Small businesses show resolve and optimism while meeting with congresswoman - Elaine for Congress

Small businesses show resolve and optimism while meeting with congresswoman

Usually, when politicians ask small businesses what’s going on, they hear about problems, but when one entrepreneur-turned-member of Congress came to the Peninsula to check on pandemic-hit constituents, what she heard about was perseverance.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, was braced for some tough stories in her latest round of visits to small businesses, in the hardest-hit part of her Virginia Beach to Williamsburg district, the tourism-dependent Historic Triangle — and especially when talking to a brother and sister in the family restaurant business.

“We’ve been here 49 years,” said Tom Power, hearkening back to when his mom and day first opened The Trellis restaurant.

“We’re going to make it to 50.”

The pandemic shuttered part of the family business — The Fat Canary restaurant — for 2 1/2 months. Some of the last-to-be-eased Virginia restrictions on restaurant dining in Hampton Roads still limit seating in the dining room.

But Power said, “it was the right thing to do.”

He reckons revenue is down 30%.

“I’m optimistic … but it’s hard to write those checks every two weeks. It’s not just the financial issue, it’s something that hits your heart, your head. It’s hard to sleep sometimes” he said, referring to the bills that have to be paid.

Adding to the pressure on the business, the family took the plunge in January with a long-planned expansion, remodeling a storage area next to their wine store in their Williamsburg Cheese Shop’s basement.

The aim is to make another restaurant with a menu of smaller, less expensive plates than The Fat Canary, to win the kind of diners who might decide at the last minute on a weekday night that they’d like to eat out someplace easy.

“We saved our pennies for years for this,” said Mary Ellen Power.

The family’s earlier moves to diversify helped the business cope with the pandemic’s hit, she said.

The Cheese Shop still draws customers, both online and walk-ins eager for a bite after strolling along Duke of Gloucester Street and Colonial Williamsburg. Besides the tables out front, the awning they put up a decade ago along the side of the store makes a pandemic-safe spot to eat, at least on a summery day — “it’s been a godsend,” Mary Ellen Power said.

New ways of doing business have helped at the Poquoson Dance Academy, owner Denise Topping told Luria about an hour later.

When social distancing rules meant her students couldn’t come in for classes, she and her teachers used Zoom to keep the children up with their ballet, tap, jazz and other dance classes.

That kept most going until June, and reopening for in-person sessions in July brought a rush — 80 students now.

“They’re all eager, it’s a chance to be with others, to socialize, that they didn’t have,” Topping said.

Luria, whose dance school career highlight involved a costume as a bunny rabbit before she decided figure skating and taekwondo were more her style, had meant to visit the dance school before the pandemic.

Though they missed connecting then, Topping got Luria’s regular stream of emails of advice about federal pandemic relief.

Just up the street, though, Roy Wilson, at Floral Fashions, decided against the Payroll Protection Program, worried about the possibility of repaying the advance if he didn’t hit the benchmarks.

“I just didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.

What has happened was a drop in some of his staples: weddings and funerals, flowers for churches, flowers for patients in hospitals and nursing homes.

“We can take them now sometimes and leave them at the front desk to be delivered … but some rehab places still don’t want us to,” he said.

Delivering flowers was a challenge that is easing somewhat, he said.

“People just didn’t want to come to the door,” he said.

But some of his biggest challenges come at the supply side. Flowers are highly perishable, and the pandemic has already meant glitches on the path from greenhouse to retail florist. Flowers often move by plane — and, like passengers, they can be bumped. Cutbacks in the number of flights are a challenge, especially for flowers coming in from overseas.

Trade tensions with China mean the pots and baskets and other containers that Wilson uses for his flower arrangements take longer to arrive. He’s already put in his orders for the containers needed for the most common Christmas arrangements and is beginning to think about nailing down supplies of foliage and flowers.

“You have to start a lot sooner,” he said. “I have to have the flowers in hand.”

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For Luria, the big takeaway of her stops at Peninsula small businesses this week was their adaptability — and, she added, the need to listen carefully to how different businesses are coping and are challenged.

What she had heard earlier in the pandemic was why she teamed up with colleagues to push for rule changes to the Payroll Protection Program.

One now allows businesses that see big seasonal swings in employment, like Williamsburg’s hotels, not be locked in to calculating losses based on wintertime staff levels, as the program originally required.

Another lowers the benchmark for payroll expenses, to allow more PPP advances to be forgiven.

Her own business career got her started in politics — the bug bit after was asking her state delegate, the late Johnny S. Joannou, D-Portsmouth, what it would take to let her offer wine and beer at events hosted by her Norfolk mermaid gift business.

The bill that resulted currently allows several dozen Virginia businesses to do just what she had wanted.

“What I see is all the things people are trying, to keep going,” she said. “That’s what I like about small business tours — they’re a great way to see what people are thinking.”

Or, as Tom Power back in Williamsburg, put it:

“We’re going to make it. I don’t know when it will happen or how it will happen. But we’re going to make it.”

Williamsburg League of Women Voters’ virtual candidate meet-and-greet offers look at candidates in 1st, 2nd Congressional districts//Daily Press

Candidates from the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts took part in a forum Thursday evening hosted by the Williamsburg League of Women Voters, in which they discussed issues ranging from climate change to voting rights to the COVID-19 pandemic response.

The event at times turned toward the bizarre, with the two Democratic candidates, 2nd Congressional District incumbent Elaine Luria and 1st Congressional District candidate Qasim Rashid, delivering talking points around independent candidate David Foster, who claimed the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States was “a lie” and that Russian collusion was a “hoax,” among other things.

