‘Domino Effect’ Contributed to Power Outage in Huntsville

The power outage that was nearly citywide Sunday night was caused by a failed lightning arrester in the Huntsville Utilities Central substation, triggering a “domino effect” of other outages.

According to Huntsville Utilities, “Initial reports from last night indicate a lightning arrester, which is a device that protects electrical equipment in substations from surges caused by lightning or other causes, failed in the Central substation.

“Since the Central substation also feeds power to other substations, this caused a domino effect that led to additional outages in the system.

“Our crews are using the light of day to continue their inspections and determine what caused this failure.”

The COVID-19 Endgame: Questions & Analysis From UAH Business School

Huntsville is accustomed to goal-oriented missions.

When it was determined that our healthcare system could be overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 patients in North Alabama, Madison County residents and business owners took unprecedented steps to follow state and federal guidelines for social distancing. They closed their businesses and sheltered at home to help flatten the curve against exposure to the virus.

Beijing factory workers maintain social distancing during lunch breaks.

Under all discernible yet cautious reporting, COVID-19 cases seem to be waning and our hospitals seem to be buffered against the threat.

Mission accomplished. Goals achieved.

But this mission is different from any other. At what costs have we seen success? What does an economic recovery following this pandemic look like? When will it occur? How long will it take to get back to “normal”? Will there ever be a “normal” or will it change us forever?

These are the questions posed to Wafa Hakim Orman, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at the College of Business & Associate Professor of Economics and Computational Analysis at the University of Alabama in Huntsville this week during a teleconference call with the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce.

“Economically, things are very bad right now,” said Orman “The problem is our normal indicator models don’t do us much good because they are monthly or quarterly.”

For instance, the national labor force is around 164 million. Before the pandemic started, unemployment was about 3.5 percent. The April unemployment rate was 14.7 percent.

Compared to the financial crisis of 2008, this is off the charts. Even when compared it to the Great Depression of 1929, unemployment was high, but the fall-off was gradual, not all at once.

“The country has never seen anything like it. It is completely unprecedented,” said Orman. “There are however some alternative indicators available if we look for them and one of those is electricity demand.

“The Department of Energy provides hourly indicators on electricity demand and you can tell if commercial establishments are shutting down because electricity use will be lower. Based on up-to-the-minute indicators provided by University of Chicago economist Steve Cicala, electricity use has plummeted, and this information has been adjusted to allow for temperature, weather patterns, and holidays.”

Electricity demand should be at the February average of 2 percent. After March 15, it dropped precipitously to nearly -8 percent.

“I did a similar analysis for the areas covered by the Tennessee Valley Authority, because that’s the smallest scale at which we can get this electricity data for our region, and the results are very similar,” she said.

Another alternative source of data comes from a website called Homebase.com.

“They provide timesheets and scheduling software and they have very helpfully made aggregates of what they’re seeing available on their website,” Orman said. “You can see the impact on local business from their customer base looking at hours worked. Again, we see a sharp decline, and when you look at it by industry, this provides us with something I think we should be paying a lot of attention to as we think about reopening.”

Orman believes the businesses that are seeing the biggest declines are likely to be those people will be the most reluctant to go back to after reopening.

“As an economist, what we have is essentially a major shock to aggregate demand,” she said. “And it creates this tension. We need to save lives by shutting down, but we also face terrible consequences from the economic shutdown. Increases in unemployment, increases in poverty, and all the negatives we know are associated with recessions, are really intensified in a short period of time right now.”

While the number appear to be flattening the curve and social distancing seems to have been a successful strategy for slowing the spread of the virus, the long-term effects are unknown. Orman however presents some ideas for discussion.

“And it is completely implausible that we just wait for some bell to ring that tells us the virus is no longer a threat. That is impossible. It will have to be a phased reopening but how does that unfold?” she asks.

She admits a slow, limping back to normal over a prolonged period is difficult to assess at this point because IF we begin to reopen the economy to some non-essential businesses, we risk seeing another spike in infections and that will be bad news that affects further openings.

And there are yet other considerations equally as concerning.

