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Guest column, Ron Quinn: Local small business still under weather from COVID
Ron Quinn.jpg
Ron Quinn

I know we’re all sick of the sneaky COVID grinch and ready to see it slither away for good, especially this holiday season. Despite vaccines and lower hospitalization rates, the pesky virus continues to hover over our lives, very much like the green grump sneering down on Whoville. 

No thanks to COVID and a shipping gridlock worldwide, we’re all stressed as we hurry up our gift purchases to avoid coming up short on Christmas morning. The impacts are so pervasive that I wouldn’t be surprised if even Santa is dealing with an elf shortage and working overtime. 

However, I believe it’s local small businesses, including retailers in our hometown, who feel the sickest from the lingering clutches of COVID. They are squeezed in the middle of a giant bottleneck – stuck between heavy consumer demand and inventories that are locked away in containers at backed-up ports and warehouses across the country.

Just look at retail goods in stores here. Locally, numerous small businesses, lacking the leverage and purchase power of Amazon and Wal-Mart, simply can’t access short supplies of appliances, clothing, and other sales items to fill their shelves. Drive out Brown’s Bridge Road and surely you’ve noticed slimmer numbers of new cars and trucks on the lots of dealerships hit by electronic chip shortages.

We all know the woes of our local restaurants. But not only have they dealt with hiring challenges, now they are beginning to feel the pinch of inflation, too. At my favorite eating places around Gainesville, I’ve noticed very few increases in menu prices because the owners seem fearful of losing business just as diners are returning. As a result, some say it’s getting cheaper to eat out than to cook at home. Blame it on the higher prices at grocery store chains.

One sector of our local economy that is thriving is our trucking and logistics firms as well as warehouse operations. The rising trend of online shopping that came of age in the pandemic has been a big boon for them. But even these companies must deal with employee and driver shortages as well as high land and construction costs for expansion.

Our area poultry companies, strapped by worker shortages at processing plants, have cut back on orders for live birds grown on farms across Northeast Georgia. These lower production levels pinch the pocketbooks of our farm communities as well as local consumers paying more for chicken and other meats.

You might think that our Northeast Georgia Medical Center and physician practices here are starting to feel better along with their patients. But COVID surges still threaten, while doctors and nurses continue to face burnout from staff shortages, longer hours, and case overloads from delayed elective surgeries. 

On the bright side, our local medical professionals finally have ample supplies of Personal Protective Equipment that were few and far between at the start of the pandemic. This fact sheds a promising light on the current supply crisis for consumer goods that has been so amplified this holiday season.

It took about a year for hospitals to catch up with shortfalls in PPE. Similarly, we are about six months into the recent wave of inventory shortages for retail products that I believe will be straightened out by this spring, just like PPE supplies.

I am also optimistic there will be a turnaround soon in regional hiring shortages reflected in our incredibly low unemployment numbers. Statewide, unemployment is at a record low of about 3.1 percent, while Hall County is even stronger at 2.2 percent. As the fastest growing market in Georgia, Gainesville-Hall County and our employers stand to benefit from more people eventually moving here from other parts of the state and country to fill our abundance of quality jobs and higher wages. We’ll also have plenty of housing options coming on line to greet them due to all our ongoing construction of numerous apartments, townhomes, and community developments.  

Yes, better days are certainly ahead. But until we get there, let’s be mindful of our hard-working local retailers and restaurants. They especially need our support to shake their COVID hangovers before the sun sets on this most unusual of holiday shopping seasons.

Ron Quinn is president and CEO of Peach State Bank & Trust and serves as a delegate with the Independent Community Bankers of America.