Sketches from a crisis: How a handful of small businesses are managing to survive


In Germany, a friendly tax man and free money — fast.

BERLIN — As Europe began shutting down in early March, 61-year old Mario Rizzello and his 30-year old daughter, Daria, watched nervously from their small family-owned Italian restaurant in Hamburg.

Once Germany imposed its own restrictions a couple of weeks later, the 16 tables in the Rizzellos’ “Trattoria Toscana” — usually crowded with businesspeople during lunch and with regulars in the evenings — were suddenly empty. Mario Rizzello feared for the survival of the restaurant he had spent much of the last 30 years in.

“We don’t know . . . how to get through this,” the family wrote on its website in a message to customers.

Partially because Germany had been quick to respond to the pandemic, restrictions on restaurants such as Trattoria Toscana were more relaxed than in other countries. Customers were not allowed to dine in, but Trattoria Toscana was permitted to sell takeout food, drawing many loyal customers who wanted their local restaurant to survive.

Still, revenue dropped by more than half. Within weeks, the business would have faced a financial squeeze.

“I had applied for government aid but assumed it was going to take four or five months to be approved,” Mario Rizzello recalled. Instead, within one week after filing his application, he found himself with emergency aid of about $15,000. About two-thirds of the money came from the national government, which set up a $54 billion rapid-fire rescue package for small businesses and freelancers; the rest came from the Hamburg regional government. The restaurant also applied for tax deferral under newly-created government programs.

The restaurant’s $15,000 grant does not have to be paid back and covers more than half of the restaurant’s operating costs for three months. Earnings from takeout sales cover most of the remaining overhead.

“Everyone has been really friendly, from the tax authorities to the emergency fund officials — it’s been pretty easy,” Daria said of the process to secure the funding, even though she added the current solution remained “unsustainable in the long run.”

The family deems itself to be in a more comfortable position than friends and relatives in their virus-stricken home country, Italy, where many business owners are waiting for far smaller amounts of aid.

“I’m happy to be in Germany right now,” Mario Rizzello said.

Working for peanuts, waiting for help in Brazil.

RIO DE JANEIRO — For most of his working life, Paulo Roberto Nunes knew exactly who he was. He was a peanut salesman — the most renown in town, in his opinion.

“I’m famous,” he boasted from his house in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. “But it has been difficult.”

It has never been more difficult than this. No one is buying peanuts. Most people are inside their homes, and those who aren’t on lockdown are too fearful to buy nuts from the heated tray he hauls through the favela. His monthly income has plummeted from around $400 to around $25.

He fears his two young children and wife will go hungry, so he applied three weeks ago for the monthly $110 the government has offered to informal workers who represent roughly 40 percent of the workforce. But he’s still waiting. The phone application the government rolled out says only his case is “under analysis.”

The federal government’s attempt to help its poorest has been a stew of bureaucratic snafus, technical glitches and political infighting. President Jair Bolsonaro has said stay-at-home orders aren’t working and informal workers — maids, street salespeople, Uber drivers — need to make money to survive. But local officials say the federal government isn’t providing enough support to offset lost incomes and to allow people to stay home. This week, lengthy lines curled outside of banks in Rio de Janeiro, as people lined up for their handout, undercutting official calls for social distancing.

Among the millions in need was Nunes. He had never wanted to take help from the government. It made him feel “powerless.” But he can’t see any other way. So he checks his phone daily for news on his case.

“I can’t do anything else,” he said. “I have children at home.”

U.K. firm finds ‘reason to keep fighting’

LONDON — In early March, Simon Freeman kept track of news about the spread of the coronavirus in Asia and wondered how it could affect his business if it hit hard in Britain.

Freeman owns the digital platform Freestak, which works with the likes of Nike and Under Armour to connect them with outdoor and endurance influencers — a coterie of

amateur and elite runners, hikers and cyclists who chat, post videos and generally enthuse about their exploits. As a test, he asked his 11-person team of staffers and contractors to work at home for a week to determine whether they could be as efficient there as in their small office in north London. They did and they were.

Freeman, 45, and his wife, Julie, seemed well-positioned when British authorities on March 23 ordered offices to close. Launched four years ago, Freestak was projected to generate about $1 million in revenue this year, but no one planned for a life-changing pandemic. Within weeks, Freestak dropped all contractors and furloughed three of its six U.K.-based staffers, and Freeman and his wife took deep pay cuts. And there was the matter of the $1,300 monthly office rent — cheap by London standards, but tough to pay without cash flow.

