Here is how financial ruin looks to 41-year-old Jason and 39-year-old Corrin DeMent, starting with a time bomb set to go off at the end of this month:
On April 1, the former South Jersey police officer and his wife are on the hook for $28,000 in monthly rent to their Plymouth Meeting-based landlord. That payment is due in full even though Evolve Fitness, the couple’s independently owned gym in South Jersey, was shut down two weeks ago on orders of the governor of New Jersey owing to the coronavirus.
Also due in the days ahead: thousands on the business loan they took out to renovate a shuttered Staples two years ago before opening their gym, a hub of community within a shopping center on the Black Horse Pike called Audubon Crossings.
Jason says they also have been told by Comcast that the telecom giant still expects them to cover monthly charges for service typically streamed into their gym. To halt the $1,000 service entirely, Jason was told when he called the company, Comcast would strip the business of its phone number and impose cancellation fees.
Their insurance company, whose business interruption coverage excludes pandemics, has told them to file a claim with only a let’s-wait-and-see attitude. (Insurers won the pandemic exemption in 2006, after the SARS outbreak. Their win then is a devastating loss to small businesses now. No payouts for merchants shuttered as part of the supposedly shared sacrifice to contain the spread of COVID-19 in America.)
Of course, the big guns are looking to protect their balance sheets, and may very well be getting government aid in the $2 trillion government rescue bill, whose details Wednesday were not yet fully clear. But the DeMents — and others far below C-suite executives and Wall Street investors on the economic food chain — face financial catastrophe.
They’re staring at potentially losing everything — on down to the Haddon Township home in which they are raising 10- and 12-year-old daughters.
“Our house, our life insurance, any accounts that we have as far as 401(k) or savings — everything that we have personally, besides a leased car, is on the line,” Corrin told me after one of their loyal gym members contacted me by email to tell me what was happening to the couple’s business. “Our financial well-being. Our kids’ home. Our community. Everything. Our savings — it will all be gone.”
No heroes have yet emerged for the DeMents. At least not among the capitalists to whom they are beholden even as their business has been shuttered by the government. This is, sadly, no surprise.
There have been heroes only from hoi polloi, which is an indictment of big business. Those with would rather withhold, while those with less are doing no less than pulling money out of their pockets to aid a small merchant-neighbor NOW.
Out of 1,700 members who pay monthly dues to work out at Evolve Fitness, around 170 told the DeMents to keep charging them dues to help keep them afloat. One wrote to me in outrage. It’s unconscionable that working folks were doing what they could for this business while lenders and vendors apparently weren’t yet budging on a cent of what they were owed.
“It’s huge,” Jason said of the charity of his customers. “It’s super generous. But unfortunately ...”
Nowhere near enough, he said. (I reached out to the firm that handles leasing for Evolve Fitness but did not hear back.)
What these small business owners need — and it’s still unclear if such aid is contained in the rescue bill announced by Congress and the White House — is to be granted a pass on upcoming rent, loan, utility, and cable payments. More loans on top of the loans they already have would be crushing.
Shared sacrifice means we don’t throw small businesses into debilitating debt. It means we don’t let corporations and real estate magnates keep clean balance sheets while little guys bleed till they’re dead.
It means everyone gets an unwanted financial haircut. EVERYONE.
Corporations feasted on lavish tax cuts and share buybacks under President Trump’s giveaway to the uber-haves. Too-cozy relationships with policymakers have kept rapacious monopolies intact to balloon after the Great Recession decimated our economy in 2007, 2008, and 2009.
This is why gilded avarice abounds in the upper reaches of our economic system. It has damaged our civic norms like a mutated strain of cultural DNA.
One putrid example, just this week, came from the Philadelphia 76ers organization. Its billionaire owners announced 20% pay cuts for the team’s staff. Hours later, amid relentless public blowback, they reversed the decision. These people realized only belatedly that this outrageous clawback into the pockets of its workers was revolting.
Just hours after that, Pennsylvania announced a record half-million workers had filed for unemployment since coronavirus shutdowns hit.
The hubris is enormous. Inquirer colleague Harold Brubaker, in a story last week about how insurers had exempted themselves from pandemic liability, captured a slice:
The American Property Casualty Insurance Association on Friday bragged about the industry’s financial strength, citing a surplus of more than $822 billion, and warned: “Industry solvency will only be at risk if insurers are forced to pay claims not covered by current contracts.”