NIU Voices: Let’s all do our part to help small businesses survive

Small businesses are the heart of our local economy, employing most of our family members, friends and neighbors. They are our gathering places for celebrations, product and service providers to keep our businesses and homes operating and go-to donors for local events. In many ways, they are the glue that holds our community together. In the face of a continuing pandemic and economic uncertainty, DeKalb County’s small businesses are struggling.

What can we do to help? That’s the question we and a team of concerned business and community leaders asked ourselves when we came together in March. DeKalb County UNITES stands for University and Neighbors Investing Together for Economic Success, a goal we have been pursuing the past several months. We know that coming together to help our neighbors is something that comes naturally to people in DeKalb County. Our job was to build an infrastructure to facilitate it.

DeKalb County UNITES has hosted free informational webinars for business owners, conducted a survey to gauge local consumer attitudes, offered free consultation to business owners applying for federal disaster relief loans and provided upbeat reminders to follow public health guidelines with its Mask Up DeKalb County campaign. In all of our activities, the message is clear: We all have a part to play in supporting the small business sector.

One of the things we discovered early on – confirmed by local survey results – is that many small businesses lack the digital presence to help keep them connected with their customers during a shutdown. Soon, we will be announcing a new program that will help small business owners amp up their online visibility and sales capacity, with the help of a collaborative venture that brings together Northern Illinois University students and faculty and local marketing experts. More details to come.

We have been inspired by the resilience and innovation small business owners have demonstrated over the past several months. As we all continue to move forward with as much grace as we can provide to one another, here are a few things we ask you to consider doing to help small businesses:

• Wear a mask and follow public health guidelines consistently. It’s not fun for small business owners to ask you to wear a mask. They want your business and don’t want to offend you. If you fail to wear a mask, you are jeopardizing their ability to operate. Remember: Mask on, Lights On! Wear a mask and help our local businesses stay in business.

• Keep directing your purchases to local businesses whenever possible.

• Dine in or carry out from local restaurants and tip generously when you do. The hospitality industry has been especially hard hit through all of this.

• Be patient and kind. Businesses may not have as many staff members as they did before the shutdown. They really are trying their best under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. A little understanding goes a long way.

• Cohen Barnes and Rena Cotsones are co-chairs of DeKalb County UNITES. Cotsones, Ph.D., is chief engagement officer at Northern Illinois University and Barnes is president of Sundog in downtown DeKalb.