Across the U.S., small business owners like Matt Tomter have been on a rollercoaster, struggling to keep their companies afloat and their employees on the payroll — and healthy.
Tomter owns Matanuska Brewing Company, which has four locations in and around Anchorage, Alaska. Three of them have been open, on and off and with frequently changing occupancy limits, since May.
Tomter last talked with NPR more than six months ago. Now, he faces a resurgence of coronavirus cases, but with two new challenges: winter and the expiration of federal relief programs such as pandemic unemployment assistance.
His locations are currently limited to 50% capacity. As restaurateurs have done around the country, he’s used outdoor seating and tents to maximize seating under social distancing guidelines.
In anticipation of bone-chilling temperatures, Tomter is now setting up a ventilated, heated tent.
“Never in my life would I think we’d be serving food in a tent in Alaska in November, December,” he tells NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. “But we’re just riding this thing, the best we can.”
The second challenge — the end of federal aid — is tougher to address. Tomter says he expects some kind of shutdown order in the near future as coronavirus cases rise.
“The staff wants to work. I mean, they don’t really have an option,” he says. “These people live paycheck to paycheck — or close to it. And they need to work. And there’s no help at all right now. There’s no additional assistance to take care of them if they are laid off. And we certainly can’t afford to pay people if we’re not open and operating.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Tomter laid off his staff when restaurants were ordered to close.
But then, they were eligible for an extra $600 per week in pandemic unemployment assistance.
That’s no longer the case, as Republicans and Democrats in Congress have failed to agree on a new coronavirus relief package.
“I’m not even a big fan of government coming in and saving the day,” Tomter says. “But we’re in a 100-year event right now, and it seems like that’s the only option to keep people from losing their homes if the business that they work at is shut down. And gosh, how are they going to eat? I mean, that’s the real basic, simple stuff that we all take for granted as Americans becomes difficult when businesses are shut down.”
Jonaki Mehta and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio interview.