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For Madison area businesses, there’s no greater priority than getting customers and employees confident enough to return, according to survey results released Tuesday by local business advocates.

For Madison area businesses, there’s no greater priority than getting customers and employees confident enough to return, according to survey results released Tuesday by local business advocates.

More than 500 businesses responded to the Fall 2020 Business Survey, a follow-up to a March survey assessing how the region’s employers were responding at the start of the pandemic. 

The survey was conducted by the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, Destination Madison, Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, Latino Chamber of Commerce, and Downtown Madison, Inc., in partnership with DeForest Windsor Area Chamber of Commerce, Fitchburg Chamber Visitor + Business Bureau and Middleton Chamber of Commerce. 

More than three-quarters of the 503 Madison area businesses surveyed said they've seen revenues fall, and more than 30% of responding businesses have lost more than half their revenue. 

For Black and Latino businesses, the numbers are worse. Forty-four percent of the responding businesses owned or led by Latinos have lost more than half of their revenue, and 47% of Black-owned or Black-led businesses said the same.

Three percent of the responding businesses have already closed. Another 1% said they may close within the next month, and 30% said they expect to close by June 2021 if government regulations don’t change. 

Meanwhile, COVID infection and hospitalization numbers have spiked locally and across the state, far higher than they were in spring.

“The survey clearly shows the existential issues many local businesses are struggling with right now. Without innovative solutions to ensure our communities health and economic well-being, many businesses and their employees will not be able to survive the winter,” said Jason Ilstrup, president of Downtown Madison, Inc., in a press release. 

Sixty-six percent of respondents rated consumer and employee confidence as their most pressing need. Many respondents said they were concerned that messages about workplace safety were inconsistent or heightening fear.

Asked to rate elected officials’ performance during the pandemic, 25% of respondents said local leaders’ performance was above average or excellent, and just 14% gave such ratings to state elected leaders.

At a virtual panel discussion Tuesday, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon pointed to a September announcement from Public Health Madison & Dane County, which said that those who live or work in downtown Madison should assume they have been exposed to COVID-19, as an example of the messages that he believes are not borne out by COVID case data and don’t acknowledge the way businesses’ safety precautions can reduce risk. The announcement came as case counts surged, especially on and around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

“When you're thinking about public health interventions that are targeted, which is what we all hope for ... it's important to focus on the activities where the data leads us to,” Brandon said, noting that local contact tracing suggests that small private gatherings are a leading cause of local infections.

Angela Kinderman, president and CEO of the Fitchburg Chamber Visitor + Business Bureau, said at the panel that such messages can cause confusion and lead to a “throwing up of the hands,” diluting the intended effect of any given public health order.  

“The messaging is that businesses are bad for the economy,” Madison Black Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Camille Carter said.

“Our businesses have done the best they can thus far, short of closing the door and throwing in the towel,” Carter said of her members. She and panelists from other survey partner organizations said public officials should invite business representatives to help design regulations.

“We have to get this economy jumpstarted collectively.”