SALT LAKE CITY — A year after the coronavirus outbreak sent shockwaves throughout the economy, some local small businesses have finally started to recover.
In Utah, 2 out of 3 "mom and pop" businesses acknowledge their operations have been hurt by the pandemic, many of which struggled when major restrictions limited people's ability to live their lives as they had under normal circumstances. Jackie Hansen, owner of Central Park Pet Retreat in Salt Lake City, saw how that impacted her pet day care and boarding business.
Surviving the storm
"It was frightening. I borrowed money for three payrolls in a row. I wanted to stay open, closing was not an option because I knew how long it took to grow the business," she said. "Anytime you shut the doors — even in a pandemic — it takes a while for your clients to find you again and I was worried sick."
During the worst part of the decline, the business went from having dozens of animals on its pet client list down to just a couple.
"I was able to keep all of my employees on the payroll that wanted to stay, but my worst day was two employees on staff and two cats (at the facility)," she said. Things got so bad, her husband suggested she consider shutting down permanently, but she was adamant about keeping the doors open.
"We held in there and the (Paycheck Protection Program) money came in and slowly the business has grown and we're doing really well now — not as well as we did before but our projections are very positive," Hansen said. This past weekend, the facility hosted 78 animals, including of course dogs, cats, as well as a ferret.
Looking ahead, she believes as people start traveling more and returning to the office, those numbers will continue to grow — thanks in part to a pandemic pet boom. According to the American Pet Products Association, more than 11 million U.S. households took in a new pet during the pandemic.
Signs of hope, yet some clouds linger
The U.S. Census Bureau's latest Small Business Pulse Survey indicated 22% of small businesses expect to return to normal within six months, with 3 in 5 Utah small businesses reporting they have already fully recovered or expect to be fully recovered by September.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Beehive State has experienced one of the strongest economic recoveries in the U.S., boasting a 3% unemployment rate. That is second in the nation behind only North Dakota, according to Zions Bank vice president and senior economist Robert Spendlove.
Speaking at a news conference Monday, he said the local economy is nearly as strong currently as it had been prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
"We can really feel a change happening in the economy right now, where for the first time, we're back to where we were pre-pandemic," he said. "Now, there are sectors of the economy where jobs are still down — if you look at entertainment or you look at travel and tourism, or some personal services are still struggling quite a bit. Then, on the other hand, you've got construction that's up. You've got areas like couriers and messengers that are up over 50%. Professional and business services are up. There are areas that are really actually thriving right now."
Spendlove noted that while many sectors are economically strong, there are still a number of individuals who are still out of work because their preferred profession continues to struggle.
"If you zoom down to local areas, while energy prices are back up — oil prices are back up to around $60 a barrel — oil extraction is way down from where it was a year ago," Spendlove said. "So if you look at the Uinta Basin, Emery and Carbon counties, they are still struggling. If you look at Summit County, their employment is down about 13% and then the Four Corners area is also suffering. So, if you look at specific areas of the state, they're definitely suffering."
And while Utah continues to outperform the national average among most states economically, there are still issues to be addressed to ensure that all can participate in the prosperity.
"What's really interesting in Utah specifically is our labor force participation is back to its pre-pandemic levels. So we have essentially returned back to that low level of unemployment," Spendlove said. "The only issue that we still have to resolve is that high level of people who are still claiming unemployment insurance benefits and those specific sectors of the economy that continue to struggle."