“What businesses will people actually go back to and what businesses are likely to continue to suffer, even after we reopen,” she said. “Looking at data from Homebase.com, home and repair and transportation don’t involve much contact so people will probably be quite happy to see those reopen.”

Orman believes there will be some pent-up demand with people stuck in their houses for a couple of months. They will want to go to a restaurant, buy things they have been needing or wanting, take a hiking trip, go camping, or attend a social gathering at a local venue. People will be able to get a leak in their roof fixed or plant their spring garden, but what about professional services?

She points out it may be a while before people are comfortable with touching gym equipment someone else has been using; getting a manicure, a massage, or even a haircut because it requires a lot of personal contact with another person.

“And what about the food and beverage industry,” she asks. “We’re talking about opening restaurants, but they will have to deal with capacity. They still will not be able to employ as many workers as they did before, leaving some unemployed.”

During the pandemic, automation and teleconferencing has replaced in-person contact so although many industries have been using self-checkout counters and teleconferencing software as a back-up, how many jobs will be lost to fully-automated services; how much business travel will be cut in lieu of online meetings; and how many office jobs will move to telework?

There is also a question mark concerning education.

“Students are being forced to adapt to online learning, including elementary school and kindergarten. Those that can move online, have done so, but education at the lower grade levels like kindergarten through 12th grade may be online this semester; but what happens to other educational activities like afterschool programs, sports, tutoring, music, and extracurricular activities like summer camp?

Subway passengers maintain social distancing.

“How long will it be before people are comfortable sitting in a crowded movie theater, attending a concert, or other events that involve large numbers of people in one place,” she poses.

She will not be surprised if relatively high unemployment remains for a while as people don’t get rehired such as teachers aides, personal trainers, and extra restaurant workers.

Orman said at that point, unemployed workers will continue to be a drag on GDP.

“By fall, that’s starting to get far enough in the future that although difficult to predict, I think the best we can do is an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario,” she said.

“In the optimistic scenario, our healthcare system can put in place widespread contact tracing and widespread testing, so if someone is diagnosed, we treat them and everybody they’ve been in contact with. Those people are quarantined but everybody else can go back to normal.

In that scenario she said it is also possible to develop the so-called herd immunity – that once enough people have the coronavirus, it is not such a problem anymore.

“Most businesses open, and we can realistically hope hiring and spending start to increase. This is happening in China where they are experiencing a V-shaped recovery for manufacturing that’s taking off but again, tourism and personal service industries are much, much slower.”

In the pessimistic scenario, she said we do not yet have widespread contact tracing and testing and the virus spikes back up. In this scenario it will be like the 1918 influenza virus that started out relatively mild in the spring of 1918, then surged with a vengeance in the fall of that year.

“Pandemics and epidemics have throughout history, resulted in big long-term changes to society and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see the same with this one,” said Orman. “And how soon economic recovery takes place depends on what American society is willing to live with.”

That requires compliance.

“This is a free country. We prize our freedoms, so will we submit to required testing on a regular basis, or being told you need to be in quarantine because of someone you’ve been in contact with has contracted the disease and you need to be quarantined for two weeks, even if you’re not feeling sick?

“I think some people will and some people won’t. Initially there will be a strong sense of public spiritedness so people will comply, but eventually people will get tired of it, so compliance will probably be an issue.”

And will widespread mask-wearing make sense, and will people comply with it? Orman said it’s hard to see how it won’t become standard at this point, but how will people feel about it in the long-term?”

Orman shared three very telling images from China taken after they reopened their economy.

The differences are stark of Chinese factory workers maintaining 6-foot social distancing while enjoying lunch at a manufacturing plant looks more like an image from a prison.

One image shows a sparsely populated subway in Beijing with passengers sitting 6 feet apart in a car that is usually very crowded.

And perhaps the most telling picture of all – a wedding, where aside from the bride and groom, everyone in the wedding party, including the photographer, are wearing masks.

After seeing these images – to what extent are people going to be comfortable with this and for how long?

“These are still the probing questions,” Orman said.

Partnership for Children Drafts Recommendations to Save Local Child Care Industry

As the Madison County economy has grown, so have concerns over the demand for child care.

