By Arbora Johnson and Doug Snoeyenbos
The coronavirus pandemic, and the associated impact on every level of the economy, has put a tremendous strain on small businesses in Arlington.
These businesses are the lifeblood of the local economy, and a large part of what makes Arlington and its different neighborhoods so special. They provide goods and services tailored to the needs of our communities. And many are owned and staffed by women, people of color, and immigrants — groups which have been particularly impacted by the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Progressives should do all we can to keep small businesses afloat during these difficult times, and to help them to recover as the economy starts to improve.
The Arlington County Board has taken steps to reduce the economic impact of the virus on local small businesses: providing grants of up to $10,000 to almost 400 Arlington small businesses, waiving signage restrictions to allow more advertising, easing parking regulations to help restaurants provide takeout, and approving Temporary Outdoor Seating Arrangements (TOSAs) so restaurants can provide safe spaces for diners.
Mehmet Osman Coskun, the owner of East West Coffee Wine (in Rosslyn and Clarendon), said that the County’s flexibility on outdoor seating has been especially helpful. His customers are more comfortable outside, where they can maintain safe social distancing. Mostly, though, Mehmet is grateful for the community members who have proven loyal customers. “I love Arlington,” he says, “this County is a special place.”
The Board’s steps are welcome and reflect the type of measures — and flexibility — that should be a permanent part of County leadership’s approach. But Arlington needs to do more. Businesses across the board are hurting. Ashley and Cuong Vu, owners of Nova Pharmacy in the Dominion Hills neighborhood, have kept their doors open throughout the pandemic but have seen a drastic drop-off in business — with little formal help. They are not looking for a handout, but how about a County program to connect small businesses like them with retirement homes or families in need to provide prescriptions? Like Mehmet, Ashley and Cuong are grateful to their customers and sincerely hope to stay in business but worry for their future.
“We don’t have that many customers,” Cuong said, “but those we do have feel like family.”
Arlington is blessed with many active community groups and highly engaged citizens. Let’s work collectively to support a thriving local economy that works for all. How can we rebuild the economy so that it works for everyone? Are there ways to help small businesses without directly offering government cash — which will be in short supply for a while to come?
There are no easy answers, but one idea is to work through and expand Arlington’s three existing Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which currently cover only Rosslyn, National Landing, and Ballston. BIDs leverage public and private funding to provide local businesses with services such as neighborhood-wide events to showcase businesses and practical help navigating bureaucratic processes. We should also expand coverage through existing organizations with similar goals, such as the Clarendon Alliance, the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, and the Lee Highway Alliance.
And rather than grants, how about exploring micro-loans, or government partnerships with small businesses to provide subsidized goods and services to essential workers and families in need? Many of these ideas are already being implemented — in some cases by the BIDs. Let’s embrace and expand them.
We should ask our larger corporate citizens to assist and encourage elected officials to do more. But as individuals, we should also play our part by proactively making purchases from small businesses the norm whenever possible — by switching prescriptions to a local pharmacy, buying school supplies and gifts from locally owned businesses, or getting meals from neighborhood restaurants.
There will be many competing demands for limited government funding as we emerge from the coronavirus — our public schools are facing a whole set of challenges, the social safety net is fraying, and of course the County must ensure that it is doing all it can to keep citizens healthy. But small businesses are vital to generating economic growth by providing diverse local job opportunities, and by being flexible and responsive to community needs for specific goods and services. Our community fabric will fray, and we will all be poorer, if small businesses can’t come back.
Arbora Johnson lives in Dominion Hills with her husband and three school-age kids. She is a volunteer with the Arlington Democrats’ Business Outreach team and also serves on the County’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Doug Snoeyenbos is a retired federal attorney and serves on the Arlington Democrats’ Business Outreach team. He has lived in Arlington for 28 years.