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As economy sank, federal dollars poured in

Gray Manufacturing has endured its share of recessions since the company’s first automotive jack rolled off the assembly line in 1952.

But the St. Joseph company, now a worldwide leader in lift equipment for heavy-duty trucks, never experienced anything like the coronavirus shutdown.

“These are unprecedented times,” said Stet Schanze, the company president. “I’ve never lived through anything like this. It was an event that was like a war-time event.”

Gray Manufacturing grabbed a lifeline in the form of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans that allow smaller employers to cover payroll costs and other qualifying expenses, like rent or utilities. The SBA loan data, released earlier this month, shows an unprecedented amount of federal money pouring into St. Joseph just as coronavirus shutdowns stopped a once-roaring economy in its tracks.

The PPP is associated with support for boutiques, restaurants and other tiny mom-and-pop operations. That’s still a big part of it, but the program also provided funding to manufacturers, contractors, nonprofits and professional services firms like financial planners, attorneys and accountants.

In St. Joseph, 138 employers received a combined total of between $48 million to $118 million in federal funding through the PPP. The funding allowed these businesses and organizations, which employ more than 6,000 people collectively, to get through the brunt of the shutdown without furloughs or layoffs. The St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce believes around 800 businesses locally took PPP funds, but the government only identifies those who received $150,000 or more.

“Many companies saw this as an opportunity to address the most immediate fallout from the virus but help them perhaps preserve capital for future impacts,” said Patt Lilly, president and chief executive officer of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. “The good news is a lot of people remain employed as a result of the PPP. I think that will bode well for the local economy going forward.”

The largest PPP recipients in St. Joseph were BMS Logistics, Gray Manufacturing, Ideker Inc., Northwest Health Services and R/S Electric. All received between $2 million and $5 million, according to the SBA. Another 11 companies in St. Joseph received between $1 million and $2 million.

Schanze said Gray Manufacturing, which employs around 200 people, was able to maintain production throughout the shutdown. The funding helped mitigate some of the impacts of a substantial slowdown in the trucking industry.

“This whole situation had a devastating effect on the U.S. economy,” he said. “We were doing everything possible to keep our business.”

Lilly said the government definition of small business covers any company with up to 500 employees, a broad measure that reflects a significant share of St. Joseph’s workforce. St. Joseph’s unemployment rate climbed to 6.5% in May, but Lilly remains hopeful that programs like the PPP leave the local economy poised for a recovery.

Still, he cautions that it was only a bridge to get through the immediate crisis. He wouldn’t be surprised to see a more targeted stimulus plan down the road.

“You’re going to see employers be cautious about hiring,” Lilly said. “I think you’re going too see employers not backfill positions where people perhaps have left.”

In a press release, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the PPP supported more than 51 million jobs. The average loan for for $100,000.

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Missouri River down, but not out

Following record-breaking crests along the Missouri River last year, this flooding season has been much calmer.

In St. Joseph, a record-tying crest was reached in March of 2019 at 32.07 feet, which matched the levels reached during the Great Flood of July 1993. This year, however, has brought conditions that topped out far lower than last year’s devastating floods.

The river currently sits near 11 feet in St. Joseph, which is 6 feet below flood stage. Flood stage of the Missouri River in St. Joseph is 17 feet. Moderate flooding begins at 21 feet with major flood stage entering the 27-foot level.

Hydrologist Scott Watson with the National Weather Service’s office in Pleasant Hill said there wasn’t as bad flooding this year due to conditions upstream.

“This winter and early spring we had a lot warmer conditions, and so you didn’t have that large buildup of snow pack,” said Watson. “Also, you had ground that wasn’t as frozen this year as we had last year when we got this frozen ground with the snow on top of it.”

Watson, the government’s regional hydrologist, said another contributing factor to last year’s flooding was the excess amount of rain that fell over a still-thawing ground, leading to more runoff and less absorption into the ground.

All of the ingredients came together for major flooding last year, Watson said, while few have surfaced this season. But that doesn’t mean the Missouri River won’t rise later this year, as a Watson says there’s a 40% chance the river will enter flood stage over the next three months, but any flooding he said would be minor.

“We do usually see a second rainy season in late fall, and especially in October,” he said. “But as for the Missouri River, it hasn’t been too bad in our area, but downstream looks to be a little bit higher up there.”

Higher conditions downstream are due, in part, to an uptick in rainfall across central and eastern Missouri. That excess rainfall then flows into streams and tributaries of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Locally, and upstream, rainfall has not been as profuse as it has to the east of St. Joseph.

Since January, St. Joseph has picked up 15.84 inches of rainfall. The year-to-date total is 2.6 inches lower than normal. That grows even larger upstream, with Omaha seeing 10.42 inches so far this year, a departure of 6.14 inches from normal.

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Mask mandate impact on businesses

This past week, St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray decided to mandate masks in places that are 10,000 square feet or more for 60 days starting on July 13.

Before that, McMurray asked the council and community members how they felt about a mask mandate in a couple work sessions before making a decision.

Businesses owners like Tracy Arthur, owner of Biggins Sports Bar expressed frustration over the lack of clarity during the discussion of the mandate and how it would impact business prior to the mayor’s decision this week.

“It’s potentially going to harm our business because of the communication aspect of it,” Arthur said. “People are scared of the unknown. They don’t know. ‘Okay, do I have to wear a mask? What are the stipulations? What are the guidelines and rules or regulations?’”

Another major concern Arthur had was the enforcing aspect of the mandate.

“As a business owner, that kind of puts us in the middle. Because if it’s something that the city will mandate, there are things that we have to follow and we have to abide by, or we get the repercussions,” Arthur said. “We’ve already had repercussions of the loss of business in sales and trying to have people still support us.”

In an email to the News-Press, city attorney Bryan Carter said the city’s health department will be enforcing the requirements of the order and a violation can result in a citation to Municipal Court and a fine of up to $500.

In addition, Carter said retail businesses will be responsible for compliance in their stores, but they are entitled to rely on customer’s or patron’s statements that they are exempt from the requirement to wear a mask or face covering.

While discussing the parameters of the mandate, a doctor who was included to provide guidance said during the work session that the risk of the virus spreading was higher in smaller spaces.

A community member, Jess Gould who watched the session via social media said she was confused about the council’s decision after hearing the doctor’s advice and feels that they don’t have the interests of the community members in mind.

“I think that’s why behind that anger (of having to wear a mask) is the lack of trust, because they’re going directly against the advice of our medical professionals to begin with,” Gould said. “It’s kind of an ineffective fix for a troubling situation and extending that ineffective fix for longer just also seems kind of backward.”

Gould also said she would feel uncomfortable with businesses that are not under the mandate and do not require masks.

“Small businesses not having a mask mandate — being a small confined space, there’s no way that I’m going to elect to go into that environment willingly if the business owners themselves don’t implement the mask mandate,” Gould said. “My hope for the community, if anything, is to get a list of businesses that are practicing safe measures, that are understanding the risks involved and that value the health of our community members and their staff.”