Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.-10th) visited several small businesses and nonprofit groups in the 10th District Tuesday to talk about the financial hardships they’ve experienced during the coronavirus pandemic and the impact of federal relief programs.
Her first stop was Highland Food Pantry, an all-volunteer operation based at Highland Memorial Presbyterian Church in Winchester, which distributes food to those in need on Tuesdays.
Wexton said she was impressed with how the pantry has adapted during the pandemic by giving people boxes of food instead of having them walk into the pantry to select items, minimizing contact.
“They did a great job adapting and making sure that all of the clients were served,” Wexton said. “They are really lucky because they have a lot of very dedicated volunteers.”
Afterward, she had lunch at Village Square Restaurant on the Loudoun Street Mall with Winchester Mayor David Smith, Top of Virginia Regional Chamber CEO Cynthia Schneider and Bank of Clarke County President and CEO Brandon Lorey. They discussed the federal Paycheck Protection Program that was initiated during the pandemic to help small businesses keep workers on the payroll and shared what they’re hearing from businesses.
“I’m glad she took the time to come out,” said Smith, who operates the Village Square and Water Street Kitchen downtown. “We [discussed] the recovery of our businesses and the rebuilding that we have to do. We thanked her for working on the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act. It was really good. We still have a lot more work to do, but we are getting there.”
Wexton is being challenged by Republican Aliscia Andrews, a Marine Corps veteran, in this November’s election.
Wexton said one of the issues small business owners face is getting consumers to feel comfortable returning to their establishments, many of which were shuttered temporarily during the pandemic. She added consumers also must feel like they have disposable income to spend in local stores and restaurants.
Some business owners have expressed concern about the COVID-19 pandemic getting worse this winter, she said. ”I think a lot of our restaurants are kind of holding their breath to see how things go. The outdoor dining has been really helpful to a lot of our local restaurants, and I know that some of them are concerned about what will happen when the weather turns cold.”
Wexton also visited Winchester Book Gallery, Nibblins and Murphy Beverage Co. on the Loudoun Street Mall, as well as Tropical Island Coffee & Cafe downtown and Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding in Frederick County.
At Nibblins — a store for gourmet chocolates, handmade fudge, quality cookware and cooking classes — owner Susan Dolinar told Wexton that customer traffic was very light from mid-March until May.
“We didn’t go a day without making a sale, but some of those days were pretty sad,” Dolinar said.
She said business is picking up, but the store is limiting customers to 10 at a time to accommodate social distancing. Dolinar said the financial relief provided by Congress has been helpful.
At Winchester Book Gallery, owner Christine Patrick told Wexton that her business was able to pivot quickly when the pandemic began, as it already had a website and delivery services.
“We always have done those things, and people have taken advantage of that more [during the pandemic],” Patrick said. “That was one way I was able to jump right in.”
The bookstore also provides curbside service. Customers can stop at the store’s back door on Indian Alley and have an employee bring their book purchases to them.
Although business was “kind of dead” when the pandemic began to take over people’s lives, Patrick said her business has done fairly well in recent months. She noted that being forced to stay at home during the pandemic has more people reading books.
“People are reading,” Patrick said. “They are spending a little more time focused on sitting still. Their kids are around so they want books for everybody.”
One of Wexton’s biggest takeaways on Tuesday was that the $2.2 trillion CARES Act helped many small businesses survive the pandemic.
“The remedial measures that we passed in the CARES Act, the things like the stimulus and the Paycheck Protection Program really did help with businesses,” Wexton said. “It helped by giving people more disposable income to spend in the community. It helped by giving some of these businesses a lifeline when they needed it most.”
Wexton was also impressed with how the community and small business owners have supported one another during the pandemic.
“That was really nice to hear,” she said.
Wexton is hopeful that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate can agree on another stimulus package to provide aid to businesses that need it.
She said she wants to ensure that there are protections in place and that the country has additional safeguards and more testing and contact tracing to help keep the virus at bay.
Wexton has pushed for transparency in the distribution of small business relief funding and making sure that minority-owned businesses are not shut out. According to a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife, minority-owned small businesses have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic and corresponding economic crisis.
“I want to make sure that small businesses that truly need the relief get it and the ones that don’t, the Potbellys [sandwich shops] of the world, aren’t gobbling up all of the money from the small businesses,” Wexton said.