COVID-19 and hurricanes: A Perfect Storm for Southeastern Businesses

The Tough Hurricane Season Is A Tough Obstacle For Businesses Struggling To Stay Open Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic.

By Thor Benson

We rely heavily on our hospitality industry here in New Orleans. I’m the only person in my group of friends who doesn’t work at a restaurant, bar or hotel. As you can imagine, times have been tough for service industry workers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as these businesses have been forced to shut down, reopen and then shut down again. 

A Brookings Institution report from March claimed New Orleans would be the third-hardest hit city by the recession in the nation. Unemployment reached nearly 20 percent in New Orleans in April, which is higher than it ever went after Hurricane Katrina. While some of those jobs came back when we partially reopened in June, many have gone away again since we were forced to mostly close down once again at the end of July as cases started rising. These businesses already operate on paper-thin margins, so it’s quite likely many of them will not survive this catastrophe.

All of this would be bad enough even if there weren’t other threats coming our way. The Southeast is currently in the midst of what is expected to be a more active than usual hurricane season, which is something we’re used to dealing with, but it’s not something we’re used to dealing with while we’re already facing a pandemic and a major recession. 

Many businesses close up shop during the summer here because it gets so hot and because of the hurricanes, but many have told me they plan to stay open for the summer if they can because they didn’t make the money they’d usually make during the spring to allow them to close for the summer. Not only will their ability to do that depend on COVID-19 case numbers and how lawmakers respond to them, but they’ll also have to consider if they need to close for a while due to an approaching hurricane or to repair damage from a hurricane. They just can’t win. 

Obviously this isn’t only happening in New Orleans. Other Southeastern cities are facing many of the same problems. Thousands of small businesses in South Florida have been forced to close permanently since the pandemic began, and one or two strong hurricanes could be enough to close down many more. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more businesses will be forced to shut their doors regardless of hurricanes. 

While many of these businesses in Florida, Louisiana and beyond were not able to receive small business loans through the CARES Act, the Trump administration has siphoned much of this money to massive corporations. Unfortunately for them, these small businesses can’t afford to hire lobbyists so that they can get the money they were promised like the airlines and the cruise lines can. Many of the small business loans went to businesses that were anything but small. 

One of my greatest fears when it comes to these topics we’re discussing is how this whole situation could, and likely will, create the perfect set of circumstances for disaster capitalism to take hold. Disaster capitalism is what happens when there’s a disaster that wipes out businesses and communities and a bunch of rich companies come in and buy up the property while it’s cheap and put in their own businesses. It happened after Katrina, and it’s surely happening now. I’m imagining my favorite bars and restaurants being replaced by chains owned by regional or national restaurant corporations. It is one of the vilest forms of gentrification.

A city like New Orleans is used to disasters, which is why the community is so strong here, and all we can hope is that the community is strong enough to keep the many small businesses we love alive to maintain the culture and to keep people employed. It’s very important to the people here. We’re not counting on the Trump administration to save us, because it’s clear this president has no interest in that, so we might be on our own. Maybe he’ll nuke a hurricane for us.

Thor Benson is a New Orleans based independent journalist who has contributed to The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, Wired and many other publications.