Small Businesses Struggle To Survive Coronavirus Cancellations

Mar 13, 2020

Sharon Collins and Pat Garavaglia co-own Balloons and Tunes in Carrboro. After weathering 40 years in business, they're worried about what impact the coronavirus will have on their event-based store.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

As universities and corporations cancel events and people stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some small businesses are already suffering from the economic impact of the virus.

Sharon Collins and Pat Garavaglia have been running Balloons and Tunes, a small party shop on main street in Carrboro, for 40 years.

"Our business is celebrating," explains Collins, and most celebrations are being called off or postponed.

The storeroom is packed with colorful balloons, party favors, and gag gifts, but these goods only make up a small part of their sales.

"We have probably 300 different mylar balloons, 50 colors of latex balloons ... and in case you need a rubber chicken air freshener, we have that," Garavaglia chuckles.

Shelves at Balloons and Tunes are lined with stuffed animals, party favors, paper napkins and gag gifts.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

On a typical day, customers stop by to pick up party supplies and the two phone lines are ringing steadily with orders, but this week the store is quiet. The store's primary source of business is decorating for corporate and university events and large private parties.

When universities started postponing events to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Collins and Garavaglia knew they were in trouble. Then the UNC System barred all university gatherings of more than 100 people, indefinitely.

"UNC is by far our biggest client," Collins said. "That’s a big hit for us."

Garavaglia points to two fat binders filled with UNC Chapel Hill orders from last year. Collins says they’re already worried about what will come -- or what won’t come -- later this year. They had orders booked for new student orientations, events for campus visitors and graduation.

"Graduation is a tremendously busy time of year for us because Carolina, Duke and North Carolina Central are clients," Collins said.

Now everything feels up in the air.

Sara Gress is owner of North Carolina Crafts Gallery in Carrboro. She says the week before UNC Chapel Hill went on spring break included some of her worst sales days to date.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

While Balloons and Tunes has been hit especially hard, it is not the only business struggling. At the North Carolina Crafts Gallery next door, owner Sara Gress has sold only one thing all day for $5. She says the previous week was even worse.

"We had a couple days where we had no sales, and that has never, ever happened. So, it's scary," Gress said.

Back at the party shop, Collins has been paying attention to news about possible federal bailouts for airlines and hotels, but there will be no help like that for small businesses.

"We are the backbone of this country," Collins said. "We don't generally get bailouts from the federal government."

Collins and Garavaglia's biggest concern is their three employees, including Jada Scott. Scott says she is a single mother living paycheck to paycheck.

"It gets to be really worrying to me," Scott said. "Am I going to be able to pay my rent? Will my son be okay?"

"We've been able to make it through thick and thin," Collins said. "9/11, the crash of '07, those kind of things. We took a big hit but we persevere."

"We have never put anybody on unemployment before in 40 years. We've never, never had to have that happen," Garavaglia said. "We're keeping hope alive around here."

While they believe they can weather a few days or weeks without events, Collins and Garavaglia don't know how long they can ride out the coronavirus cancellations.