Weekly Column

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COVID-19 has upended just about every aspect of American life, and small businesses and their employees have been hit hard. Compared to before shutdowns to contain this pandemic began, unemployment rates are up and revenues are down.

Congress has responded to these economic impacts through legislation such as the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program this bill created, which is designed to help businesses cover their expenses and keep their employees on payroll through forgivable loans. A report released by the Department of Labor on July 2 showed that the economy added nearly 5 million jobs in June, a sign that this program is helping many businesses get back on their feet, but times remain tough for many small businesses and their workers.

In order to learn more about how Congress can further assist Nebraska’s small businesses, I participated in a conference call on June 18 with the Nebraska Retail Federation, an organization that represents department stores, grocers, restaurants, Main Street merchants, wholesalers, and other retail-oriented businesses across the state. 

This call brought a group of Nebraskans who run retail stores, including Schaefer’s in Lincoln, Hirschfield’s in North Platte, and VK Electronics in McCook, together to discuss how COVID-19 has affected their businesses. I heard about how their operations have been hurt by the effort to slow the spread of this virus by reducing in-person business interactions. But I also heard about how they are innovating and finding new ways to succeed.

One of the participants was Susie Robison, who owns and operates Master’s Hand in Tekamah. Master’s Hand was founded in Susie’s kitchen in 2003 as a candle shop, but after just a few years, the business had become so successful that she bought an old appliance store outside town to house the growing business.

Since then, Master’s Hand has added a bakery, a chocolate factory, a floral shop, a boutique, and a restaurant to its offerings. Like many small businesses, they had an online presence, but the vast majority of their sales came from in-person visitors to their store.

When the coronavirus started to force Nebraska businesses like hers to close, she wasn’t sure what to do. She dreaded having to tell her staff of 15 that without in-store sales, she couldn’t afford to keep all of them on.

Master’s Hand went through a dark few weeks. She didn’t know what her business’s future would look like or when she would be able to bring her staff back. But instead of giving up, Susie decided to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which she used to bring these employees back to work.

As Susie told my staff after the conference call, “You can coast during a time like this, or you can choose to really dig in.” She decided to dig in.

Master’s Hand was approved for the loan almost immediately, and they soon began expanding their online presence. They started to offer self-contained “cookie kits,” which allow customers to buy their famous cookies online and decorate them at home.

These became so popular that QVC, the prominent shopping channel and website, featured them in May. This brought a huge surge in traffic to the Master’s Hand website, which at its peak had 4,000 visitors at once – quite the change for a business based in a town of 1,800 people. Master’s Hand is now shipping these kits and other items all across the country.

The story of Master’s Hand is not unique. I have heard from many other Nebraska businesses who have started offering new products in similar circumstances, often also with the help of a PPP loan.

Small business owners like Susie show us that even though things may be hard, this pandemic still offers a chance to innovate and try new things. I hope you will join me in rooting for all of our small businesses and celebrating their successes.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.