Updated: Business Begins to Feel Economic Toll from Virus

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — As the fourth confirmed case of COVID-19 in Ohio was reported Wednesday – a man in his 50s from Stark County — Mercy Health St. Joseph Hospital in Warren reported it “cared for” a patient who has tested positive for the coronavirus — local businesses are beginning to feel the economic impact.

At Steel Valley Logistics in Hermitage, Pa., Jacob Linzenhold, director of business development, says importers and exporters are bracing for shipping prices to spike next week. The company’s partners in China were shut down for two weeks because of the coronavirus, which slowed things down, Linzenhold says.

“We’re seeing people who are moving things to Europe now and are trying to find different countries to work with,” he says.

Linzenhold made his comments Thursday afternoon, before President Trump’s Oval Office address that announced a 30-day ban on all travel from Europe, excluding the United Kingdom, effective Friday.

When trade with China was shut down, it dealt a blow to shipping ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. And while shipments to China are moving again, the demand to get containers out is driving prices “through the roof,” according to Linzenhold.

One price quote from a partner in China for a shipment going out next week shows a price “at least 30%” higher from when the virus shut things down, he says. And while Linzenhold expects prices eventually to trend back down, current prices will be make importing and exporting expensive, and “that usually gets passed onto the end user,” particularly in retail.

“There was lots of talk about tariffs ruining business,” Linzenbold observes. “But coronavirus actually shut things down.”

International shipping makes up about 30% of the freight forwarding company’s business, Linzenhold says. The company also works with a network of trucking companies, serving mostly regional customers, as well as some in the South and West. Cities with ports have seen drops in trucking rates because “truckers will actually try to avoid going to those places because they know there’s not as much opportunity,” he says.

That and the heightened international shipping rates have led to some companies holding off on seeking new export business until the coronavirus situation calms down, he says. Linzenbold advises companies to plan and wait to see how things open up. “If you can hold off on things, it’s definitely a good time to do so,” he says.

“Everything is so connected anymore in a worldwide economy,” he says.

Joe Rzonsa, owner of Blue Wolf Tavern, Boardman, and Blue Wolf Events at The Maronite Center, Youngstown, can attest to the truth of that statement.

“In the last two days, we’ve had three events that were scheduled for over the next month that either rescheduled or are rescheduling, and one that was canceled,” Rzonsa says.

“If we don’t have revenue, we won’t be able to pay people, including myself. We’re ready to take direction from the CDC and the local board of health if and when something comes up.”

The restaurant industry is held to a higher standard than other industries, so “we’re already taking tremendous precautionary measures” to keep staff and customers healthy and safe, he says.

Blue Wolf Tavern employs 65 to 70 full- and part-time workers, while Blue Wolf Events employs 12.

Even the smallest local employers are beginning to feel the economic impact of the virus.

At The Houck Agency downtown, a client canceled an event that would have meant one or two days worth of work for the two-person company, says Jim Houck, president and CEO.

“It would have been a nice additional piece of work,” he says. “Hopefully this virus gets contained and rectified soon so businesses like ours won’t be affected too much longer.”

On Wednesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,464 points, bringing it 20% below February’s record, and moving it into a bear market. The S&P 500 is just one percentage point shy of also being in a bear market.

This is forcing Houck to look at things differently, he says. He’s worried about what this could mean for the marketing industry overall.

“I’ve been through those kinds of economic cycles before, and marketing expenses are among the first things looked at to be cut,” he says.

Meanwhile, businesses here and nationwide are exhibiting greater awareness of public health concerns with the spread of COVID-19 now labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Joe Bell, spokesman for the Niles-based Cafaro Co., says operations staff at all Cafaro malls have begun extra cleaning using stronger formulations of disinfectant. Staff are more frequently cleaning areas such as concourses, seating areas, children’s play areas, food courts and entrance ways.

“We’re posting messages at entrances to assure visitors that we are taking our best precautions and we’re offering advice the CDC has passed along about maintaining good hygiene,” Bell says.

And the mall operator is urging people who are at risk or who are not feeling well to not “shrug it off” and stay home, Bell says.

“We understand the risk factors, but we’re not going to push the panic button. We want people to keep it all in perspective and treat it with the respect that’s due, but not to overreact,” he says.

Washington Prime Group, the Columbus real estate company that owns and operates the Southern Park Mall in Boardman, said in a prepared statement that it has “a proactive plan in place to address the coronavirus (COVID-19),” per guidelines set by the CDC.

Staff at Southern Park mall have increased the frequency and intensity of its cleaning and sanitation practices, and is “periodically disinfecting areas most susceptible to the spread of germs,” including play areas, public restrooms, rental strollers and wheelchairs, door handles, food court tables and other common area touch points.

The company has increased housekeeping staff, particularly during peak traffic times, and the number of alcohol-based hand sanitizer dispensers in highly-trafficked areas. It also has established, in English and Spanish, pandemic emergency preparation plans for housekeeping, and is working closely with local health officials to monitor the situation.

“The health and safety of our guests, retailers and employees is our top priority,” says the mall’s general manager, Brian Gabbert. “WPG will continue to monitor the situation and plans to maintain a high level of sanitation in order to help minimize the possible outbreak or spread of infection.”

Aimee Fifarek, executive director at The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, says the library has a general plan in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For the time being, the library is maintaining normal library operations and programming, she says.

