling out a new menu and expanding locations. Wild Kombucha won a contract at the beginning of the year to go on tap into hundreds of office buildings in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. But now, the majority of our smaller retail partners are still closed or operating in a limited capacity. The COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt.

Our stories are not unique. We are part of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices community, and a survey late last year found that 42% of us have been forced to lay off employees or cut compensation, more than half had to stop paying ourselves and a third dipped into personal savings to keep our businesses operational.

While grateful to legislators for agreeing on a relief package, we are pleading, as small business owners, for our elected officials to step up with a comprehensive plan for small businesses. We employ nearly half the private sector workforce and play a crucial role in the economies of every state, big city and small town across America.

That’s why we added our voices to the chorus of small business owners urging members of Congress to hear us and help us — our nation’s economic recovery depends on it.

When we lose small, we lose big.

Khari Parker (khari@connieschickenandwaffles.com) is the owner of Connie’s Chicken and Waffles in Baltimore and a member of the 10KSBV National Leadership Council. Sid Sharma (sid@mobtownfermentation.com) is the owner of Wild Kombucha, also in Baltimore.

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