The focus was on worries that Huntsville and Madison were already only meeting about half the demand for child care, and there was a gap in services as well as licensed child care.

Gail Piggott, executive director of the Alabama Partnership for Children, held a summit last fall as a means for finding solutions not just for standard 8 to 5 care, but also for shift care, and weekend child care as well.

She formed a task force to look at the demands and issues associated with child care in North Alabama.

Six weeks ago, that task force was suddenly faced with a more daunting task. They have been working day and night trying to draft a set of recommendations and best practices they can share with the Alabama Department of Human Resources, the Legislature, and with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff to save the child care industry in North Alabama.

“The one big thing we’ve learned is there is no state entity that collects all of the public and private data around child care,: Piggott said. “We can get information from DHR about licensing and subsidies, but there is a whole other world of private child care out there, and there is no way to count how many are enrolled in those programs.”

She said it has shown a glaring light on the need for a central repository of data about child care. Once that is created, it will provide a real-time model that helps parents.

“If you send parents a list,” she said. “That is no different from looking through the phone book or looking at a list online.

“But when you know what fees are currently being charged, who has openings in an infant classrooms, et cetera, that is the real-time help that supports parents and families, and it’s a glaring need in our state right now.”

She said the best research is a national survey conducted in mid-April of 50 day care centers and 50 home providers.

The results are alarming. One-third of all childcare programs said they could not financially survive more than two weeks.

“It’s not an industry that operates on big margins or that has big reserves,” said Piggott. “In that same survey, one-third of them said they will probably never reopen.

“Now we don’t know how many of those are family child care, how many are day care centers, but that folks, is going to cause an alarming problem if we’re not able to, in an emergency like the COVID-19 crisis, to stabilize the industry and keep them afloat. These people have already been without income for two weeks, three weeks, maybe four weeks. The economy cannot rev back up if we don’t have childcare options for working families.”

She said the task force must encourage and specify will stabilize it.

The outlook presents a conundrum because, out in the field, Piggott said there is a lot of confusion.

“There are CDC guidelines involved as well as Alabama child care licensing guidelines and those have been modified,” she said. “Then there are Alabama Health Department guidelines and they often differ from county to county.”

There are also fears and concerns from teachers, day care center owners and directors surrounding the vast unknowns. Many of the fears and concerns are about not being able to serve their families, not being able to see the children, or connect with the children.

Madison County DHR reports there are 32 child care centers open and operating, and delving into those numbers, 11 are family child care – meaning they can only care for a maximum of six children.

It was estimated that two to three percent of family child care facilities across Alabama were operating to care for the children of health professionals and critical care workers who are working chaotic hours.

It brought to light the issue of child care during non-standard hours and the typical child development center does not always accommodate those times. Although there are centers that do in Madison County, it presented an opportunity to consider family child care as a good option because they are only serving families that need child care from 3 p.m. until midnight.

“Recapping what we know about child care in Alabama right now,” Piggott said, “For working parents on vouchers and who are part of the subsidy program, DHR, as of May 1, is serving 100 children from 65 families in Madison County. Across the state they are serving upwards of 30,000 children.”

But, there is good news in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The CARES Act includes $3.5 billion in additional funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant to provide child care assistance to emergency and frontline workers, and to help stabilize the child care market in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we are smart and do it right, there are funds in the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, which in Alabama is $1.9 billion,” said Piggott. “FEMA and child care are specifically mentioned in that $1.9 billion and we will soon get some guidance from the governor on that.

“It specifically references funding for birth through age five and not just K through 12, and that’s $48 million.”
She said the Childcare Development Fund will provide an additional $46 million and that amount is matched with state dollars. It will be used to pay for the voucher program and subsidized care for low income working families, as well as for quality initiatives like training and licensing that help support quality child care.

“It is exactly what needed to happen,” Piggott said. “Our recommendations are very specific. For those on the subsidy program, DHR sends parents who qualify for subsidized child care a check every month, based on attendance and the number of children they serve. The rates vary across the state, but what we asked DHR to do immediately when the closures happened, was to base their payments on enrollment as of Feb. 1, pre-COVID. However many children they were serving on that date, whatever they were being compensated, continue to send it and forget about attendance. That money is available, it was already budgeted, and we knew we were going to spend it.

