Howell chamber president: Business owners working to survive pandemic

HOWELL – Tom Comer, the president of the Howell Chamber of Commerce, is asking area residents to shop local as the community continues to deal with the economic effects of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Comer said several Howell businesses have closed since the pandemic took hold in New Jersey in March.

“Some of our members have unfortunately gone dark. Whether they are going to come back, I don’t know. It is hard to imagine, especially some of the businesses that were new and had recently opened, that they would have the resources to get through seven, eight or nine months with no revenue and be able to bounce back. Their expenses did not go away, just their income,” Comer said.

“As a business owner, I can tell you the biggest challenge is keeping the lights on and keeping our employees on the books. Obviously, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan was a huge benefit.

“When a PPP loan is forgiven that is then considered to be income to the company so you have to pay tax on it. So it wasn’t just free money given to you, but it was a lifeline for many of us who were able to keep our employees out of the unemployment office,” Comer said.

He said the pandemic has been “a gut punch” to businesses of all types.

The chamber president said it took several months after the pandemic took hold for elected officials to permit outside dining at restaurants “and now the weather is starting to turn. I do not think a restaurant can survive if they can only open 25% of the (indoor) tables in their business.

“In New Jersey, you can’t really do outside dining in the cold weather. I can’t say I know specifically what businesses were hardest hit, but I think it was a gut punch across the board,” Comer said.

“For people in Howell, as we start to come out of the pandemic, please remember your local businesses are the bread and butter for a community. We are coming into the Christmas season so shop local and shop Howell,” Comer said.

Howell Councilman Thomas Russo, who chairs a task force that is seeking to help business owners recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, said one business closing is too many.

“Its hard to say (how many businesses have closed) for sure, but in my opinion, one is too many and there has certainly been more than one.

“However, we have some amazing local businesses that are doing a great job adapting to the state’s stringent safety requirements. We have a strong community that is extremely loyal to our local businesses.

“We also have a governing body, a newly formed business recovery task force and a chamber of commerce that is dedicated to ensuring our local economy remains strong through this challenging time,” Russo said.

“There have been many challenges, all of which have been uniquely difficult; from adopting a municipal budget during the height of the pandemic with so much fiscal uncertainty to crafting first-of-its kind policy to ensure public health and safety.

“However, the biggest challenge for me personally remains having to operate within the Governor’s strict mandates. We have big ideas on how we can help our local economy, but sometimes these ideas are at odds with the Governor’s executive orders.

“However, we remain dedicated to doing everything we can to help our town get through this difficult time, even if it means getting creative,” Russo said.

“All businesses have been forced to adapt to a completely new and different environment, and all have felt the blow of this pandemic and the Governor’s restrictions. Our gyms were certainly hit hard.

“The restaurant industry took big hits as well. However, it was truly amazing to see our strong Howell community come together and do what we could to help. From ordering take-out to shopping local, Howell came out in a big way for our local businesses in these last few months.

“I am convinced our community’s loyalty to our local economy kept many businesses open that would have had to shut down but for our strong community,” Russo said.

“There is assistance available for qualifying businesses from Monmouth County and the state, and an inquiring business should contact our county freeholders and/or our local chamber of commerce to see what is currently available and whether they qualify. The programs vary depending on various factors,” the councilman said.