Survey: N.O. Business Owners Suffering From Pandemic Fatigue

NEW ORLEANS – A Biz New Orleans survey of area business owners has revealed extreme fatigue with the coronavirus pandemic overall and a lot of conflicting opinions about what’s taken place during the last five months and what needs to happen next.

Some business owners reported successful pandemic “pivots.” Others are just getting by. There’s a subset of businesses that are actually thriving in the new environment. Many respondents expressed anger about government-imposed mask mandates and business restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 while others say the only way to get past this is to follow the rules. Everybody is surprised at how long it’s all gone on but few agree on the reasons why – and, above all, everybody misses going out to eat.

It’s clear the pandemic has affected different businesses very differently.

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For Frank D’Amico, a personal injury attorney based in Metairie, the work hasn’t stopped completely but it has changed. That’s been true for many professional service providers.

“We have seen a decline in new business because of everyone working from home and not being out and about driving on the roads,” he said. “We have continued to keep the law office operating and functional through this time and have taken on other kinds of legal cases than we would have taken in the past.”

Like many people who answered the survey, D’Amico said he was surprised at how easy it’s been to operate his business with employees working from home. The biggest drawback, of course, is not being able to see as many clients and employees face to face – and not being able to “eat at all of our great restaurants and socialize.”

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Unlike D’Amico, who’s been operating for more than 30 years, business coach Matt Hahne just so happened to launch his brand-new business in March right before the virus restrictions went into effect.

“A lot of people gave us the ‘Oh, bless your heart,’ which is Southern for ‘You poor bastard,’ said Hahne. “The biggest challenge was that no one – no one – wanted to be sold to during the pandemic. I’ve got years of sales experience. I can quote The Challenger Sale and all of Jeb Blount’s books. . . none of which have advice on what to do when there is an ‘absolute and everywhere’ adversity to anything remotely resembling a sale.”

Hahne, whose West Wind Coaching Co. is located in Mid-City, said the way he earned clients over the last five months was by selling less and listening more.

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“It was about active listening,” he said. “Hearing what pain businesses were having, and then assisting them with a solution. A lot of that was convincing people to act; to get out of paralysis. We wanted owners to see this pandemic as just another issue that needed solving.”

Enviably, some businesses have actually thrived during the pandemic. A gift basket company called the Basketry, based in Luling, La., is one example. Owner Kristi Brocato said she’s had to hire new employees to handle the increased workload.

“Since the pandemic, our sales have increased for many reasons,” she said. “People are more grateful and are willing to express that gratitude in the form of a gift. There are more virtual meetings and there is no better way to enhance that meeting than with a gift opened on Zoom. And even hough we are in a pandemic, that does not stop birthdays, anniversaries and new baby gifts.”

Brocato applied for and received help from the Paycheck Protection Program and she’s maintained an optimistic outlook throughout the crisis.

“Business people only grow if they are uncomfortable and I have certainly worked in an uncomfortable place,” she said. “I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring, but I just keep going.”

Unfortunately, there are some businesses that just aren’t set up for a pivot. These are the ones holding out for better days.

Patricia Sperier, the director of sales at the 102-year-old Orpheum Theater in New Orleans’ Central Business District, said “it is difficult to pivot a venue. We are open to hosting micro events but most clients would rather postpone than reduce their guest count. Our biggest challenge is not being able to open at all to host events or live performances. We are closed with little hope that we can reopen in 2020. Our biggest success story is that, by far, more of our clients are opting to postpone their events rather than cancel.”

Angry at Officials … and Rule Breakers

Many business owners who responded to the Biz survey are angry at local, state and federal government officials for enacting business restrictions, mask mandates and crowd-size limits. Others are frustrated with those in the community who don’t follow the rules.

Bradley Leggett, the owner of the Covington-based consulting firm Accelerated Cost Recovery Solutions, said despite being shut down for three weeks in April, he’s had his most successful year to date after being in business for a decade. He offers cost segregation studies to help clients lower their taxes. He said tax changes in the CARES Act – the $2 trillion aid package passed by Congress – “put our tax studies on steroids.” 

Still, he’s one of the respondents who’s got a, shall we say, healthy dose of skepticism about the events of 2020.

“The city … is not our city now but a city held hostage by an incompetent mayor,” said Leggett. “Don’t believe in what your government forces on you with stupid incorrect COVID numbers on a daily basis.”

Other like-minded business owners include Roy Carruba, the owner for 25 years of Metairie-based Carubba Engineering, who decried “the abject ignorance of government and the pandering to liberals politicizing this situation” and Rent-A-Nerd’s Darrin Piotrowski, who said he is even more distrustful than he was pre-pandemic of the “government to do what is in the best interest of the people.” 

These folks and others who expressed similar sentiments are doubtful of the dangers of COVID-19 – and question the motives of officials and health experts charged with controlling the spread of the disease.

The Associated Press says that, “for most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness. More than 4,300 Louisiana residents have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.”

Those are sobering numbers to Carol Osborne of Jefferson NeuroBehavioral Group (which has several south Louisiana locations), who misses a lot of things about life pre-COVID but doesn’t criticize the health restrictions.

“I am an optimist so I am getting through this,” said Osborne. “However, at the same time I am successfully battling lung cancer so this enforces my isolation. I am tugged between wanting to be outside with business friends and co-employees – not to mention my personal friends and my precious family – and staying safely inside the walls of my home. PS – I believe in and wear a mask when I rarely go out.”

Osborne, who is 73 years old, said she is fortunate to have an employer that keeps her working while diligently protecting her health. “My view of life ultimately keeps me going,” she said. “I joke that I have to have a positive attitude because my blood type is B+.”

Christa Cotton of New Orleans Beverage Group, maker of El Guapo Bitters, is of a similar mindset.

“Like everyone, I’m exhausted and looking forward to the day when things return to some version of normal,” said Cotton, whose facility is located on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Garden District. “I’m more wary of people now than I was in the beginning because I don’t trust humans to be smart and social distance.”

New Orleans Beverage Group is actually one of the more inspiring entrepreneurial success stories of 2020. The company lost its largest retail placements and many of the bars and restaurants it supplied are temporarily closed. But then Cotton switched from a mostly business-to-business model to selling to consumers online and she said “we’ve rebounded stronger and will end the year with higher revenue than 2019.”

That’s something that all the surveyed business owners, despite their degree of coronavirus skepticism, hope to be able to say someday soon.

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