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 Sym Sumaj, a waitress at Angelo’s Avenue Grille since 2013, holds a takeout order of pierogi made from scratch.

Sym Sumaj, a waitress at Angelo’s Avenue Grille since 2013, holds a takeout order of pierogi made from scratch.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Sterling Heights business community reacts to coronavirus pandemic

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published March 20, 2020

  Studio Z Fitness  instructors Sandy McClain and Jake Verhagen keep the energy high during a Facebook live  fitness class March 19.

Studio Z Fitness instructors Sandy McClain and Jake Verhagen keep the energy high during a Facebook live fitness class March 19.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

STERLING HEIGHTS — In every community around Michigan, there is an eerie stillness where, not long ago, there was hustle and bustle: School desks sit empty, barstools grow cold, store shelves lie bare.

But don’t be fooled. While the world may be hunkered down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some local businesses are alive and open, waiting to serve their neighbors in any way they can during this crisis.

With hopes of slowing down the spread of the disease, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined with several other states last week and ordered wide-reaching lockdowns on a variety of businesses, from bars and restaurants to fitness studios and beyond.

The aim is to stop folks from congregating in large numbers and potentially passing along the virus at a speed that could put a major strain on the region’s medical resources.

That means, though, that small businesses are suffering their own ailments. Without the resources and financial backing of stakeholders to lean on, those small, independent operations face not just diminished revenue, but potential layoffs, missed vendor payments or maybe worse.

Legislators and business associations at every level are doing what they can to lessen the blow to those businesses, but what those merchants really need now is support, from customers and each other.

“I’m so proud to see the state’s small business resources rally together in this time of crisis. The stories we are hearing from the small businesses affected by COVID-19 are devastating,” Michigan Small Business Development Center State Director J.D. Collins said in a prepared statement.

Shining a spotlight on community-based organizations and businesses has never been more important, and that’s where the Demers family feels like they can do their part to help during the pandemic. As the owners of C & G Newspapers, with 19 publications dedicated to hyperlocal news coverage and advertising, the family feels a huge responsibility to keep residents informed about what is going on in their own backyard, said Managing Editor Gregg Demers.

“I think every business person feels the same way — they’re all pitching in to get everyone through this terrible crisis. That’s when we really see the best in people,” he said. “I’m so pleased with the response from from all our employees, and how dedicated they are to getting the job done and keeping readers connected to their community and informed about what’s happening where they live. I think that’s the role we can play to help get through this, and it’s an important one.”

Over at Angelo’s Avenue Grille in Sterling Heights, Elizabeth Drake, a server for 14 years, is not letting the novel coronavirus or the state’s emergency restrictions on restaurants keep her from serving customers.

She said the business is still doing carryout orders.

“We posted signs on the door, and we’re just trying to adapt,” she said March 18. “It hasn’t been too busy, but we’re trying  to still be here for our patrons that have been here for us throughout the year. The customers are tipping a little bit, which is good.

“So it’s a hand-in-hand type of thing. … Are we breaking even? Probably not. But it has to be done to see if it is beneficial.”

Sterling Heights businesses are figuring out ways to adapt to the coronavirus’ health and economic effects.

On March 16, Whitmer signed an executive order that temporarily shut down bars, coffee shops, performance venues, gyms, fitness centers, indoor sports facilities, spas, theaters, casinos and more until March 30. Restaurants had to close down their seating areas but could continue to serve carryout and drive-through orders. The order took place as the state tries to enforce social distancing and fight the virus’ spread.

Other Sterling Heights  restaurants reported what local restaurant life is like in a coronavirus-stricken world.

Olivia Sumaj, a server at Orange Tree Cafe Restaurant, said her restaurant is still doing carryout and deliveries.

“Most people are just calling to make sure that we’re open,” she said. “We have our daily specials that are still going on, even with just doing carryout and delivery.”

Janet Fraley, the owner at Coffee First Cafe & Bake Shoppe, expressed her concerns and urged the public to support small businesses in the area.

“Business is slow. We’re closing earlier than usual, and we’re just doing carryouts,” she said. “I understand that’s what needs to be done. ... As a business owner, I don’t know that I’ll be able to stay in business when this is all over.”

Alisa Petronski, the owner of Studio Z Fitness in Sterling Heights, said that while her customers are disappointed that they can’t exercise in person amid stressful times, since the building is closed, they are finding creative ways to adapt and stay loyal.

Petronski said everybody is understanding of the situation and is corresponding via Facebook, Instagram and email. She said that even when such interactions may not be economically profitable, she wants people’s mental health to be OK, and she is trying to keep people’s spirits up.

“We’re doing some online streaming of our classes,” Petronski said. “(They’re) using water bottles for weights, just trying to keep it light and fun.

“And a lot of customers have asked how they can help us. We’ve had people purchasing gift cards and passes online.”

On March 17, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation said it is partnering with “small business support organizations” to assist small businesses amid the crisis. On March 19, Whitmer said the U.S. Small Business Administration approved her request for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan declaration. This will give Michigan small businesses a chance to get low-interest SBA loans, her office said.         
Sterling Heights is also offering an online “tool kit” list that delves into telecommuting, funding resources and more. The resources may help workers and employers, according to city officials.

Luke Bonner, Sterling Heights’ senior economic development adviser, wanted the business community and the public to know about the resources amid “unprecedented times.”  

“The impacts are already significant, and our hope is that the proactive use of resources can mitigate as much loss as possible,” he said in a statement.

Mayor Michael Taylor also recognized the strain businesses are under due to the recent government-ordered shutdowns and regulations.

“Our businesses are our lifeblood, and without them, our city would not be as rich and vibrant,” he said in a statement. “We strongly stand with our partners from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation as they work to provide access to many state and federal financial resources.”

During a March 17 City Council meeting, officials said the city’s economic development team is doing all that it can to help small and large businesses through the crisis.
Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Stacy Ziarko said her chamber has heard the most from bars and restaurants in reaction to the governor’s orders.

“We know that that’s going to be a struggle,” she said. “The chamber is putting together resources over the next couple of weeks.”

Ziarko expected restaurants to heavily promote carryout specials if equipped to do so. She also encouraged the public to buy small-business gift cards for future use, get takeout and drive-through food orders, and shop locally. She expected the chamber to do its part to help.

“We’re really trying to do a lot of those to support our businesses in this economic crisis that we’re in,” she said.

The chamber said the public can help the local business community by writing positive online reviews or otherwise using social media to promote favorite local stores.

Find out more about the city’s tool kit resources for businesses at www.sterling-heights.net/business resources. Learn more about the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce at www.shrcci.com. Learn more about the MEDC at www.michiganbusiness.org.