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Hundreds of small businesses polled in Mass. have seen revenues drop by more than half

Survey indicates "the shape of trouble" ahead for Main Streets and urban neighborhoods

The beauty industry has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Are you afraid for the future of your local Main Street? If not, maybe you should be.

Survey results being released on Thursday by the MassINC Polling Group show how certain sectors of the economy have been far more hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic than others. These sectors make up a preponderance of storefronts in village centers and urban neighborhoods across the state.

The beauty industry — hair and nail salons, and the like — was the most affected, according to the statewide poll of nearly 1,900 small businesses, conducted within the past several weeks. Seventy percent of beauty businesses said their revenue dropped at least 50 percent in the first half of 2020, as compared to the same period last year; most of them were essentially closed by the state government for nearly three months.

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Close behind were restaurants and bars. Two-thirds, or 67 percent, said their sales were down at least 50 percent. Restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery for much of the spring, and bars still haven’t been allowed to reopen in the state.

On average, 44 percent of all respondents said they had lost at least half of their sales, compared to the first six months of 2019.

Other hard-hit sectors: health care (57 percent of businesses), retail (50 percent), and education (48 percent).

In contrast, fewer than a third of construction companies, manufacturers, and nonprofits said their revenue had fallen by at least 50 percent.

The organizers of the survey certainly expected that businesses that rely on foot traffic through their doors would be disproportionately affected by the pandemic shutdowns. But they said they were surprised by the size of the discrepancy.

“It shows us a map of where the Massachusetts small-business community is headed,” said Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling. “You can certainly see the shape of trouble that’s coming our way.”

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When they did finally reopen, a number of businesses found it tough to rehire furloughed workers. About 66 percent of those that reported trouble rehiring workers blamed the challenge on former workers making more money from expanded unemployment benefits. Just under half (48 percent) cited the fear of infection, while 33 percent said child care or school issues played a role. Generally speaking, larger companies were more likely to cite generous unemployment benefits as a barrier to rehiring.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they were keeping up with their bills. The beauty, restaurant, and retail sectors reported the most trouble in this regard. And businesses in Boston and the inner suburbs were more likely to miss bill payments than those in communities west of Interstate 495.

Only a few respondents said they were planning to close for good. Of the 13 percent of small businesses that reported they are still closed, just 4 percent said they don’t expect to ever reopen.

However, it’s hard not to look at the sectors that were hammered in the first half of 2020 and wonder if a wave of vacant storefronts could soon spread through downtown areas across the state.

Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, said the restaurant and beauty sectors have “just been demolished,” compared to others. He said he hopes state and federal policy makers can rise to the challenge of helping prevent mass closures.

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“You look at vacant retail real estate and you wonder who will fill those spaces,” said Mitchell, whose nonprofit handles economic development in Lawrence. “Our goal is keeping many of these businesses from going out of business.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.