“We are monitoring the situation and prepared to take the next step [depending on] identified cases in our local area or other directives from state and local public health officials,” Fifarek says.

Library staff are maintaining good hygiene practices, including washing hands, covering coughs and staying home if ill, Fifarek says. Staff are also advising people who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus to use the library’s remote services — telephone, email, website — in lieu of coming into the building, she says.

In addition, staff are putting signage at all branches to emphasize good hygiene and the availability of hand sanitizer, Fifarek says. While all libraries are cleaned daily, hospital-grade sanitizers have been made available for cleaning crews and staff are wiping down frequently touched areas, such as elevator buttons, counters and keyboards, she says.

The city of Youngstown is monitoring the situation and ensuring all updates from the CDC, the Ohio Department of Health and Gov. Mike DeWine’s office are easily accessible by residents, says Health Commissioner Erin Bishop. City officials have been discussing COVID-19 since the end of January and Bishop is on calls twice daily with local, state and national agencies to get up-to-date information, she says.

“Anytime we get new information coming down from the governor’s office, we’re making sure that we’re getting it out to all the residents in the city of Youngstown,” she says.

Residents can access updates in the Public Notices section of the city’s website at YoungstownOhio.gov or the state health department’s website at Coronavirus.Ohio.gov. The website includes an updated count of cases, number of individuals under investigation and who have tested negative.

As of March 11, Ohio has three confirmed cases in Cuyahoga County, one in Stark County and another 24 under investigation, according to the website. So far, 21 cases have tested negative. Another 255 are under health supervision, the website reports.

Aside from the patient at St. Joseph’s from Stark County, there has been one local case of someone who had traveled to China and quarantined herself, Bishop reports.

“We had constant communication with her on a daily basis,” she says. “She would do her temperature, let us know how she was feeling. She had no symptoms, but we were still following up with her because of her traveling to China.”

The incubation period for those who have contracted COVID-19 is two to 14 days. And with this being the first time this strain of coronavirus has been present in the United States, “We don’t really don’t know what’s happening” or how fast it’s moving, Bishop says. The goal is to increase testing opportunities but not having enough test kits is a major concern.

It’s “a waiting game, which is scary,” she says. “And that’s why we’re telling people to limit their time going out. Not going into big crowds.”

Many have taken that advice to heart.

On Wednesday, Youngstown City Schools announced all tickets purchased for today’s Chaney High School boys basketball game against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary are “null and void,” and can be returned at Chaney for a full refund.

Instead, student athletes participating in the game can each designate four family members or guardians who can purchase game passes for $7 at the Canton Memorial Civic Center.

Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public meeting on General Motors’ battery plant permit application that was scheduled for Thursday evening at Lordstown High School had been changed to a virtual meeting. The web meeting address is https://usace.webex.com. The meeting number is 969 383 314. Public comments will be taken from 5 to 6:30 p.m. with the meeting to follow.

Some other events that have been canceled or postponed are:

  • Mayor Jamael Tito Brown’s State of the City address, originally scheduled for March 25 on the campus of Youngstown State University.
  • Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber Annual meeting, originally scheduled for March 19.
  • Spring 2020 YSU Career Day, originally scheduled for March 25.
  • Youngstown Area Goodwill Industries Inc.’s Gems Jewelry Sale & Charity Auction, originally scheduled for March 13 now tentatively rescheduled for June 5.
  • Tartan Companies Controlling Workers’ Compensation Cost Class, originally scheduled for March 17.

“In light of Gov. Mike DeWine’s pending order regarding cancelling/postponing large gatherings and events across the state, as well as our responsibility to ensure the safety of our members, we have decided to postpone our annual meeting,” says the chamber’s vice president marketing, member services, Kim Calvert.

Entertainment events that have been canceled or postponed, including the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boardman, are reported in Guy D’Astolfo’s story on AfterHoursYoungstown.com.

Bishop expects more cancellations and postponements to be announced because officials still don’t know exactly quickly it can spread but need to keep it contained as much as possible, she says.

She recommends elderly individuals, people with chronic illnesses like diabetes or who are otherwise immuno-compromised should abide by recommendations to avoid the virus by staying home, she says. Officials haven’t seen a lot of impact to children or younger adults, and the three cases in Cuyahoga were individuals in their mid-50s, she says.

Health and government officials have been sounding the alarm about the virus for nearly two months as it infected and killed thousands of people, pinballing from China to Iran to Italy and beyond before striking Seattle in the first deadly outbreak in the U.S.

But Wednesday was the moment that the larger American public came to the dawning realization that the toll of the virus would be unavoidable for months to come, perhaps longer.

In the matter of hours Wednesday afternoon, the signs were everywhere. The NCAA announced that the rite of spring for so many Americans — its college basketball tournament — would be played before largely empty arenas.

Later in the day, Hollywood icon Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife have tested positive for the virus. And just as the Hanks news was bouncing around the internet and on people’s phones, the NBA said it was suspending its season until further notice.

In his prime-time address, Trump announced that he will instruct the Treasury Department to allow individuals and businesses negatively affected by the coronavirus to defer their tax payments beyond the April 15 filing deadline.

And the president said he would use his emergency authority to allow individual taxpayers and businesses to defer paying their taxes by next month’s deadline if they have suffered adverse effects from the spreading virus.

“We are all in this together,” Trump said.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to report the man who is Ohio’s fourth confirmed case of COVID-19 is not the same patient who was treated at St. Joseph Hospital in Warren.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.