Trisha Stewart, a small business owner in Ambler, was “blindsided” by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve owned my salon Barbarella Beauty for 14 years, I had 11 employees.” she said. Stewart laid off her staff until the salon can reopen, and instructed them to file for unemployment.

“We’re being told by the state to give your employees two weeks pay. It was suggested. But how can we do that? We have no funds.”

She also filed a claim for business interruption insurance with carrier The Hartford. “It’s so hard to read our contract, but this is a civil authority shutting us down so we’re covered.”

Her salon lies in the heart of Montgomery County, which has the most cases in the region. .

“I can’t get through to anyone. The county office is shut down. There’s no one to talk to.”

She’s taking matters into her own hands, and asking everyone involved in her business — lenders, vendors, her mortgage banker, and even utilities — to defer asking for payment.

“I’m asking for forbearance. Most companies say ‘we’ll take it through the end of the month.’ And that’s great,” said Stewart.

Citi, Chase Bank, and her car lease through Ford gave her three-month deferrals on loans, specifically for business. She has also pestered creditors, both business and personal, for understanding. She still pays SunTrust Bank a small student loan payment every month, and they’ve given her some time off from paying.

Her mortgage holder, Flagstar Mortgage, asked her to fill out forbearance paperwork, which included income-tax returns, monthly bills, and other assets.

“It’s a lengthy process, but it gives us some breathing room.”

Stop the autopay

Since her husband is in sales, and that’s also dried up, the Stewarts also put a hold on autopay for accounts such as Comcast and Verizon cable and phone service.

For credit cards, “I just put the ones with the higher rate in forbearance. I kept some others open in case we have to resort to that.”

She’s also pursuing a loan through the Small Business Administration, which is currently in the process of approving Pennsylvania as a disaster area.

“I can get a small loan through PNC. But I want to wait until I hear from SBA,” she said.

Co-owner Jon Myerow in the dining room at Tria Fitler Square at 23d and Pine Streets.
Michael Klein / File Photograph
Co-owner Jon Myerow in the dining room at Tria Fitler Square at 23d and Pine Streets.

Health insurance

Tria co-owner Jon Myerow said he’s learned from his 70 or so staff members that “health care is much more important to them than getting paid.”

So he’s working with Independence Blue Cross to make sure they remain insured.

“Hourly staff is all furloughed, as opposed to laid off, which means they are technically accruing benefits. The management team is still working this week, we are open for takeout and delivery,” including wine takeout, he said.

On finances, “we’re trying to get extensions from lenders. More importantly, I’m trying to get loans so we can pay our outstanding and ongoing obligations..”

He’s pursuing three options: SBA loans through a bank, a loan through PIDC and the City of Philadelphia, which was supposed to happen in the coming days, and state relief out of Harrisburg.

But what do his workers need most? Health insurance.

“We’ve committed to paying for health insurance through April 30 for our staff that have insurance. We’re giving each other ideas and support.”

Pivoting in crisis

Charisse McGill, who leads Lokal Artisan Foods, does mostly pop-up sales at farmers markets, the Piazza in Northern Liberties, and other campus events. Her business is “pivoting as we speak. This pulled the rug out from under me.”

Her French toast bites, regular or vegan, are coated with her signature French toast seasoning and drizzled with toppings.

“Our backup plan now is to set up on the street, and still do pickup and delivery partnering with GrubHub, Doordash, and Uber Eats,” she said.

A member of the African American Chamber of Commerce, she’s also working with lenders for a possible line of credit. “So far we’ve been totally debt free. I saved a lot in the third quarter of 2019. We’re OK until June 2020.”

Any business affected by the statewide shutdown and interested in seeking a waiver to the order can reach out to Pennsylvania directly: ra-dcexemption@pa.gov. or call 1-877-PA-HEALTH and select option 1.

Charisse McGill, owner of Lokal Artisan Foods, says she's pivoting to sell her french toast bites at pop-up markets.
Courtesy Charisse McGill
Charisse McGill, owner of Lokal Artisan Foods, says she's pivoting to sell her french toast bites at pop-up markets.