Eamon Quinn: The financial impact of coronavirus for small business owners - and employees

Eamon Quinn: The financial impact of coronavirus for small business owners - and employees

A few chance encounters tell the alarming story about the economic storm enveloping Ireland.

There is the junior bar manager who explained how the staff voted through their WhatsApp group to close up on Sunday morning such was their horror over reports that some bar owners were putting the health of their staff and St Patrick’s Weekend revellers at risk.

Then there is the cafe owner troubled for weeks over how she would meet her Vat, commercial rates, the bin collection bill, and a myriad of other business bill demands as the Covid-19 threat crept ever closer.

She was explaining to her colleagues that she couldn’t afford to pay them, and what remained unspoken was that the Government’s emergency sick pay of €203 doesn’t go far in meeting anyone’s weekly family bills here in Ireland.

And then there is the neighbour getting into his car for an extraordinary commute, preparing to lay off 35 staff at his small leisure centre because no sensible person is going to put their lives at risk to pay him to facilitate them kicking a ball around a plastic pitch for a weekly 5-a-side game.

All three — the pub worker and the two small business owners — one way or another had got through the banking disaster of 2008 and knew only too well from watching the news of the voluntary and involuntary shutdowns from China, northern Italy, and Spain of the previous months of what lay ahead.

With no turnover, their tax payments to Government and the interest payments on bank loans pledged to banks cannot be made.

There is a bit of exhausted resignation but also a touch of anger about the slow nature of the response by the Government and banks to their plight.

Turn on the radio and there is already much commentary about the way the 2008 disaster —much of it home-made by small handfuls of bank chiefs and property developers — will be different from the Covid-19 economic storm.

And there have been exhortations for house-bound consumers to go out and spend.

But it should be clear to anyone over the last few weeks from the evidence of the deserted streets of Milan and from the Chinese cities in Wuhan that soon there will be little to no opportunity to spend money in Irish cities and towns.

Try and explain to small cafe owners and pubs and the increasing number of retailers how they will serve all those frustrated shoppers as they are forced to bring down the shutters on their small businesses.

A plasterer who was much in demand just a few short weeks ago explains that no one in their right mind wants a builder around the house, what with all the kids at home and parents juggling the demands of making a living and all the while connected to the vacated offices through the internet.

And most veterans of the 2008 crisis know how this unfolds.

Many businesses have little to no turnover and won’t be able to meet the Government tax bills and won’t be able to pay their loans to the banks.

Many households will lose their jobs and won’t be able to pay their rents and mortgages to the banks.

Five banks (and not the vulture funds which have been allowed, almost like nowhere else, to own large swathes of the distressed loans that underpin the country’s commercial and household heartbeat) have given commitments to go easy for three months on hard-pressed businesses and personal customers swept up in the storm.

Irish lenders, like their regulated counterparts in Italy, Spain and Portugal, have had time to build up some immunity since the last crisis of 2008. But such was the scale of the Irish banking collapse that our lenders are still far from being in full financial health.

The streets of Florence, Italy, empty last week as people stay indoors and potential tourists stay home
The streets of Florence, Italy, empty last week as people stay indoors and potential tourists stay home

This time there are no obvious piles of all-but-worthless commercial property loans on their loan books that need to be scooped up at huge cost to Irish people. However, the banks will come under huge stress the longer the virus crisis lasts.

And listen to the way Tony Foley, emeritus professor at DCU Business School, emphasises the importance of jobs in supporting the Irish economic and financial pyramid, as he scans down the sectors most at risk:

  • Employment in agriculture should remain at current levels; but job numbers in industry will likely drop by 15% as the international recession buffets Irish factories
  • Construction, by and large, escapes the fallout but retail and wholesale and their 310,000 jobs may shed half of that number
  • Transport and storage could lose 15% of the jobs in that sector
  • But health service job numbers will likely surge by 30%, he estimates

The financial hit to households similar to those of the pub worker and the two small firm owners, the exchequer and to the banks will be substantial.

The Covid-19 economic storm can be different from the banking crisis of 2008 but only if the big EU countries and the ECB are not found wanting again.

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department;
  • GPs Out of Hours services are not in a position to order testing for patients with normal cold and flu-like symptoms. HSELive is an information line and similarly not in a position to order testing for members of the public. The public is asked to reserve 112/999 for medical emergencies at all times.
  • ALONE has launched a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties relating to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland. The support line will be open seven days a week, 8am-8pm, by calling 0818 222 024

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