McALLEN — “Cautious optimism” is the term McAllen Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve Ahlenius used to describe the results of the chamber’s latest survey of members’ condition as the pandemic stretches through its seventh month in the Rio Grande Valley.
Although the survey results aren’t exactly cheerful, they do seem to indicate most McAllen businesses have found a way to cope with COVID-19 and see a path out of the crisis — a reassuring departure from the results of the chamber’s two previous pandemic surveys.
One of the most encouraging statistics in the survey is the amount of businesses that anticipate going out of business, Ahlenius said.
Only 5% of the 100 businesses surveyed expect to go belly up this year, down significantly from about 18% who said they feared closing in the chamber’s first two surveys.
“Now that means some of those businesses that we thought were going to close have closed, and the remaining businesses that made it through the first seven months of the pandemic are in a fairly good position where they feel they can get through this, so that’s an encouraging sign,” Ahlenius said.
Over half of the businesses surveyed anticipate recovering from the pandemic in a year, the survey says. Almost 40% think they can bounce back in half a year.
The survey also shed some light on how McAllen businesses have adapted to work-from-home policies. A mere 13.7% of the respondents said they’ve moved to remote work permanently or through 2021, while 60% of the respondents said they are not working remotely because they had returned to the office, were declared essential or determined that remote work did not fit their industry.
A little more than a quarter of the businesses, 26.3%, have adopted a blended program of virtual and office work.
“The 26% is probably reflective of a dramatic change for those businesses where before they were thinking you had to be in the office to be productive and they’ve recognized you don’t have to be in the office to be productive,” Ahlenius said. “You can work from home, you can work virtually and we can be just as successful.”
The results also indicate a willingness to trust pandemic safety protocols and return to some semblance of normalcy.
About a third of the survey participants said they would be comfortable attending large group meetings or mass gatherings now or within three months. Roughly another third said they’d likely be comfortable at those events in six to nine months, while a little less than 30% said only that they wouldn’t be comfortable at those events at present.
“There’s going to be pent up demand within the near future, probably within the next four to six months, with folks feeling comfortable being in large groups,” Ahlenius said.
Overall, the business rated the local economy as 67/100. Ahlenius said somewhere in the 80s would be closer to an ideal rating, 67% is likely accurate.
Taken with the other results, Ahlenius says that 67% shows the resiliency of McAllen’s economy and confidence at local businesses being buoyed by relatively comforting COVID-19 data and adaptations made over the last half year.
“We’re finding new business models that work for these different businesses, they’re business models that are working,” he said. “They’ve found ways to cope and they see that as the cases are starting to go down, as the deaths are starting to go down, that there’s room for optimism and that they’re going to survive.”
New business models were on display Wednesday at Kumori Sushi & Teppanyaki on Nolana. Business was slow between lunch and supper and the restaurant was relatively deserted, but a steady stream of to-go orders kept shuffling out the door.
Manager Mike Beltran says before the pandemic the restaurant served about 70% of its meals in house and 30% to-go.
That statistic has flipped since March and about 70% of the meals served by the restaurant are now being picked up curbside or delivered.
“This past month it’s picked up as far as the dining area,” he said. “It seems like every week it keeps on going a little further up.”
Despite more dine-in customers, Kumori has fully embraced the curbside model, partnering with third party delivery services and adding party platters of sushi to the menu.
Beltran says the restaurant has weathered the pandemic well and he’s confident about its prospects heading into the future, although he is eying what the pandemic will bring when the weather gets cold.
“I know it’s coming up and the news and stuff, because winter’s coming around and flu season,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t affect us because we’re taking the precautions and we’re trying to make the customer feel better about this pandemic.”
Other businesses are keeping a close watch for another wave of infections as well. Over half of the chamber respondents listed a second COVID-19 wave or economic uncertainty as their chief business threat.
“No one’s gone through this before — at least no one’s gone through it in the last hundred years — so there’s some real challenges in figuring out if there’s going to be a second wave, and the economic uncertainty goes with it,” Ahlenius said.
The survey points to a couple of other economic stormclouds on the horizon as well.
Reopening non-essential travel from Mexico was rated as highly important by 49% of businesses in the survey. Despite months of calls from local leaders for the federal government to open the border to foot and vehicle traffic, the feds once again extended the closure Monday.
Cashflow remains a problem for businesses surveyed as well. Just under 30% rated themselves as not comfortable at all with their businesses cashflow while only 15.79% described themselves as very comfortable with cashflow.
Ahlenius said many McAllen businesses that have gone under so far carried heavy debts and wilted quickly after the pandemic arrived in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Once they started seeing the sales drop, it was a house of cards. Things didn’t work out for them,” he said.
According to Ahlenius, the chamber intends to conduct one more pandemic survey to round off the series.