Then, the landlord rang. “‘You’ve been great tenants,'” Freeman recalled her saying before she offered to waive rent for April, May and June.

Freeman received another pleasant surprise. The government came up with hundreds of billions of dollars for loans and aid, including tax breaks, to ease the financial pain to companies and workers. One program promised to reimburse employers for roughly 80 percent of monthly wages — or as much as about $3,100 per worker — for those they furloughed. Freeman submitted his request to cover the three furloughed employees, and on April 27 he saw roughly $9,000 in government funds had been transferred into Freestak’s account. “I applied, but I never thought it would work out,” Freeman said. “The money gives us a reason to keep fighting.”

Someday, he plans to return at least one big favor. “My landlord! I will repay her as soon as I can afford it.”

Russian tattoo parlor drowns in red ink without government help

MOSCOW — Thanks to a sympathetic landlord, the rent for April still hasn’t been paid. May rent might have to wait, too. If the Faux Pas Tattoo studio can’t open by June, it’ll likely cease to exist.

“One month is over and the next one will be the last we can survive without opening,” said Pavel Zelentsov, who co-owns Faux Pas with Vitaly Kazantcev.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Russia’s small-business sector especially hard as the country has held off from rolling out a broad stimulus package comparable to those in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, with Russia eclipsing 100,000 confirmed cases of the disease, President Vladimir Putin has extended the “nonworking” period until May 11, keeping nonessential businesses shuttered while directing them to continue paying employee salaries.

Russia’s government has encouraged lenders to be flexible amid coronavirus closures, but Zelenstsov said Faux Pas hasn’t received any state aid, in part because it’s unclear to him if there’s any available. The business has survived the past month thanks to the understanding of its landlord.

Chief among the Kremlin’s measures was a tax holiday and a plan for state-owned banks to offer companies interest-free salary loans to ensure they can keep paying workers. But on April 10, Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina acknowledged the program got off to a “slow” start — just 1.2 percent of the loans applied for had been approved after two weeks.

Faux Pas, which Zelentsov said makes around $13,500 a month, covered salary for its four administrative staff, but since its resident artists are typically paid by the client, they haven’t received any money from the tattoo studio since Moscow imposed strict stay-at-home orders on March 28. Zelentsov, 37, said Faux Pas has also continued to pay the woman who regularly cleaned the parlor because “we have to support her, too, in these difficult times.”

To try to bring in income while still closed, Faux Pax has started online consultations for those who want a custom tattoo design; a completed design costs $40. It’s also offering gift cards, so those who plan to get a tattoo there in the future can financially support the business in the interim.

“I have thought about how in other countries, there is more government support,” Zelentsov said. “But we have what we have here.”

Cheese (the dog) and huge tax savings ease pain for Chinese start-up

Early Wednesday morning, Claire Gong masked up and flew to meet a client in Hangzhou.

As co-founder of Beijing-based artificial intelligence start-up Mor.AI, Gong, 31, was used to crisscrossing China to tout the company’s software — and its newest offering, a robot receptionist.

What was different this time was that she had 30 surgical masks in tow. A gantlet of temperature checks lay ahead.

“It’s a little more complicated now,” she said as she pulled out of the airport in a taxi.

When the lockdown began in January, Cheese — Gong’s golden retriever — would pop into work video conferences, and colleagues’ babies wailed and parents wandered into view to see what was going on.

There were other inconveniences, of course. Cheese’s dogwalker no longer could come over. Gong had to make all her own lunches. With the pink streaks fading from her hair and salons still closed, Gong bought blue dye online and redid her highlights herself.

But Gong and Mor.AI, which has around 70 full-time employees, are fortunate, despite the travails of the last several months. The company is the kind of emerging technology business that Beijing is hoping to prop up as it rolls out its pandemic stimulus, which offers tax breaks for small businesses. Gong said Mor.AI qualified for several weeks of free office rent worth $6,800. The company was also allowed to forego $184,100 in social security contributions that enabled it to avoid layoffs and keep its employees on full salary.

Gong declined to discuss her company’s revenue, other than to say it plunged significantly in the first quarter as electronics manufacturing clients paused production; some even went broke, she said, and venture capital has also dried up.

“Because of the virus and the economic situation, it’s made them very conservative,” Gong said.

Gong said she and her colleagues are looking for opportunities in e-commerce to offset their manufacturing client losses this year. She also hopes there will be more visitors soon for their robot receptionist, which has suffered in silence for several weeks on a lonely Mercedes showroom floor in Shenzhen.


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