The event took place over Zoom Thursday evening, and according to Sudie Watkins, president of the Williamsburg League, more than 50 people registered to attend. The participant count maxed out at 35 people, including the candidates.

Representative Rob Wittman, the Republican incumbent for the 1st District, and Scott Taylor, Rep. Luria’s Republican opponent in the 2nd District, were unable to attend the event, though all candidates were invited to participate.

Responses from Luria and Rashid were measured, focused and civil, and though each strayed over the time limit set for their response at least once, the candidates were courteous towards Watkins, the moderator, and Susan Bivins, the timekeeper and local League vice president, when informed that their time was up. Foster’s responses extended past the time limit called by the moderator on multiple occasions, and on more than one of those occasions he began to argue with Bivins and Watkins about the time.

An audience member asked the candidates how they would each work to make Virginia carbon neutral.

Rashid said he believes it is important to work toward carbon neutrality, and that the state can do so while creating new jobs for workers in the fossil fuel sector, so they are not left behind.

“I support the Green New Deal,” Rashid said, adding later in a response to another environmental question that the Green New Deal is not legislation, but rather “guidelines” to “protect our climate, strengthen our economy, and protect our national security.”

Luria also said the energy issue is “very important,” with the Hampton Roads area already feeling the effects of climate change with increased flooding. She stated that she wants to work to “find ways to cut CO2 emissions” and increase offshore wind, in addition to expanding nuclear power.

“We have to consider nuclear as part of that,” Luria said of efforts to make Virginia carbon neutral. She stated that her time in the Navy has given her experience on the topics of nuclear “efficacy and safety” when it comes to green energy.

Foster focused on hemp crops as a solution to climate change, stating that the plant stores more CO2 than other crops and can be used to create biodegradable plastics. He also stated that he supports nuclear power as a solution, and claimed that the amount of time it takes to offset the carbon dioxide produced by creating one wind turbine makes wind an ineffective solution to climate change.

In response to another question about the environment later, Foster stated that the fact that the water level under the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel has not changed in the “40 years” he has driven on it as “proof that there is no threat to the seas rising on a global scale.”

Candidates also responded to a question on the best way to balance public health with the risks posed by COVID-19.

“I think the short answer is we need to listen to the scientists and follow the science,” Rashid said. He added that he has called for “mass free testing” for all Americans, supports wearing masks and wants to see more widespread contact tracing, and with those efforts “within 4-6 weeks we can get this virus under control.”

He would balance these public health measures with proposed legislation to give Americans $2,000 per month, backdated through the start of the pandemic and for three months after the pandemic’s end, to help support families and small businesses until the economy recovers.

Luria said public health and safety has been “on the forefront” of everyone’s mind since the start of the pandemic, and said that finding an effective vaccine and distributing it to everyone in the country was vital to keeping everyone safe.

“I will continue to work hard to make sure we have a bipartisan solution” to help Americans, Luria said.

She cited her work in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group with 50 members of the House, which has put together a framework for a coronavirus package that both parties will support.

Foster, in response to the question, said without evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was “planned in 2017” to “take out a duly elected administration.”

“You tried to take him out with the Russian hoax,” Foster said, seemingly alluding to the Russian collusion mentioned in the Mueller reports, though it was unclear who exactly was attempting to “take out” President Donald Trump, nor was it clear what “the Russian hoax” was precisely referencing.

Foster also said that “in 2005 Fauci said hydroxychloroquine was” a treatment for COVID-19.

COVID-19 was not present in humans before 2019, nor was it planned by any world administration to take out any world leaders. Fauci has never approved hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the illness, and the statement Foster made to the idea that Fauci did so in 2005 seems to be a reference to a debunked story from, a website that is known for promoting conspiracy theories and incorrect information.

Later, in response to a question about COVID-19 cases in detention facilities, Foster said “215,000 deaths is a lie.” As of Friday morning, there have been “at least 212,700 deaths,” according to the New York Times.

The final question prompted each candidate to specify what the most important challenges facing the United States of America are, and how they would address those issues.

Rashid stated that COVID-19 is the most immediate challenge facing the American public, and that he would listen to scientists and provide economic support in the form of $2,000 per month to every American. He also said that he believes economic justice, and reform for the tax system to repeal tax cuts to the super-wealthy, are critical issues.

“This is the model that we used in the 1940s-1970s,” which led to an economic boom during that time period, Rashid said.

Rashid also mentioned broadband as a public utility, “comprehensive health care reform,” and “healing on racial injustices, on gender injustices” as important issues to overcome.

Luria said the three things “keeping me up at night” are the COVID-19 pandemic, China as a military and economic “national security threat” to the United States, and climate change.

To deal with the pandemic, Luria reiterated her commitment to “invest” in a “safe and effective vaccine” and a way to distribute it, as well as expanded personal protective equipment and testing for the virus.

“We need to do things to cut our CO2 emmissions,” Luria said of fighting climate change. She advocated for more wind and solar power, in addition to expanding nuclear power “to ensure our communities” are secure in the future.

Foster did not directly address any challenges facing the country, but alluded to partisanship in the federal government by saying that he reaches “out to the Democrats and the Republicans on both sides,” and calling the impeachment proceedings against President Trump in 2019 a “fake impeachment trial.”

“We will start 2021 with a clean slate,” Foster said, asking voters in both parties to vote out current members of the government. “We will restore our constitutional republic.”

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