“Also, because parents pay a copay based on a sliding scale fee, but child care facilities can’t collect it because they are closed, we asked them to use the funding to suspend parent copay for now, and send that amount to the child care centers.”

Based on the dramatic decline anticipated, Piggott said if they don’t act now and the programs close, they will lose the investments in training. And she doesn’t think they will get them back when the economy revs back up.

“We are starting to share our recommendations with some of our key legislators now that the Legislature is back in session.” she said. “We want to ensure they understand the critical nature of this issue.

“We have gone through two or three iterations of our recommendations, so it is very succinct with us naming specific funding streams available to do it. We feel it is hard to say ‘no’ when you show them where the money can come from.”

She is not so sure about the money from the GEER Fund, however.

“Everybody has a critical need; everybody is in the same boat; and frankly, young children and families find it hard to claw their way to the top of the list,” she said.

Finally, Piggott points out that the situation affects more than just low income families. Private pay parents are in a dilemma too.

Should you keep paying for child care to hold a spot, even while they are closed? If you are working from home, should you keep paying for that? Are you holding a spot someone else needs worse than you? Should you continue child care at all?

“Child care issues are complex,” said Piggott, “By nature, it is impossible to social distance young children. We haven’t even figured out how to prevent them from sharing pacifiers; so when you talk to a teacher about socially distancing 3-year-olds, you get a true sense of what that looks like on the ground.”

Community Foundation Reignites Emergency Relief Fund with $50K Donation from Toyota

Initiated after the tornado outbreak in North Alabama in 2011, the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville has  reignited its emergency relief fund thanks to a donation of $50,000 from Toyota. The funds are intended to support community nonprofit organizations who are providing basic needs and health and wellness relief throughout the community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce and WAAY-TV have also partnered with the Community Foundation and Toyota to kick off the Take 5 to Give $5 campaign, which will culminate on May 5 for the global GivingTuesdayNow Day.

The partnership is challenging other companies to give anything from $5 up to $50,000 to match Toyota’s donation. Melissa Thompson, executive director of the Community Foundation, said their goal over the next two weeks is to put $500,000 into this fund.

In just a few days since launching the campaign, the Community Foundation and its donors have deposited nearly $200,000, not including the Toyota donation.

“We are supporting 28 different grants from 27 different nonprofit organizations to date,” said Thompson. “But the needs are still beyond what we are able to fund, so we have received grant applications in excess of $800,000. Our grants committee continues to work to get this money out to those organizations on the frontlines of our COVID-19 response.”

The Community Foundation usually relies on fees for managing company funds to cover operations. However, during the pandemic, the foundation is waiving its fees for the management of the emergency relief fund, to ensure that 100 percent of every dollar contributed goes directly to the nonprofits recommended for funding.

“Managing these contributions is our way of giving back to the community,” said Thompson.

The Community Foundation website at https://communityfoundationhsv.org/Covid lists the organizations that have already received grant funding, and visitors can also see the Foundation’s grants committee recommendations.

“Our grants committee is trying to prioritize needs and is very conscious of the fact we are spending other people’s money who have donated to this fund and also, that by endorsing a grant, we have a responsibility to stand behind it,” said Thompson. “The community can have confidence in the grants we are recommending.”

For questions about how an agency on the frontlines of this pandemic can apply for a grant and become a part of the Community Foundation, those agencies can find the application at the bottom of the webpage.

“We try to make it a pretty easy application,” said Thompson. “Our grants committee is meeting weekly right now to turn these applications around quickly, so get your application in as soon as possible.

“Just note the money is specific to basic needs and health and wellness right now.”

Area Coffee Shops Brew Up New Concepts to Stay in Business

In the looming shadow of COVID 19, local coffee establishments have been persevering; making “nip and tuck” adjustments, as necessary. Some have scaled back their hours along with their menus; some have reduced staffing hours or have furloughed staff.

Just Love Coffee just loves to make lunch and dinner, also.

