Leesville businesses adapting to change

Chris Schoonover
Leesville Daily Leader

Across the country, unemployment is skyrocketing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and businesses in Leesville have suffered.

Some essential businesses have kept their doors open – although customers cannot walk through them – and are trying to stay afloat.

Essential businesses are defined as "critical infrastructure industry" by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That includes grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants and automotive stores.

"The majority of our membership, which is a good chunk of the community, are following the correct social distancing measures," Leesville Chamber of Commerce President Logan Morris said. "I've seen a lot of comments about people being out and about, but most of them are going to businesses that are considered essential.”

However, businesses such as gyms, salons, clothing stores and other retail operations closed down, affecting around 50 percent of the members of the Leesville Chamber of Commerce.

As of Thursday, unemployment across the country is now at 6.6 million, according toForbes.com.

Morris has altered how his real estate and insurance companies operate, adhering to social distancing standards in the office.

"Both of our offices are considered essential because they are financial services but are closed to the public," he said. "Our staff is still coming to work but are all a minimum of six feet apart, we do not have conference meetings in close quarters and we are handling the publics' needs by email and telephone."

Angel Blakeney and her family own three restaurants in Leesville – Fox's Pizza, Diego's Burrito Bar and Gilbert's Pizza. She has moved all of the pizza business to carry out and delivery but had to close the doors to Diego's.

"Fox's business has decreased, of course, but we are doing takeout and EZ Street Delivery, but I've been pleased with how the community has come out and supported us," she said. "It's really surprised me."

She says the food at Diego's – burritos, nachos, etc. – were difficult to carry out, prompting them to shut the doors when Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards made the announcement. Despite the restaurant closing, the Blakeneys moved some of the personnel from Diego's to Gilbert's.

"I decreased the teenager's hours, and the ones that are single, live alone or really depend on the hours, we kept them," Blakeney said.

"(Some of the employees at Diego's) moved over and we are using them as much as we can. Some are doing delivery driving and things like that."

The Blakeneys not only are providing food but also one of the most scarce products on the market – toilet paper.

"When it started disappearing off shelves, I knew I could order from Cisco," Blakeney said. "I ordered five cases of the big commercial rolls, and I put a post on Facebook saying that if you need toilet paper, just drive by the window and grab a roll.

"One day, a lady drove by and asked for toilet paper, and the lady behind her pulled up and said 'that's the strangest thing I've ever seen.'"

As the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Morris has taken it upon himself to learn how to support the businesses that have temporarily closed. 

"I have attended a number of webinars and have recorded a number of series on applying for the small business disaster relief loans that are available," he said. "There are not any member businesses now that have successfully received the money. They have successfully applied for it, but time will tell how well those loan systems work. Those loans will be key to safeguard some of those businesses that may have to be closed another month or so.

"I'm trying to press upon the members the importance of applying for those sooner rather than later because of the time constraints of getting those applications processed."

Area banks are processing the Small Business Administration loans, but it is taking time for it to be completed.

“Most of your small banks have not been SBA approved lenders before, purely because the application process for SBA financing was tedious and there weren't a lot of benefits for a bank to do it," Morris said. "All of our local banks are processing SBA applications, and it's been a learning curve.

"I'm hoping the long term is safe for us here. The good news is that a big chunk of our population here is military and will continue to be paid. The federal government doesn't shut down payment to soldiers on Fort Polk."