New chamber survey shows businesses continue to struggle

CEO Jamie Church reiterates belief that recovery will be slow

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Jamie Church, president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce.

FARMINGTON — As she has surveyed the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 shutdown across this spring and summer, Jamie Church, the president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce, has continuously told herself to keep her hopes for a relatively short recession in check.

"I always knew this was going to be a long recovery," Church has said many times over the past several weeks.

The feedback Church is seeing from the third round of her organization's COVID-19 surveys of local merchants supports her cautious approach. Approximately 100 responses to the survey were received, and the data indicates many businesses are struggling as the pandemic and accompanying shutdown continue.

One of the more notable bits of information to emerge from the survey was the response to a question about whether businesses had been able to rehire employees at pre-COVID-19 staffing levels. Only 46.9% of respondents indicated that they had, while 29.2% said no. Nearly a quarter of respondents, 24 percent, did not provide an answer.

Church said she was a little surprised by those figures, but she knows better than to focus on them too much. She explained that they likely are already out of date, given the fact that restaurants in the state have been ordered to cease their dine-in operations again, and many of those employees already have been laid off for a second time.

More:County's unemployment rate high, but hope of recovery is on horizon

Another segment of the survey that caught Church's eye was a question asking merchants to identify their biggest obstacle toward reopening. The answers ranged from lack of customers (nearly 22%) and uncertainty about safety guidelines (more than 11%) to an inability to rehire employees (more than 5%) and customers feeling as if it is unsafe to dine out or shop (more than 3%).

But approximately 35 percent of respondents answered "other," while nearly 20 percent did not provide an answer. That leaves Church little hard information with which to work.

"If we don't know what the obstacles are, it's hard to respond to that obstacle," she said.

There was more clarity on other issues addressed in the survey. More than three-quarters of respondents (77.6%) said they have been able to reopen for business under state guidelines, while 22.4 percent said they had not. As for how those businesses are faring, 62.5% of respondents indicated their business is down since the shutdown began and 9.4% said it is the same. Only 6.3% percent said their business has increased, while 11.5% percent said it was too early to tell and 10.4% did not respond.

Perhaps the most encouraging answers were the ones received for a question about whether merchants felt like they needed any assistance with face coverings, hand sanitizing stations, employee safety training or COVID-19 safe practices. An overwhelming majority (83.3%) said no, while 14.6% said yes and 2.1% did not respond.

More:Gov's order rescinding indoor dining creates blowback

Church noted that the chamber may have played a major effort in addressing that situation, as it gave away 20,000 masks.

She said she expects to see a great deal of elasticity in the unemployment figures for the state and for San Juan County in the months ahead as conditions continue to change. In the immediate sense, she expects those figures to increase as restaurants reduce their staffing levels, but she said they will fall again as soon as restaurants reopen for indoor dining.

She also noted the impact that the education system is likely to have on hiring. If small children return to the classroom, she said, that means more parents will be able to go back to work. And if large numbers of college students leave home and return to campus, that likely will open up some jobs for others, she said.

"I do feel that as all these things work themselves out over the next four to six months, we're going to see these (unemployment) numbers go up and down, and you can't really predict what's going to happen," she said.

Church said she thinks the three rounds of surveys the chamber has conducted during the COVID-19 crisis have helped shine some light on the challenges local merchants face, but she doesn't anticipate doing another one. It's time for her organization to move into more of an advocacy mode, she said.

"We'll shift our focus at the chamber to providing information and figuring out ways to drive customers to businesses," she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.