Others have added online merchandise sales to help keep their businesses and their talented crew afloat. Most have applied a variety of strategies.

Thus far, whatever they’re doing seems to be working.

While business may not be as brisk as it was pre-March 30, several bean-centric establishments have been holding their own.

Behind Lowe Mill lies Gold Sprint Coffee, serving as a caffeinated oasis for the telecommuter. A relative newcomer, Gold Sprint has yet to celebrate its first year in business.

Although Gold Sprint’s quirky trophies-meet-stuffed-trash-panda-riding-a-trike interior remains closed for the duration, customers can easily order at the window or call ahead for curbside pickup.

Out of sheer necessity, Gold Sprint owner Victor Burlingame reduced the hours of operation, along with the menu offerings and staff hours.

“We’re 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 9 to 5 Sunday,” said Burlingame. “We scaled back on the number of people per shift. We had to cut hours back to make it work.”

Burlingame has also been promoting “Sprint Swag,” such as shirts and mugs, both for sale on-site and online. He says the merchandise has been a big hit.

“We’ve had people from Brazil, New York, and Colorado ordering,” said Burlingame. Which made him wonder, “Like, how do you know about us?”

Honest Coffee Roasters, the embedded gem of the Clinton Avenue parking garage was proactive in response to the April 4 mandate.

Managing partner Christy Graves posted a video on Facebook explaining the changes, providing audio-visual reinforcement for her customer base. To serve the community without allowing them inside, Honest adjusted its operations and product delivery; customers can now choose from curbside, pickup, or delivery.

“We have shortened our hours just a little bit – to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week,” said Graves. “Curbside is available and is really easy to use. You can order online, full menu all day. We also have our partnership with GrubSouth and now we’ve added Door Dash as an additional delivery option.”

Just Love Coffee in Times Plaza on South Memorial Parkway was open less than a month when COVID 19 became its unfortunate reality. Despite the surprise setback, Just Love has maintained its operating hours and their menu is an all-day affair.

“We maintained our hours throughout this whole thing,” said Travis Duehring, owner. “We open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., Monday through Friday; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

“We serve our full menu all day long. You can get ice cream at 6 a.m. or spinach salad at 6 a.m.”

Just Love has a staff of 22 part-time employees; all of whom are still on the payroll.

“Our team is wonderful,” said Duehring. “They all sacrificed for each other and everyone gave hours to those who needed it most.”

In addition to in-store takeout, curbside pickup, online ordering, and delivery, Just Love recently partnered with other area businesses for on-site prepared box lunches, all delivered straight to your door.

Offbeat Coffee Studio, the place where coffee pairs with recorded vinyl at Campus 805, reluctantly furloughed their crew, leaving owners Kyle and Anna Lee Husband to run the business themselves. They have also scaled back their operating hours to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week.

Offbeat is using the @cloosiv app and is open for take-out, curbside pick-up, and GrubSouth delivery. Additionally, Offbeat has added online merchandise sales to help sustain its business and support their crew.

Established in 1996, Olde Towne Coffee is for takeout only. Call-ahead and the staff will have the order ready upon arrival.

The long-established Five Points coffee go-to scaled back their hours to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week. Olde Towne is still offering a full menu; their bakery goods are astonishing, to say the least. Along with brewed coffee, espresso drinks, and assorted menu items, one can buy bulk coffee by the pound and select from one of the many bottles of flavoring syrups that are available for purchase.

There have been discernable shifts in peak customer traffic since March. Burlingame and Duehring have both observed new patterns in customer behavior.

Gold Sprint normally caters to the teleworking community. Since orders are now curbside pickups or at the window, there has been a shift to morning customers, coupled with a late afternoon “pick me up” crowd. The usual, midmorning rush of telecommuters is almost non-existent.

“Strangely enough, our crowd really was kind of late morning, around 9 or 10 a.m., and it was slammed,” said Burlingame. “And now, it’s like just the morning and in the afternoon. In the middle is kind of ‘there’.”

“Prior to this [COVID 19], we would have customers first thing when we opened,” said Duehring. “Our normal morning rush was 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for the lunch rush.” Although in the past, customers would be waiting at the door when they opened, “My peak times are now from 10 a.m. till about 1 p.m. and then we get another small rush about 3 p.m.”

