Economic Impact: City prepares for job losses

HARLINGEN — Officials are bracing for an “unprecedented” loss of jobs to deeply impact the local economy as businesses close to comply with new federal orders aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

At City Hall, officials are considering plans to help businesses through the economic crisis spurred by the federal mandates aimed at limiting group gatherings to 10 and shelter-in-place orders requesting residents stay home.

“We’re just trying to locally assess what the impact is and think about ways we might be able to help locally,” Mayor Chris Boswell said Thursday.

At Economic Development Corporation offices, officials are conducting a survey to determine the extent of business closings, Executive Director Raudel Garza said.

“We are obviously going to see a lot of impact,” Garza said. “Unfortunately, a lot of others in the service industry are hurting and it’s concerning to us.”

Garza said the survey will also help determine the extent of job losses.

“We know it’s a significant number,” he said.

By Thursday, 23 businesses had responded to the survey, he said.

“The majority of people answering the survey will probably be reducing employee hours,” Garza said.

Garza said some businesses said they could survive a month-long crisis while others would shut down.

“Some are prepared to weather and storm and some are not,” he said.

Unemployment claims soar

At Cameron County Workforce Solutions, officials are reviewing national and state unemployment claims to determine the extent of the economic crisis.

“We have never faced anything like this before,” Henry Castillo, the agency’s regional director, said, referring to high numbers of claims.

Castillo said he hasn’t received information regarding the number of unemployment claims filed across the Rio Grande Valley last week.

But across the country, 3.28 million new unemployment claims were filed in the last week, he said.

“It’s the highest ever received in a single week,” Castillo said of the nation’s number of claims.

Across Texas, the Houston Business Journal is reporting 19,000 unemployment claims were filed on March 17, he said.

The one-day figure compares with 3,100 unemployment claims filed during the week of March 9 to13, he said.

Castillo said the economic crisis threatens to rocket jobless rates in Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy and Starr counties.

“Even with the improved economy in the last few years, we still have the highest unemployment in the state,” he said, putting jobless rates in Cameron and Hidalgo at about 6- to 7-percent before the crisis. “We could probably easily be looking at double figures.”

EDC mulls grants, loans

In Harlingen, EDC officials are considering offering grants or low-interest loans to help businesses.

Meanwhile, many banks and property owners are prepared to help businesses, Garza said.

“The banks, at this point, are willing to help,” he said. “People should ask their banks or landlords. People obviously understand this is unprecedented.”

Restaurants offering carry-out, drive-thru

Of the city’s 150 to 200 restaurants, many remain open after cutting services as a result of orders to close their dining areas.

“We know that restaurants have closed or have limited services,” Boswell said. “Some are probably doing better than others because they have drive-thru set-ups.”

Downtown restaurants open, shops close

Across the downtown area’s rows of about 40 businesses, boutiques and antique shops are closing while many restaurants are serving carry-out food.

“The downtown restaurants are trying to stay open,” property owner Bill DeBrooke said. “The ones that have decided to stay open are doing business — not doing as much business but still doing business. They can do some online stuff. I don’t think it will be much but they can do that. Everybody’s still got to pay the bills.”

Getting ‘creative’ in San Benito

In San Benito, some merchants are changing the way they do business, Rebeca Castillo, executive director of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said.

“We’re seeing a change in terms of delivery,” she said. “Businesses are changing gears on how they deliver their services. A lot of businesses are staying open, with services like curbside, drive-thru or delivery. The traffic at drive-thrus is pretty steady. Some are getting creative and setting up services online so you can place orders. Some of them opted to close down because their business slowed down.”