The pandemic left Automax Tampa Bay in a coronavirus crunch.
The Pinellas Park used car dealership on U.S. 19 usually sells 20 or so vehicles a week. But at the start of April, as people stayed home to avoid becoming infected and layoffs mounted, sales fell to just one or two vehicles a week. It was so slow the six sales associates had their hours cut to just two days per week.
“It was a ghost town,” said sales associate Jose Lopez.
And then stimulus checks started landing in bank accounts and mail boxes across the country — $1,200 per individual, plus $500 per child. Automax Tampa Bay was immediately stimulated: The dealership sold 14 cars in the last week of April. Lopez said he posted to all four of his Facebook pages, marketing directly at those who just got their checks from the IRS.
“If you got your stimulus," he said he wrote, “come see me.”
Stimulus payments — technically called “economic impact payments” — have injected more than $200 billion into the pockets of American consumers.
Competition for those dollars has been high: Dealerships want it. Local retailers want it. Restaurants want it.
For many, though, the stimulus is about survival.
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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s threat to public health, governments issued shutdown orders to slow the spread of the virus and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. The economic repercussions were enormous, as the coronavirus has put more than 36 million people out of work in the U.S. The newly unemployed needed money to pay their mortgage or rent, or just to put food on the table.
On a macro level, explained University of South Florida economics instructor Chris Jones, the stimulus was about flooding the country with cash, hoping to get it circulating when the economy needed it most.
The American economy is built on consumer spending, Jones said. But consumption stopped when governments had to shut down places where people congregate, such as restaurants, bars and shops.
There were far fewer places for those with money to spend it. There were also many businesses unable to pay their employees, so they couldn’t spend, either. Consumers could no longer drive the American economy.
The stimulus payments were supposed to grease the economic gears that had ground to a halt.
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Some of the businesses hit hardest have been local, independent ones, said St. Petersburg’s Ester Venouziou, the founder of LocalShops1, an organization for local small businesses.
Their margins are often already razor-thin, and being closed to customers the last two months has forced some owners to tap into their personal savings or draw down lines of credit.
“A lot of them are closing," she said. “And a lot more have told me that they’re probably closing but haven’t officially announced.”
That’s why she’s launching the Million Dollar Mission. If 50,000 people in the Tampa Bay area would commit to spending $20 from their stimulus checks at a local business, she said, it would pump $1 million into the local economy.
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Venouziou said the idea came to her when she saw people online getting excited about big box stores reopening.
“If you’re all excited about T.J. Maxx," she said, "you can take $20 and spend it locally.”
She also launched a website, buylocaltampabay.com, which serves as a marketplace for local vendors. In contrast to places like Amazon and Etsy, she says she’s not charging local vendors anything.
Venouziou stressed that buying locally helps the Tampa Bay area recover faster. Up to 70 cents of every dollar spent on a small business gets recirculated locally, she said. But she said only about 40 cents of each dollar spent at a national chain is reinvested in the local economy.
“If someone didn’t lose their job, didn’t have their salary cut, then spend (the stimulus check) all on local businesses," Venouziou encouraged. "This is extra money you wouldn’t have had.”
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The shutdown prompted Ilyana Salem to take care of some things she had been putting off.
The 43-year-old works in business education and career advising. She said she knows small business owners through her job, most of whom would do anything for their employees — and they need business right now. She’s still drawing an income, which is why she can use her stimulus money to pay local businesses to fix some furniture and repair her bicycle and vacuum cleaner.
“I was raised being told, ‘We’re all one step away from total chaos,’ " she said, “no matter who we are, no matter what kind of background we come from.”
The Tampa resident plans to take her vacuum to State Vacuum on W Kennedy Boulevard this week, a Tampa staple well-known for the big gorilla standing outside — now fit with a face mask.
David Epstein, the second-generation owner of State Vacuum, said his customers have gone out of their way to shop local.
“They understand that we need the money more so than the big box stores or the internet,” said Epstein, who runs the shop with his son, Joe.
Epstein tries to keep hand sanitizer, masks and gloves in stock, he said, and the store is keeping the prices as low as possible. No gouging, he said — even though there are those who pay the higher price.
He said customer loyalty has been critical to the survival of his business. That was true before the virus, and it’s definitely true now.
“We thank people for coming into our store," said Epstein, "and the response we’re getting is ‘No, thank you for being here.’ ”
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The stimulus is also a lifeline for those who are out of work or had their hours cut. It’s a way to stay afloat until some semblance of normality takes hold.
Christopher Johnson, 65, of Zephyrhills is an adjunct humanities instructor at Hillsborough County College and Polk State College. He was scheduled to teach a class at the Hillsborough college this summer. He lost that assignment, he suspects, because he’s not authorized to teach online. The educational world has switched to distance learning during the pandemic.
That also means he’ll lose the $2,100 he would have made this summer from teaching that course. The $1,200 payment will help make up for that.
“Right now, I socked away a little money because of the stimulus," he said.
He’ll use it to pay his rent and keep himself and his cat fed. "But that’s going to be raided as the summer goes on. That’s not going to hold up the whole summer.”
He said he could use the additional $900 he would have earned teaching the course.
“I’m overdue to get a new car," he said, “but I can’t think about that right now.”
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Some are using their stimulus checks specifically to buy cars — just as Lopez had hoped.
On a recent Wednesday, the Automax salesman said he got a call from a woman who wanted to buy a car, but was still waiting for her stimulus payment.
He said he had nine appointments scheduled with potential customers who anticipate receiving a second stimulus check — if Congress comes through, that is.
There are those who lost their jobs but still need a new vehicle and who can’t afford to use their stimulus check as a down payment. For them, Lopez said Automax has allowed some to buy cars using the stubs of their unemployment checks.
At least one dealership is marketing straight to those who may not need their stimulus checks to survive. RV One Superstores in Dover is enticing customers to spend their government checks on recreational vehicles.
Said one advertisement: “We’ll match your stimulus check up to $1,200.”
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Three Birds Tavern of St. Petersburg’s Fourth Street N is earned 50 percent of its normal revenue the first weekend it reopened its dining room, said Robin King, who owns the restaurant with husband Jack. They had anticipated only bringing in 30 or 40 percent.
If not for social distancing guidelines, they think they could make even more.
“We are not seeing signs of people not having cash in their pocket," she said.
Three Birds is a well-known hangout for hospitality workers, especially on Monday nights, when the menu is half off for those in the industry. Last week, King said they drew a solid crowd, even though the hospitality industry has been decimated by the economic shutdown.
“Those people would not have money if it were not for stimulus and unemployment," she said.
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