‘How do we build community through this?’: Local Businesses React To Coronavirus

Photo by Morgan LaForge.

Small businesses, nonprofits, and arts establishments in Somerville have been seeing the effects of the coronavirus firsthand. As the city shuts down, it seems that no industry is exempt from the impact of the pandemic. 

While some storefronts and organizations have temporarily closed their doors, others have chosen to take steps to reinforce their support for their constituents. However, as social distancing becomes more necessary than ever, there is one common thread tying together all local businesses: financial impact.

Social services like The Welcome Project, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization for immigrants, have been slowly closing. Because schools are closed, The Welcome Project’s classes and programs are not currently running, but staff are reaching out by phone to people who use their services, says Executive Director Ben Echevarria. 

Over the course of the next month, the organization will be calling individuals to keep them informed of news and to ask about their needs. For example, staff will be alerting the non-profits members about MassHealth’s recent decision to allow people to apply for healthcare regardless of citizenship status. They will also be contacting people via text, through the program’s Somerville Response Network.

“We’re playing it by ear, like everyone else,” says Echevarria. “This is a chance for us to give that type of information out. But also, it’s a place where we can receive information.  What are people afraid of? Is it the virus? Is it income? Is it both? What are the rumors we’re hearing, and can we dispel rumors? How do we build community through this?”

Meanwhile, some organizations like the Somerville Homeless Coalition (SHC) have seen more activity than usual. While the adult shelter was originally only open for part of the day, it will now be accepting people for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Executive Director Michael Libby. Furthermore, Project Soup, a food pantry program that the SHC runs, saw 500 visitors in February, and Libby anticipates that there will be over 600 in March. 

One concern that Libby has is that as the restaurant industry closes down, a new population of people—including wait staff, bartenders, and baristas—will need to use the SHC’s services.  

“Now that the service industry is shutting down for the most part, those people who live paycheck to paycheck and don’t typically utilize our services… We’re constantly talking about that, knowing that we’re going to see nontraditional people coming to us for the first time, who just can’t make it by because they’ve lost wages,” says Libby. “Our service demand is definitely going to go up.”

Grocery stores, like the Market Basket in Union Square, have been keeping their regular hours and have seen a “surge of people” over the past few days, according to Store Director Joe Amaral. There is an uptick in customers particularly in the morning and after work in the afternoon, he says. With restaurants closing, the number of patrons at Market Basket has been above average, and Amaral expects to see this level of turnout for at least the next month. The shelves have been clearing quickly, he adds, with canned items, powdered milk, and frozen foods being the most popular.

Unfortunately, many small businesses and arts organizations do not have the option of remaining open—and owners are already anticipating the negative economic repercussions. Local storefronts like The Beautiful Stuff Project, a community space which recycles materials for use in art projects, has shut its doors for now. The Somerville Theatre is also currently closed to the public.

Anne Wright, director of education at Artisan’s Asylum, says that classes with three or four students will continue to be held, while public events with 25 people or more will be canceled in accordance with state guidelines. The Asylum is also only open to members currently. Wright believes that many small businesses will not be able to pay their rents with three weeks of shutdown. Artisan’s Asylum is doing what it can to support its instructors—a good amount of whom are also small business owners, she says.

“If this ends on April 6, I fear people are still going to be closed off from going out and spending money,” Wright says. “I really hope our local community can rally together and support local businesses. They know that we’re dependent on them.”

This article has been updated to include that the Artisan’s Asylum is now only open to members.

To read more of Scout Somerville‘s coronavirus coverage, click here.

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