The coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on businesses across the board, both in Northwest Florida and elsewhere. But when it comes to minority-owned firms, the hit is even more devastating.
One year ago – before the pandemic shifted into high gear – the Pensacola area’s Black and other minority-owned businesses were looking very promising.
“I was involved in numerous ribbon-cuttings, went to different events; we had some great expos,” said Brian Wyer, President and CEO of the Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce. “I really felt the fact that we were really making some great strides in the community.”
Wyer says the momentum began to wane in February and early March, as the virus began to spread. One of the last big chamber events was aimed at attracting minority contractors to the new Baptist Hospital project.
“We had over 285 contractors show up, many of them being minority, and we were looking very promising for the year,” said Wyer. “But then after that event, they called the order to make sure that no big events took place anymore. So all the things that we had planned in place to bring large groups together, we had to make sure we had those things cancelled. And it really started to fade from there.”
A report by CBS of an H&R Block survey of 3,000 Black business owners cited by Wyer found that 53% of them saw a drop in revenues of more than half, as compared to about 37 percent of white-owned businesses.
“So, even nationally we’re seeing changes in place,” Wyer said. “We saw 40% of all the Black business owners who were expected to remain open for six months, compared to 55% for whites. This is a national trend where we’re seeing more Black businesses being impacted -- closing, losing money – than their white counterparts.”
Back home, minority-owned business are feeling a similar impact, but Wyer says – using what he calls a stereotype or generalization – one factor keeping many open is a sense of pride.
“Not being able to really acknowledge some of the things that people may perceive as failure; we’re a very close-knit community so we really don’t try to broadcast a lot of those things,” said Wyer. “But we have seen the impact by some of our businesses kind of behind-the-scenes. Some have continued to show a very strong front outwardly, but internally they really are struggling and having a tough time making ends meet.”
But there are some exceptions to the current rule; Wyer says some are getting back into the swing of things in the wake of the pandemic. He points to one recent grand opening and one upcoming of Black-owned enterprises.
“It was two young African-American men – twins – that opened a snowball company; they had a great grand-opening, tons of people visited there,” said Wyer. “I’m also being involved in a ribbon-cutting for one of the first – or the only – Black-owned title companies here in the area.”
While governments at the local, state and federal levels have extended assistance to the minority business community, Wyer would also like to see – among other things -- better relations between the City of Pensacola and Escambia County governments and minority-owned contractors.
“You look at the numbers it’s definitely very low compared to our non-minority counterparts; I think they’re doing a great job trying to do things like giving out some minority grants and some of the COVID grants targeting the minority community,” Wyer said. “But there’s definitely more that can be done in areas helping to build stronger relationships – helping to really understand some of the grassroots problems they’re having and ways that we can find solutions to those problems.”
The work done by the Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce the past year has been low-key, according to Wyer, amid the concerns of COVID-19’s very heavy impact on the African-American community as a whole.
“More deaths, more hospitalizations, than some of the other communities,” said Wyer. “So we were involved in giving out masks, then switched over to a campaign to help get everyone to vaccinate and gather in small groups. Being one of the ones to provide some information of getting out grants to the Black community.”
At the crux of the financial crisis facing minority companies is that their customers -- who normally frequent them frequently – are facing their own financial crises through job losses and layoffs.
“There is less people that were able to work, more unemployment – so that dramatically affects the businesses, because those businesses count on those workers to get things done,” Wyer said. “Forbes [Magazine] mentioned it,, the CDC website talked about the systematic racism that was in place to help to cause issues with our unemployment and minority community”
The Chamber’s Brian Wyer believes the George Floyd murder has helped shine the spotlight on the African-American community, and that’s resulted in more reaching out to the Black and minority communities. But he adds they have to be ready to take advantage of that, and avoid jumping on a short-term bandwagon.
“We have to think long-term in ways that we can help to provide assistance, provide support, and help be an ally for the minority community in the future,” said Wyer.
“I think things look very bright for us.”