Business owners from the Burnet area told U.S. Rep. Roger Williams about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their livelihoods during a brief town hall meeting Friday at the Burnet Meeting Center.
The event was not a campaign visit by Williams, R-Austin, who faces Democratic challenger Julie Oliver in the Nov. 3 election, but rather a chance for the District 25 representative to hear directly from local residents about the challenges they have faced following an economic shutdown and other changes brought about in the past six months.
“Business was pretty good in January and the economy had been pretty good and then we took a sucker punch,” Williams noted. “The economy is still hanging in there pretty good, though. The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) has worked. In our district alone, 6,000 businesses took PPP money and we can relate it to 58,000 jobs saved in District 25. You multiply that by people in the family and that’s a lot of people.
“I am one of those in Washington who is worried about our debt and this money we pushed out in a way was a little funny money. But when you get money in the hands of private citizens and Main Street America, the people do get a return on investment and we’ve shown that through this PPP program.”
He predicted an end to the virusrelated economic lethargy.
“We have an economy that is fixing to explode again. The basics are there. We have the lowest interest rates we’ve ever seen and the lowest tax rates,” Williams said.
“The financial system has money in it. There’s money in the banks and credit unions. Once we can get people back to work and start driving unemployment down, we’re ready to go.”
Kim Winkler, executive director of the Burnet Chamber of Commerce, said that while a number of hospitality-based businesses have suffered, some other sectors “are doing well.”
“I went to a garage mechanic and he was slammed and he said it is the busiest he’s ever been, so I think it’s a really interesting dynamic that’s going on,” Winkler said.
She said the chamber, as a non-profit, was able to get some PPP assistance to help offset the loss of the 2020 Bluebonnet Festival, “which is our signature event and is a little more than 50 percent of our annual income, not to mention the economic impact it has on the community.
“The PPP allowed us to keep the doors open. We were in full planning mode for the festival when everything was shut down,” Winkler added.
Kayce Perry, owner of Two Black Cadillacs women’s clothing and accessory boutique on the downtown Burnet square, said once individuals in the community started to receive COVID-19 economic stimulus checks issued in late April, “people were out spending money like crazy trying to find things to buy.
“After the panic set in, we went really hard online and went into selling cloth facemasks and that kept me going. After we did a whole round of at-cost facemasks for everyone in town — we did over 1,000 masks — we went and starting profiting from selling them to keep our business going. That was just changing my business plan and how we were having to run the business.”
Williams responded to her, “That’s what’s good about entrepreneurs … If the government will stay out of everything, we’ll find a way to make it work and adjust.”
Kaela Thurman, a nurse practitioner who owns Care First Walk-In Clinic in Liberty Hill and has done pop-up flu shot clinics at the Burnet Meeting Center, said her clinic usually sees 5,000 patients a year but “we took a nosedive in March as people were scared of us.”
“PPP saved us. I have 10 employees and we definitely cut our hours significantly. We went from seeing 20-25 patients a day to seeing five patients a day, which was hugely detrimental,” Thurman said.
“We had to cut staff. We were able to add people back when we got the PPP in.
“We’re still working with what I call a skeleton crew as we rebuild basically and we’ve moved about 50 percent of our business to an online, virtual platform, which has been a challenge. We were already doing that prior to COVID, but I don’t think this community was ready for it before then.”
Louis Johnson, who owns Mama’s Home Cooking, said his business is still feeling the impact of executive orders issued by the governor which limited capacity in restaurants.
“We took a major hit and still haven’t come back,” Johnson said.
“We’re still at 75 percent seating and we’re about 30-35 percent off last year’s sales. I think our business is starting to come back. I have an older group that will come in and eat and don’t care (about COVID-19). I have an older group that have grandkids that don’t want to be there because they don’t want to expose their grandkids to COVID.”
Lorenzo Romero, owner of Stealth Products and Leggero, said the latter manufactures products to help disabled children.
“Business was up 40 percent for the first quarter for Leggero and we had just launched some new products, so we were expecting some amazing things this year,” Romero said.
“When the whole world has a major pandemic happen, it puts a screeching halt to your business. We saw that 40 percent turn into a negative 60. International business hit rock bottom, but domestically, we were doing okay for a while. When our U.S. business hit a wall, we started to pick back up internationally.
“The individuals who need our products are still out there. They’re just not getting them right now or have limited access.”