This is the latest in a continuing series of articles on the top local news stories of 2020.
The year 2020 may forever leave a sour taste in the mouths of most business owners.
For them, this year has been a roller coaster of mandated closures, new rules and forced adaptation to continue doing business amidst a combined public health and economic crisis. Several local businesses made the difficult decision to close permanently. Others continue to hang on to weather the storm as best they can.
TDN’s top business stories of 2020 are all colored by the national coronavirus pandemic, whether directly due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s public health orders, skyrocketing joblessness and woes about work safety measures, or indirectly as shopping patterns, public comment and hiring processes moved to virtual platforms.
All this began on March 15, when Inslee announced his plan to order businesses across the state to close in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, whose first reported U.S. infection was in Washington in late January.
Local restaurants closed off their dining areas and switched to takeout models. Retailers scrambled to launch websites, increase their social media presence and establish curbside pick-up options for customers.
Most business owners told TDN they were making just a fraction of what they had before the pandemic started.
“I’ve got a lot of anxiety and stress inside because I don’t know where the money is going to come from next month,” Dana Millard, owner of Longview’s iconic Pancake House breakfast restaurant, told TDN in March. “We have to do this (takeout) for a while to get better at it, but we are learning as we go.”
At the WestRock paper mill in Longview, one millwright pushed his employers to outline clear policies for coronavirus-related sick leave after he was sent back to work despite a potential exposure to the virus.
His daughter had been tested for the virus in mid-March after stopping in Longview to visit the family. Worried that he could have caught it to, he went to his boss to explain the situation. He told TDN he was sent back to work the day through, then used up his personal sick leave to quarantine in his home until his daughter got her negative result.
Later that month, WestRock updated its on-site procedures and policies to grant paid sick leave for potential COVID exposures, as well to to check workers for symptoms before they arrived for their shifts.
The business shutdown also spurred widespread layoffs, as restaurants and retailers short on payroll cash put employees on standby or furlough — or eliminated their jobs. In April, nearly 15.7% of Cowlitz County workers were considered jobless, according to state unemployment data.
That was the county’s highest recorded unemployment rate since February 1983. And it may have been worse than statistics indicated, because a measurement problem in the national survey may have been up to five percentage points off.
Local economists estimated that the county’s joblessness rate in the spring was actually closer to 20.7%.
“I think it’s fair to say we are at the highest (unemployment rate) since the Great Depression,” Southwest Washington regional economist Scott Bailey told TDN at the time.
Congress approved a $2.2 trillion stimulus package that included cash supplements and extension of unemployment benefits. But tens of thousands of newly unemployed Washingtonians flocked to the state Employment Security Department website to file their claims, and the system essentially crashed. And a number of Cowlitz County residents reported that they never received their unemployment benefits, despite being told they were eligible for them.
Unemployment rates eventually trended down, falling to about 6.9% in October, its lowest monthly rate since March.
Rates jumped slightly in November, rising to 7.4% due to a second round of business shutdowns that restricted retail capacity and prohibited restaurants from serving meals indoors.
Businesses seemed more prepared for the second shutdown, having already adjusted their work models to accommodate the first round of new rules. But at least three local restaurant owners decided it was too much of a financial and emotional hit to bear another closure, so they defied the governors orders to reopen their indoor dining.
Despite all of the business-related COVID-19 drama, the permitting process for a proposed $2 billion methanol refinery in Kalama chugged along, as did the hiring process for a new Port of Longview chief executive officer.
The state Department of Ecology in September released a draft supplemental study detailing how the plant may affect global and state greenhouse gas emissions.
Ecology opened public comment on the study for 30 days after it was released. Usually the agency holds big forums, where dozens of people can gather to share their thoughts in person. This year, with state rules prohibiting large gatherings of any sort, the forums were moved to digital and call-in platforms.
In December Ecology finalized the study. Although some minor adjustments were made, the key takeaway stayed the same: The methanol plant could reduce global emissions more than alternative refinery methods, but it will still be a major polluter for Washington state and the world.
The Port of Longview also held its public meetings virtually throughout almost all of the year. That included meetings to discuss the hiring process for a new CEO.
The port launched its CEO search before the pandemic hit, when former CEO Norm Krehbiel announced he would retire in February. The port commissioners unanimously selected Dan Stahl, the port’s former chief operations officer.
Stahl will lead the port — one of Cowlitz County’s largest economic engines — forward in its plans to majorly expand its Industrial Rail Corridor and find a new tenant to rent the long-vacant Berth 4 terminal.
Commission President Allan Erickson told TDN earlier this year: “Dan’s role as CEO is just huge as we continue to move on. We need to hold onto what we have in terms of market, but continue to expand that and bring new employment and new prosperity to the port. You can’t overstate how important his role in that is.”