(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
As the coronavirus epidemic spreads throughout China, small businesses in the US are beginning to feel its effect.
One Alaska business owner, for example, is facing a disastrous month. “Our small import business has been hit hard by the coronavirus,” the business owner wrote. “We’ve had almost no customers all week; they’re scared off because we’re Chinese and import products from China and Korea.”
In Philadelphia, business owners in the city’s Chinatown section noticed a marked decrease in foot traffic over this past weekend. “The whole Chinatown is pretty quiet,” Jin Huang, who runs a karaoke bar, told local news station WHYY. Huang estimated his business was seeing about 30% of its normal traffic. “I understand why people are afraid to come out,” he said. “But we have no evidence right now that Philadelphia has any affected patients. I mean, it’s all suspect.”
Reports like these are becoming commonplace.
A mill owner in the Boston area saw one of his prime suppliers in China shut down because of the crisis, a move that will certainly curtail his production. “It’s definitely going to impact us. These are products we order on a regular basis,” he told the Boston Globe. “I suspect some delays in the supply chain.”
In Texas, a manufacturer of wearable technology products says that the company will probably shut down production because of its reliance on parts coming from China. “We’re manufacturing just a little bit, but we’re getting ready to be stuck,” the company’s CEO told a local news station. “There’s a very small board that was supposed to ship right before the lunar holiday but best we can tell it got caught up in the quarantine because we’re not even seeing the links about it coming through, and that’s a fundamental piece” of the company’s product.
In Ohio, a small company been forced to shut down its small office in Wuhan, where the virus emerged, while in Nebraska, an Omaha manufacturer is struggling to find replacement suppliers to keep its production floor going. Meanwhile, many others around the country are finding themselves having to change their employees’ travel plans and others are suspending exchange and internship programs with Chinese partners.
Reports like these are commonplace and are expected to grow in number over the coming days and weeks. Of bigger concern to me is the impact on small businesses when their larger customers and suppliers are forced to pull back due to the virus epidemic. Already, many large firms – big tech companies such as Apple and Dell as well as chains like Starbucks, food manufacturers and financial services firms – are suffering financial challenges due to the outbreak and these issues, if they grow, could easily trickle down to the small firms that sell products and provide services to them.
The question, of course, is that what can the owner of a business do to deal with the coronavirus problem? Unfortunately, the options are limited.
The response to the outbreak among companies, big and small, has pretty much been the same: be cautious, keep an eye on developments and communicate plans to employees, customers and suppliers. For now, that’s about all that can be done while world health officials and others in the field scramble to contain the problem.
In the meantime, perspective is important. When put into context, an interruption in supply and even a loss of business is a very small problem to deal with and one that will probably turn itself around in the future. That problem pales when compared to the challenges ordinary people in Wuhan and other parts of China and the world – particularly those infected – are facing today.