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Flagstaff residents still at work, but struggling
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Flagstaff residents still at work, but struggling

From the A collection of the Daily Sun's coronavirus coverage series
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Did he have time to talk? Of course he had time, nothing but. That's how slow business has been for John Lewis down at Ponderosa Pawn & Trading Co. in downtown Flagstaff. He’s talking dead, essentially. Flat-lined. But the business stays open, despite an acute lack of business because, well, this is an existential crisis.

“We have to be here to keep it open,” Lewis, the shop’s owner, said. “Every little bit helps. I’m fighting for my life here.”

Over at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona up on McMillan Mesa, clinical liaison Kristann Monaghan and her staff remain busy, crazy busy. But busy in an entirely new and somewhat disorienting way. She’s doing a little bit of everything now, most of it in the virtual realm: giving tours via video, setting up Zoom sessions for patients and families cut off from face-to-face meetings, and even working the front desk, taking temperatures of the few visitors allowed inside.

“It’s been a big adjustment for all of us,” Monaghan said. “We’re so used to dealing with people in person. All that’s changed. I’m grateful that we still have a job and been repurposed to do things. I don’t mind screening visitors or doing activities if it means I have a job at this point.”

And then there’s Lorena Zeilman, owner of True Shine, a Flagstaff commercial and residential cleaning service. Other businesses are closed, and people are cocooning at home, so her client base has dwindled to almost nothing, but she’s never been busier trying to navigate the labyrinthine process of securing a Small Business Administration loan — all those acronyms to sort out — to pay her employees and keep her company afloat.

“I’ve been taking daily webinars that provide education on how to weather this and education on the programs offered through SBA, like the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) and PPP (Paycheck Protection Program),” she said. “However, gosh, I don’t know, I’ve applied for the EIDL it seems like going on three weeks now. Still haven’t heard.”

These are, to say the least, lean times for Flagstaff business owners and workers still plugging away in a drastically altered COVID-19 landscape.

On the one hand, they consider themselves fortunate not to be among the many businesses shuttered or, for workers, among the staggering 22 million who have been laid off and filed unemployment claims. On the other, they are feeling the stress of dealing with having their job duties changed, the crushing boredom of not being able to serve customers, and the uncertainty of when they, too, might have to close their doors.

It’s an adjustment workers and employers are making willingly because, really, they have no alternative. Some are adapting better than others, but no one is thriving and everyone’s feeling a strain.

Jenn Shearon, owner of A Cleaner You, another local cleaning service, has retained several clients and has yet to lay off or furlough her crew, though that’s taken some creative adjustment of hours and jobs. There are days, she said, when she must stave off boredom, when the tedious tasks of her job — paperwork, scheduling — dominate when what she really wants is to do what she and her crew do best: clean.

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“You can't let it consume you, but you also can't ignore it when it tries to poke its dreary head,” Shearon said about dealing with stress. “You have to stay positive, especially when you have an awesome crew who's working for you to represent your name. Always need be thankful for the clients that you have, appreciate their loyalty during this time, know that it won't last forever.”

A lengthy stay-at-home order would sound a death knell for some businesses and send more workers to the unemployment rolls. Already, people like Lewis of Ponderosa Pawn are feeling the squeeze. He has yet to impose layoffs, but says it’s likely if business does not pick up.

He is not fatalistic about his business, but said he knew that as soon as the lockdown started that his customer base would cease coming through his doors. Historically, economic downturns have boosted loan businesses such as pawn shops. That’s true now down in Phoenix, Lewis said, but Flagstaff’s demographics and clientele are different.

“People aren’t buying or pawning these days,” Lewis said. “We deal a lot with Native Americans. We’re not getting any new loans and people aren’t picking up their stuff. We’re not pulling them. We’re working with people. It doesn’t do any good to pull it if we can’t sell it anyway.

“When they started making a big deal on the reservation (about COVID-19 cases), and shutting it down, I knew it would be bad for us,” he said. “Normally, this is our busiest time of the year, because of tax season. People get their refunds and, you know, it stimulates the economy. This is the time we have to make money because, when it slows down, what we make during tax seasons usually carries us.”

Lewis’ other big surge in business comes in June with graduation season. Now that graduation ceremonies have been canceled, that’s another hit. He has applied for an SBA loan but, like others, has yet to see any funds.

“A lot of natives, for graduation, go back to traditional dress and we sell that kind of stuff, jewelry,” he said. “So we won’t get any of that. If something doesn’t change, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here.”

Zeilman has furloughed nine of her crew of 12 at True Shine. Until her SBA loan kicks in, she knows she’ll have trouble just staying in business.

“We now pretty much have only enough business to pay my employees -- I haven’t paid myself since February,” she said. “I talked to other business owners in town and some have decided to shut down completely and furlough employees until this is over. But for the sake of my employees, I’ve decided to keep it open so they can still have an income.”

At the Rehabilitation Hospital of Northern Arizona, Monaghan hasn’t had to fret about job loss. It’s her doing work differently that has been an adjustment.

“We created a virtual tour we can point families to on the website so they can see the facility, and I’ve walked my phone through the facility with a family that doesn’t have internet so they could see what our facility is like,” she said. “Usually we’d go visit (prospective) patients. It’s a lot different. I can’t see any more how (patients) doing with therapy at the hospital to assess their needs for us. We have to go only by what’s charted or told to us and that is difficult.”

But Monaghan keeps going, just like everyone in these unprecedented times for business. People, frankly, are just happy to still have a job to go to.

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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