Given the unique nature of the present circumstances, the future is cloudy for business owners, at least for the time being. Despite the uncertainties, there remains the undercurrent of resiliency and “can-do” spirit.

“We want to keep coffee in your hands, keep us in business, and still get to see the people we care about,” said Graves. “We appreciate you guys more than anything.”

Area Hospitality Industry Weathering COVID-19 Storm

It officially began with a health order from the state March 20.

That’s when all on-premise consumption of food and beverages in restaurants and bars had been officially banned.

Then, Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Stay at Home order” followed on April 4 thus further delineating “essential” versus “nonessential” businesses.

One thing that is certain since COVID-19 is uncertainty. Since mid-March, there have been a lot of mandates with the information changing daily, perhaps even hourly in some instances.

Over the past few years, Huntsville and Madison County have been experiencing exponential growth in lodging, dining, and beverage establishments.

However, COVID-19 has been quite the game changer, for both seasoned and new businesses alike.

Although the order was scheduled to end April 30, it is anyone’s guess as to the long-term impact and what Huntsville-Madison County’s version of the “new normal” will be.

Many people do not immediately consider North Alabama as a tourist destination.

However, in 2018, there were roughly 3.35 million visitors to Madison County and more than $1.4 billion generated by tourism.

“We receive information on an annual basis from the Alabama Tourism Department,” said Charles Winters, executive vice president at Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “As far as estimated visitors to our county, their estimation of economic impact of all types of visitors; that’s business travelers, convention attendees, all the folks who come into our community.

In North Alabama alone, tourism-generated dollars are tied to a multitude of capital improvements, as well as an estimated 20,000 jobs in the hospitality-service industry sector.

With the “Stay at Home” order, businesses cut back their hours and services, which translated into fewer employees being needed. Many have been furloughed, laid off, or flat-out terminated.

As a result of COVID-19 and assorted mandates, varying from state-to-state, the hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard, with estimates as high as 7 million jobs lost or furloughed at the national level.

Although restaurants have been deemed “essential” and can still offer curbside or window pickup, as well as a variety of delivery and pickup options, not all restaurants have decided to keep their doors open.

“Due to COVID-19, Grille 29 Huntsville is temporarily closed,” said Regina Burnett, director of catering sales. “We are unsure of a return date at this time.”

The layoffs and furloughs serve as a double-whammy for the already personnel-strapped hospitality sector.

“As an industry, we’ve been growing exponentially here in Huntsville,” said Jennifer Middleton, director of sales at Candlewood Suites Huntsville-Research Park. “Workforce has been a huge issue for everybody, especially the hospitality industry.”

As the area growth ensued, local industry leaders addressed the issue by getting involved in tech programs, culinary programs at area high schools, along with assorted job fairs, all designed to bring attention to showcasing hospitality and service industry jobs as variable career options.

“Then, overnight, this work that we have been promoting as one of the best industries to work in – it comes to a halt,” said Middleton. “It’s just sad, for us to come from one place to another where we were in desperate need and, now, we have too many and not enough demand.”

In response, the Huntsville-Madison County Hospitality Association board took action. Using social media, the association contacted its members, letting them know that resource information had been posted on its Facebook site. A Facebook public group site titled, “HSV Food To Go Options (COVID 19)” was also created so people can find out what restaurants are open along with ways the community can help do their part to boost the hospitality industry.

“On a positive a note, we can promote ourselves as one of the best industries to work in because, as an industry, you can see how resourceful we are,” said Middleton. “We say this all the time, amongst ourselves, that we are one big family.

“And we’re passionate about serving people and especially about taking care of our own.”

Chamber Launches GetYourGiftOn.Org to Support Local Restaurants and Stores

If you were not hungry before, you will be after visiting the new GetYourGiftOn.org website (https://www.getyourgifton.org/), launched by the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce in support of local small businesses, especially restaurants and retail establishments.

The website features retail and dining establishments which can quickly and easily upload detailed information about their business, including any promotional offers and specials; new and limited business hours; whether or not they offer curbside or delivery options (even if they didn’t offer it before); and links to online gift cards that can be used to order food or goods, or that can be given to someone else as gift.

