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Shutdown being felt across area

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Lunchtime Saturday at the Pineapple Cafe on Halstead Boulevard, a popular spot for personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard base, was a light business day for the restaurant. Other area businesses also are reporting a similar impact from the government shutdown.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Economic impacts of the government shutdown are starting to be felt in Elizabeth City, where furloughed federal employees are seeking unemployment and even food stamps, and businesses are losing money.

Yet those impacts are also helping rally the community, as local institutions, nonprofits and entrepreneurs are offering help big and small to the families affected.

The partial government shutdown is approaching its 30th day. It's already the longest U.S. government shutdown in history and there's no clear end in sight, as President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats remain at odds over Trump's demand for $5.7 billion towards a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The shutdown has affected national parks, programs for farmers, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including the U.S. Coast Guard, and caused some 800,000 federal workers to miss their first paychecks. Barring a deal next week, they'll miss their second paychecks around Jan. 25.

Hundreds of federal employees in Elizabeth City, primarily service members and employees for the Coast Guard, are among those going without pay.

Some have enough savings to tide them over for a while. In one example, the handful of Coast Guard families renting at Emerald Lake Apartments haven't asked for extensions on their rent, apartment manager Jackie Gordon said Friday.

Others are not so well off. Inside the N.C. Career Center, a staffer who declined to be named said they've seen three to five unemployment applications a day from those affected by the shutdown.

At that clip, shutdown-driven applications represent a significant chunk of all unemployment claims filed across North Carolina. Larry Parker, spokesman for the state's Division of Employment Security, estimated 800 individuals statewide have applied for unemployment benefits due to the shutdown.Region-specific data is not available yet, he said.

The max amount anyone can get for unemployment in North Carolina is $350 a week, Parker also reported. Some income is better than none, but that likely works out to much less than what federal employees above entry level take home.

Any federal worker who gets back pay after the shutdown ends will also have to refund the unemployment they receive, Parker noted, adding the state will work with them and offer repayment plans if needed.

The lack of pay has even led Coasties to seek public benefits. Pasquotank Department of Social Services Director Melissa Stokely said DSS staffers were out at Base Elizabeth City this week to meet with Coasties and take applications for programs such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps. They're also seeking help with utility bills, Stokely said. Though DSS is low on funds for one utility assistance program, families might still qualify for up to $600 for “crisis” utility assistance, she said.

Notably, Elizabeth City's Salvation Army is also offering utility assistance. Families who want to apply must do so by appointment, and should call 338-4129.

Local public utilities, including Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County, are offering extensions on bills, but cannot simply waive any amounts owed.

Stokely also touched on another aspect of the shutdown: it puts SNAP and other benefit programs on track to run out of money in coming weeks. Federal and state officials have moved money around to cover benefits for February, but Stokely said no one's told her whether and how March benefits will be covered.

Beneficiaries are also getting their February payments early – meaning DSS has made a major effort to remind them to properly budget the money. It's money in advance, not extra money, DSS is stressing through flyers and other outreach.

The shutdown is having ripple effects for local businesses as well – when families don't get paid, discretionary spending is the first thing to stop.

Jim Nye, of Hoppin' Johnz restaurant, is painfully aware of that. He said he's 15 to 20 percent off his daily numbers since the shutdown started.

He also noted a typical profit margin for a restaurant is around 10 percent.

“We're immediately in the red,” he said of the slowed sales.

While not taking sides between Trump and Congress – “there are no innocent parties” – Nye said the shutdown is a frustrating, “self-inflicted” crisis.

“We're being held hostage,” he said.

Pineapple Cafe is a restaurant right along Weeksville Road, the main route to and from Base Elizabeth City. That means it's a good draw for Coasties. It also means there's “absolutely” been a downturn in sales as Coast Guard personnel and contractors hold off on dining out, according to owner and operator Winter Pulley.

How much sales will ultimately be down for the month is unclear, but Pulley is hoping the promise of back pay means some customers will still stop by, as some Coast Guard personnel did Friday.

Pulley also noted the community is trying to help Coasties and other federal workers through these difficult weeks.

“The whole town is trying to support them,” Pulley said.

Holly Staples, president of the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce, can speak to that. She said Friday she hasn't heard much from businesses about how the shutdown is hitting their bottom line. Instead, she said many businesses have announced special promotions, including some free or discounted meals and services, to help Coasties and other affected workers through the shutdown. The Albemarle Area United Way has also donated $2,000 to the Food Bank of the Albemarle to help with extra food distributions to affected families, and bolstered resources to its 211 phone line to handle increased call volume, she also reported.

Notably, the Food Bank of the Albemarle has also announced expanded food pantry hours for families affected by the shutdown. It's now open on Wednesdays from 4-7 p.m.

The Chamber is compiling and publicizing business promotions so people know what's available, Staples also said. (To view that list, see sidebar.)

Businesses can't truly make up for missing paychecks, of course, but Staples said it's showing the community is standing behind the affected workers.

“I think it's huge how the community is coming together like this,” she said.

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Many area businesses and agencies are offering specials and other help to families affected by the government shutdown. The following are among those offering a local response:

Flours Girls — 25 percent off and free desserts every Friday during shutdown for USCG and family

Captain D’s — Free Meal for UCCG and family - Jan 22

Hwy 55 — Free meal for UCCG and family - Jan. 21

B&M Contractors — Offering free diagnostics to all the military families as well as 10 percent off any repair estimates.

SPCA of NENC — Offering free pet food for furloughed employees

Firehouse Subs — 50 percent off every Sunday during shutdown for all USCG and family plus all furloughed employees

Dairy Queen — Free combo on Jan. 21 and 22 to furloughed employees

Ghost Harbor Brewing Company — Donated product for family morale event

The Mills Downtown Bistro — Free family meal for USCG and furloughed employees on Jan. 22 - by reservation only; a Mills employee said Saturday few reservations are left and families should call early Sunday to reserve spots

Paradiso Roma — Free meals to families by reservation

Alison L. Boone DDS — Free exams at no charge if clinic on base is closed for active-duty Coast Guard

Staff Writer Reggie Ponder contributed to this story.

 

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