Suffering from COVID: Results from the U.S. Census Small Business Pulse Survey

by Jessica Nelson

February 3, 2021

In early 2021, nearly a third of Oregon businesses continued to report large negative effects on their businesses from the Coronavirus pandemic. Many businesses are operating at reduced capacity compared with one year ago, with capacity most often limited by physical distancing requirements and availability of supplies and inputs. Almost half of Oregon respondents to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey during the week of Jan. 4, 2021 through Jan. 10, 2021 reported an expectation that it will take an additional six months or more to get back to business as usual.

This weekly survey of businesses employing between one and 499 workers has been conducted in three phases of data collection so far, with phase 3 ending with the week of Jan. 4, 2021 through Jan. 10, 2021. These weekly figures show Oregon businesses slightly worse off than the national average for many questions in the survey, which lines up with the rapid onset and long duration of closures and restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon. But overall, Oregon’s responses weren’t far from the national average, and in many cases the estimates weren’t statistically different for Oregon, due to the much smaller sample and thus larger error ranges for state level data.

In addition to the 31% of Oregon businesses reporting large negative effects of Coronavirus, another 43% reported moderate negative effects on their business. More than one out of five businesses reported the pandemic had little effect on their business. A small share reported positive effects from the pandemic, and that share was smaller in Oregon than nationally. Sectors most often reporting large negative effects, as of early January, included accommodation and food services; arts, entertainment, and recreation; and private educational services.

The share of Oregon businesses reporting large negative effects of Coronavirus peaked early in the survey, reaching 47% in the first week, April 26, 2020 through May 2, 2020. Nearly nine out of 10 Oregon businesses reported large or moderate negative effects of the pandemic during the first four weeks of phase 1, with businesses reporting moderate effects quickly overtaking those reporting large negative effects. In the summer, reports of negative effects dropped to about 75% of businesses, and the results have stayed pretty consistent since then. 

Current Capacity and Constraints

When asked how they would describe their business capacity compared with one year ago, the most common response was that capacity hadn’t changed. Still, many businesses reported having less capacity during the week of Jan. 4 through Jan. 10 than one year prior, with 34% reporting capacity had fallen less than 50%, and another 19% reporting capacity down 50% or more. A few businesses reported increased capacity since this time last year, at 6% in Oregon and the nation.

Capacity differences compared with one year ago are now considering the peak of the economic expansion just before the pandemic hit. Phase 4 will show some businesses comparing activity with the spring plunge as closures and restrictions took hold and decimated jobs and activity both here and across the country. Looking back, the shares of businesses reporting capacity changes has been consistent over the phase 2 and phase 3 survey panels; phase 1 didn’t include the question.

The current capacity constraints faced by businesses are very similar in Oregon and the United States. The majority of businesses didn’t identify any of the constraints the survey asked about, but businesses could select as many constraints as applied to their business. Physical distancing of customers and physical capacity limitations were the most common, with 19% of businesses including it in their response. Physical distancing of employees affected 14% of Oregon businesses, a bit higher than the 10% of businesses nationally. The availability of supplies or inputs used to provide goods and services affected 13% of Oregon businesses.

Looking to the Future

As Oregon businesses look to the future, elevated spread of the virus and continued physical distancing required to contain it as vaccines roll out have many tempering their expectations. The weekly pulse survey asks, “In your opinion, how much time do you think will pass before this business returns to its normal level of operations relative to one year ago?”

As of the week of Jan. 4 to Jan. 10, about half of businesses responded that they believe it will be another six months or more, in Oregon and the U.S. Some businesses (20%) reported the pandemic had little effect on their business, and just 7% said business had already returned to a normal level of operations. Two percent of Oregon businesses responded that the surveyed establishment had permanently closed, evidence of the tightrope many businesses are currently walking as they try to stay afloat and wait out the pandemic.

 


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