Searchable by neighborhood, it is easy for businesses to take part by clicking the “Submit a Business” link at the top of the site and filling out the information. That information goes to the Chamber to be verified and could go live within a couple of hours if not sooner.

There is no cost for businesses to be added and Chamber membership is not required to participate.

“Maybe your company never thought about offering gift cards or just hadn’t gotten around to it yet,” said Lucia Cape, Senior Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber. “This makes it really easy, and that was our intent – to keep it really simple and make it very attractive.”

For businesses that do not offer gift cards, there are options available.

  • Instagift, an Alabama-based e-gift card service, is  waiving monthly fees for any Huntsville signups;
  • Gift Up is waiving its 3.49 percent fee on the first $5,000 of gift card sales.

For businesses with e-gift cards and using platforms such as Square, they can be easily and quickly linked.

The Chamber has been brainstorming ways to help support local businesses during this unprecedented shutdown and heard about a site called LocalDistancing.com in Birmingham.

Inspired by three childhood friends and entrepreneurs Vince Perez, Dylan Spencer, and Trey Oliver, the Chamber asked them for help in building a sister site in Huntsville based on the same premise.

According to Cape, it was a labor of love working with them to get the site up quickly, and to provide such an easy format so business owners can add themselves to the site and be up and running almost immediately.

“Please pass along the word about GetYourGiftOn.org and encourage every retail or restaurant owner you know to add their information to the site,” said Cape. “We expect to add a lot more vendors to the site in the coming days so if there is a business you haven’t been to lately; or if you know of a business or restaurant in your neighborhood that should be using the site, be sure and let them and the Chamber know so we can get them up as soon as possible.

“Remember that even though we may be losing track of dates these days, we have not canceled holidays and Mother’s Day is coming up May 10. Maybe you are checking in with your mom, but not able to visit. You can still send her a gift. Go to GetYourGiftOn.org and buy her an online gift card to somewhere to eat or to her favorite retail store.

Because the website is new, the Chamber is seeking feedback to provide improvements and updates.

 

New State Regulations Limit Gatherings, Ban Dining-in

The Public Health Officer for the State of Alabama released a new list of stringent containment policies for communities to follow to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

These include full school closures, senior center closures, pre-school and child care closures, nursing home restrictions, delayed elective-medical procedures, limited gatherings of no more than 25 persons, bar closures, and no on-premise consumption of food and beverages in restaurants.

Mayor Tommy Battle said the City of Huntsville will immediately follow these policies in the best interest of public health.

“This is a challenging time for our communities. I remain grateful for the way our residents and businesses have been working together to adhere to the public health guidelines and support each other in this time of need.

To our business community, as a former restaurateur, my heart goes out to you, and to all of our companies and residents who lives have been disrupted by this virus.  The Alabama Health Department has determined these precautions are necessary and we will follow their guidance.”

Battle said Huntsville residents should remain calm but must take coronavirus seriously.

“We’re a smart community, and we’ll be smart about stopping this virus,” he said. “Let’s continue to fully follow health recommendations for social distancing, to remain six feet apart, and wash hands regularly.”

How to Help Neighborhood Businesses During the Coronavirus Outbreak

By Bekah Schmidt

It has never been more important to support our local small business community. The Coronavirus outbreak is affecting brick and mortars all over the nation, and no business is immune to this national emergency.

Here are five ways you can support small businesses in Huntsville, from your couch or car.

  1. Order takeout or delivery from your favorite independent restaurants

Your favorite restaurant may have shut its doors, but you can still order online through apps such as Grub Hub, Grub South, Door Dash and more. Independent restaurant owners are transitioning their servers to deliverers. Call the store first and ask what the best delivery method is for the restaurant. Most restaurants are offering curbside service too, which allows for touchless delivery to your vehicle. If you do use an online delivery app, Grub Hub is waiving fees for independent restaurant owners, so more of your money will end up in the restaurant owner’s pocket.

