How to help your favorite small businesses amid coronavirus-related shutdowns

Should you have food be placed at a drop-off point? How much should you tip? Here are some things to consider amid the spread of COVID-19.


Work from home. Self-quarantine. Canceled sporting events. Social distancing may help mitigate the coronavirus crisis, but it also threatens to devastate small businesses.

The drop in foot traffic and a reluctance to go out will leave shops and restaurants empty.

In Seattle, already hard hit by the outbreak, a recent survey found that 60% of small businesses there are considering wage cuts and staffing cutbacks, while 35% said they may have to close. More than 80% expect the situation to get worse.

While federal, state and local governments will need to step in with financial help and other policy measures, there also are some small ways that individuals, if they have the means, can help their favorite small businesses stay afloat through the crisis.

Buy gift cards

Purchasing a gift card to your favorite shop, theater or restaurant is an immediate way to put cash into the business, said Amanda Ballantyne, national director of The Main Street Alliance.

That's exactly what Luz Urrutia, CEO of the Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit microlender, has done. "I just bought gift cards to every one of the [local] restaurants that I love. They get their cash today. And I'll be able to use it later."

Shop local — online and off

Molly Moon runs several ice cream shops in Seattle. Moon, who employs 120 people, said she's now considering "extremely reduced hours ... It's breaking my heart."

For healthy customers running errands, she encourages them in good humor to "stock up on pints for the hard times." For those who stay home, Moon invites them to buy gift cards and store merchandise on her company web site.

When it comes to shopping locally, health guidance from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control "is literally disrupting business as usual," said Abigail Ellman, a director at the Cooper Square Committee, a nonprofit working to prevent the displacement of residents and small businesses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Right now, Ellman noted, businesses are worried about how to make rent and payroll. Customers alone can't cure that strain, but she said "they need you to shop there. Support your local pharmacies and restaurants and businesses."

Take advantage of discounts

Some restaurants are offering different types of deals to attract customers. And some are offering incentives for first-time users that order delivery through services like Uber Eats and Postmates. They're also offering curbside pickup for takeout orders.

Order in

Many independently owned restaurants and food businesses that haven't previously done so are now getting on to delivery platforms like Uber Eats or Postmates, as Moon is doing.

How you pay may be a concern. If you're sick or in a self-quarantine or if you're elderly and at risk, you might use your credit card to pay over the phone, including the tip for the delivery person, and ask them to leave the bag of food outside your door, said Dr. Robyn Gershon, an epidemiology professor at New York University's School of Public Health.

"But if you are fine and not in a 14-day quarantine, there's no reason not to open your door and hand the delivery person a tip."

Tip a little more than usual

If you do order takeout, consider being a little extra generous on the tips for workers, since their income will drop due to fewer patrons.

A bigger tip may not directly contribute to a restaurant's bottom line, but it does help others and it contributes to the spirit of goodwill and appreciation in the community, which can help with everyone's mood.