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Some Black-Owned Businesses Are Worried About How They Will Survive The Pandemic

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Carmi's Soul Food Restaurant on the South Side plans on opening its second location in the North Side during the pandemic.

As small businesses across the country continue to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, some of Pittsburgh's black business owners fear for their financial futures and ability to access relief. 
Thomas Boyd, who shut down his Hill District barber shop five weeks ago, worries about the future of black-owned businesses.

“We definitely didn’t want to be part of spreading the virus,” he said. “It’s been hard."

Boyd said he put in an insurance claim, but he has not been able to collect on it because there was a clause about viruses in his contract. “We never would have expected something like this,” he said.

Boyd said he also applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration via the CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief legislation passsed by the federal government in March. The package granted $350 billion for the SBA to distribute to small businesses throughout the country.

But Boyd was not approved because he doesn't have traditional employees; the other barbers in his shop are contract workers. "I am having a little bit of anxiety about what the future is going to look like," he said. "These types of things they do affect us — our community — more. More of our community are poor people."

Boyd said he has gone into his savings to pay bills for his business, but he has still had to put some bills on hold. "I'm not spending much money at all, I'm just trying to save," he said. "My clients are reaching out to me, a lot still want their hair cut. I was going to do house calls, but I don't think it's worth the risk. A hair cut is a luxury right now."

Boyd said he had plans of expanding his business, but after the shutdown orders, he put his plans on hold.

State Rep. Jake Wheatley isn't surprised. 

"The fact of the matter is many of these businesses have been closed by the governor's order, they definitely want to comply with that," he said. "But many of them were living on the edges before the pandemic. Now to have their businesses shut down, they're wondering how they're going to make it through."

Black-owned business have historically had less access to capital, and while Wheatley said the SBA loans could help, some stipulations could make access more difficult.

"If they didn't have a previous business relationships with the SBA-approved commercial banks, they have to try to access the system," Wheatley said. "This being first-come, first-serve, many are trying to get themselves prepared to take advantage of these funds. But there are these majority-owned businesses that are already prepared in the pipeline now."

In 2012, a study from the SBA showed that while white-owned businesses were approved for loans more than 67 percent of the time, black and Hispanic-owned businesses were approved only 28 percent of the time.

Some businesses aren’t waiting for relief. The owners of Carmi’s Soul Food restaurant on the South Side plan to open their new second location on the North Side for take-out orders this week.

Carleen King, part owner and operator of Carmi’s, said she doesn’t “have the luxury to sit and wait.”  

"We have decided to continue on with opening it, simply because we can't afford to keep paying bills in both places and the second location not be open," she said. "And it also gives us the opportunity to bring some of our staff back to work."

King said the restaurant went from about 30 employees down to only seven, and they operate take-out operations seven days a week, instead of six. She said they have also only brought in 20 percent of their usual business.

"It's extremely dampened the usual flow of customers," she said, and she worries the pandemic will hurt Carmi's long-term prospects. "Our business is pretty cyclical. Business is slow from November to mid-March. Then we pick back up in the early spring... Right now we should be storing our reserves to make it through the winter. So even with the supports that are helping us through this time,  when the winter hits and we don't have the reserves to fall back on... it's a major concern."

Boyd said he expects a high-demand for haircuts after the shutdown orders have been lifted, but for now, he is waiting to see how the pandemic plays out.