  1. Look for take and bake options or ready-made meals

Several businesses are offering meals to go for the whole family versus individual meals. This is more cost effective for the business owner and consumer and requires less touch points in handling of the food. Good Company Café is offering a “take and bake” menu, and Kathleen’s Catering is offering dinner for 6 for $35.99! Ordering dinner from a local restaurant, versus going to the grocery store reduces the amount of touch points and exposure you have to the general public. (A small restaurant might have a staff of five or less – going to the grocery store you are exposed to hundreds of people.) One last tip, you can also freeze the meals for later.

  1. Shop your favorite local retailers online

Retail stores are moving their business online and to their social media accounts – which is where customers are, too. You can still pick up a birthday gift for a friend or find the perfect home décor for spring from your couch. Businesses are posting their products online and invoicing customers. Other retailers are offering curbside pickup or delivery. Ruth’s Nutrition, a vitamin store in South Huntsville, is taking orders and payments over the phone, and bringing your order to your car, so you don’t have to leave your vehicle.

  1. Purchase a Gift Card

Purchasing a gift card to a local business is a great way to support the local economy right now. The business gets the cash they need now – and you get to treat yourself later! Most businesses offer gift cards online. If you don’t see a gift card online option, call the store. Business owners are mailing out gift certificates to customers or offering curbside gift card delivery. Even if it is only $20, it makes a huge difference for our local businesses.

  1. Write a positive review

The Coronavirus outbreak has caught everyone off guard and our small business owners are all feeling the pressure of the unknown. As a customer you can like, comment, share and review our businesses and inspire others to do the same. It takes less than a minute to leave a positive review. When you review a business, you build consumer confidence and encourage others to shop local. As many businesses transition to doing most of their business online, business owners will rely on your feedback to improve their processes.

Bekah Schmidt is the executive director of the South Huntsville Main Business Association.

 

 

 

 

‘To Go’ is the Way to Go for Dining During COVID-19 Emergency

With health agencies recommending against public gatherings, local businesses and restaurants have come up with new strategies and practices to stay in business.

“There are a lot of unknowns but I think people are doing a really good job trying to discern best practices that will keep the customers safe while also providing them with things they need like food,” said Downtown Huntsville Inc. President/CEO Chad Emerson. “I’ve been very pleased with seeing how everyone is willing to consider new approaches especially in the immediate term.”

Emerson spoke to the Huntsville Business Journal about what his organization is doing to keep the food and beverage industry apprised of current events surrounding the virus.

“We’re continuing to gather as much useful information as possible and to share it as efficiently as possible,” Emerson said. “We’re looking at what other cities that are further along in the process because they were exposed to the situation earlier than we were, are using that can help us develop some best practices.

“We have a lot of really smart people here in Huntsville that are resilient, and they are committed to trying new ways to serve the public.”

Go to https://www.downtownhuntsville.org/blog to find Best Practices information. It is updated regularly.

“Every Monday at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. we’re having general updates and information via conference call,” Emerson said. “This is information we are gleaning both locally as well as from other downtowns.

“It is really an opportunity to try to give everyone a chance to be heard and to ask questions. We have designed it for downtown operators, mostly for food and beverage operators, but any of those establishments around Huntsville and Madison are welcome to call in. It is a team effort citywide.”

Emerson also wanted to stress that currently, all downtown restaurants are open for business. Many are increasing To-Go options to the point in which they will bring food out to your car; some are expanding their delivery options; and almost all are modifying their in-restaurant dining experience to increase the distance between guests.

“Even if the in-restaurant dining experience is limited or closed in the days ahead, most of the restaurants we are dealing with are continuing to operate,” he said. “So, if you have a favorite restaurant where you usually go out to dine, check their social media or call them and ask them what their options are including delivery and To-Go.”

Downtown Huntsville does not have any food truck events scheduled, but social media is the best place to find out whether some of them will be set up somewhere remotely. Emerson said no one has called a halt to food trucks right now but the Food Truck Corral at NASA has been postponed.

In terms of retail, Emerson said, “We’re finding that people have more time, and they may not be gathering as often at large public events but people are still interested in getting out of the house and keeping life going as normally as possible, and that includes buying new goods they need.”