Since 2004, John Harmon and his wife have owned a Forest Park marketing company. They've built up a steady business by printing direct mail and other projects across the country and around the Tri-State.
“One of the things we were primarily focused on is events," said Harmon, owner of Marketing Direct Incorporated. "We work with a lot of nonprofit organizations.”
That is, until COVID-19.
“No one was marketing,” Harmon said, after all public gatherings were canceled because of the pandemic. He still had some direct mail projects, but it wasn't enough. He needed to pivot.
“Some of our manufacturers switched to masks, and we started working with them,” said Harmon, who started producing customized masks to supplement his business.
But Harmon said he knows many other Black businesses that still are struggling as the Tri-State marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and shutdowns changed how we live. Many business and health leaders say the pandemic hit minority populations hardest financially, emotionally and physically. In Hamilton County, African Americans died at a disproportionately higher rate than other racial groups, according to a report by the Center for Closing the Health Gap.
“Almost every person in our focus group as well as participated in our survey were able to say that they knew someone who had died from COVID-19,” said Renee Mahaffey Harris, CEO of the Center for Closing the Health Gap.
According to the center's "Hamilton County Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 on Marginalized Populations" report, the disproportionate number of African American deaths related to the virus were several percentage points higher than all other groups surveyed. The report showed an 18 percent difference in deaths versus cases among African Americans in Hamilton County. The difference among whites was 12 percent. In addition, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the national death rate among African Americans and Hispanics is nearly three times the rate among whites.
Meanwhile, those who did not get sick still felt the impact of the virus.
“I think that for Black women in particular there was an impact in loss of income,” Mahaffey Harris said.
National unemployment rates remain high for minority populations, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor. The overall unemployment rate released earlier this month is 6.2. However, for African Americans it is 9.9 and for Hispanics 8.5.
“I think the economic impact is the impact that I think is going to be the hardest to come back from,” Mahaffey Harris said.
'That ability to work from home wasn’t equal'
Over the past year, some marginalized families have been caught in a Catch-22. People have layoffs and furloughs because of the pandemic, or those family members are working essential jobs that placed them at higher risk of contracting the virus.
“So, when you look at the job classifications, some of those classifications don’t enable someone to be able to work from home,” Mahaffey Harris said. “That ability to work from home wasn’t equal.”
The digital divide also became more visible as schools closed and children learned from home. Mahaffey Harris said the center heard from parents who were overwhelmed and unprepared for the assumption that they had access to devices or WIFI.
“If you don’t have those means, you’re trying to juggle making sure they have food on the table and also make sure that you can try to help them through their assignments,” she said.
Meanwhile, some Black business owners learned difficult lessons about weathering the economy during this pandemic. Many reported having trouble accessing federal grant programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Eric Kearney, president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce, said there was a problem with the lack of strong financial relationships.
"I was surprised by the number of firms that had trouble,” Kearney said. He estimates 25 to 30 percent of local Black businesses failed in the last year.
“Small businesses are under-capitalized. That means they don’t have enough money to start. So you might start by using your savings, borrowing from relatives,” he said. “But typically, that’s not enough, because when businesses first start out or even if they’re more mature, they need funding in order to ride out the cyclical ups and downs of business.”
Kearney also said minority business owners without established contacts with an accountant, attorney or loan officer found themselves struggling to stay afloat.
“People would see an attorney when something came up, but they did not have an ongoing relationship with a lawyer and that caused them problems during this COVID-19,” he said.
But he commended companies like Harmon's that have shown they can survive adverse conditions.
“The great thing about Black owners is they’re used to the struggle,” Kearney said. “They’re resilient and they’re tough and they have grit. When COVID hit, they pivoted, they did something different.”
Minority populations have felt the emotional impact of the virus in the last year as well. Mahaffey Harris said the center started support groups for those who needed help.
“We did research, but we also learned from that research that the mental health impacts were great,” she said. “We’re now continuing to do more of those support groups because that’s been a request. We need more tools.”
The Center for Closing the Health Gap now has a phone number for those who have questions about COVID-19 resources. The number is 513-585-9879. She said someone from the center will return calls within 24 hours and help trouble-shoot vaccine questions as well.
Despite the increases in minority groups impacted by COVID-related deaths and financial, educational, technological, emotional and business barriers, Mahaffey Harris said some weren't completely surprised.
“I don’t think that the Black community was so shocked by the disproportionate impact because we have disproportionate outcomes related to almost every disease area,” she said.
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