Columnist Gabrielle Gould: Support in a time of COVID-19

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Like many of you, our world has been turned upside down. Less than three weeks ago, officials at the Amherst Businesss Improvement District were blissfully completing the first-ever restaurant guide, “Global Guide to Dining in Downtown Amherst.” We were about to launch our new website that focuses beautifully on downtown businesses.

I had already written this month’s piece for the Bulletin: It was a food-centric “Very Hungry Caterpillar” crawl (I was the caterpillar) that covered 72 hours of dining in downtown Amherst (but a lot of food was consumed so we ended — well you get the picture).

Anyway, it was a great article, I am sad it is shelved, but that is not our focus now. Honestly, I am very sad about a lot of things as type.

Over the last three weeks (seemingly a lifetime) we have had daily meetings regarding COVID-19 and how we can help downtown businesses stay ahead of the issue, but not a single person in our office or the Chamber’s side had wild enough imaginations to see where we would be within two weeks. In that timeframe, we went from meeting in person with each of our businesses to discuss extra measures of cleaning to posting closure after closure notices.

We have sat, at first in person, then later on the phone, listening to very distraught owners and managers as they ask how to get their dedicated staff unemployment and what kind of protection can they offer them; whether their business interruption insurance will cover this (it does not, call the attorney general and make this a priority); whether there will any help in the way of grants (not loans, they do not need more debt) from the state or federal government; whether they should call their landlord (yes, downtown landlords are third and fourth generation Amherst and they care more about this downtown than I can express here); and finally, “when will this be over?

We don’t know, but right now we are helping in many ways. We are calling and emailng our local, state and federal offices. We are asking for waivers from sales, meals, room and payroll taxes. We want mortgages deferred until this is over, unemployment insurance locked into pre-crisis rates, protection from eviction, and grants and low-interest loans for businesses and nonprofits that are suffering greatly.

The Chamber and BID have put our energy into demanding that ears, hearts and minds are on Amherst. We are also getting your emails and calls asking what you can do and we have gotten somewhat creative and are offering the following suggestions.

Ways to help your community in a time of uncertainty:

■Stay home, thank you.

■Be educated. The World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the CDC, the town of Amherst website, the BID and Chamber websites all have science and fact-based information.

■Write, call or email your representatives on all levels. Demand grants, waivers, abatements, that the unemployment process is streamlined. We know that the entire nation is in the same position, so keeping your town and community in front of those who can make a change is important.

■Purchase gift cards ahead of time. When this crisis ends our local businesses are going to do everything they can to get back up and running. Purchasing a gift card now to your salon, spa, coffee shop, restaurant, or retail store will help them do that. Consider it a post-coronavirus treat.

■TIP JAR. The Chamber and BID have launched a concept that started in Pittsburgh. With 80% of our downtown businesses closed or working at a quarter capacity, their staff has been sent home. These are mostly hourly workers whose livelihoods rely on the tips from their clients. With TIP JAR, you can go to either of our websites and click the link. Local businesses have signed on for you to direct Venmo or Paypal a “tip” for their staff. This includes kitchen and back of the house staff, cleaners, wait staff, baristas, bartenders and so on.

■The “At Home Support Amherst BINGO.” The BID created a BINGO board. You can go to our social media pages or website — X out each square you do! For the first 10 people who get the whole board, the BID will award a $100 gift certificate to a downtown business. For the first 10 who get two full rows or an “X,” we will give you a $50 gift card to a downtown business.

■We understand that we are asking this in a time when too may not be earning a paycheck, but if you can, when this is over and our businesses start to open up, please help us celebrate each one. We will work with each business to get them back up and running, as that is our job and we invite you to help us by supporting them!

■There are many options and opportunities to volunteer, from making hospital masks at home to delivering Meals on Wheels, or simply calling your people and checking in.

None of the above is the solution. These are imperfect measures amidst a very imperfect time and space. What I can say as I sit here preparing for a day of conference calls, emails and attempting to sketch out “comeback plans” for our downtown is: We are all in this together, we are stronger together and we are the helpers to look for.

Each of us will come together and bring a new normal into life when this is finished — perhaps with a little more appreciation for the little things and a lot more gratitude for what we do have. I started this article sad, but as I wrote out the ways to help, I shook that sadness off. Soon, we rally and we get out and we start again!

Gabrielle Gould is the executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.