Slow but gradual adjustment under way in move to Phase One

John Dupont
The sign outside Fat Daddy's, a mainstay among Plaquemine restaurants, tells the story of how some Iberville Parish eateries are working to find a balance between business and compliance in Phase 1 of the COVID-19 pandemic. The eatery plans to reopen at the end of May.

The adjustment from a Stay at Home mandate to Phase One has loosened some restrictions for residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, although limitations remain.

For casinos, bars and restaurants, the end of the quarantine on May 15 allowed doors to open to 25 percent of the capacity.

Casinos got the go-ahead late Friday from Gov. John Bel Edwards. But patrons should expect temperature checks, answer a series of health questions and wear masks on the property, and social distancing remains the rule of the day.

As for eateries, a glance through the “Let’s Eat Plaquemine” site on Facebook tells the story. Some restaurants have not yet reopened, while others have scaled down their menus and have remained in the curbside service format to ensure compliance to social distancing.

Most supermarkets, pharmacies and discount retailers have weathered the storm, along with most drive-thru restaurants. In many cases, however, such stores are part of large national chains.

The challenge to pull ahead may prove a bit tougher for locally owned businesses, but the Iberville Parish Chamber of Commerce has stepped up to the plate to guide local merchants to a comeback.

“Everyone has concerns, especially the local mom and pop businesses,” Iberville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Pam Boesch said. “For us, it’s been about providing education and making sure they know about what is out there and letting them know what they should qualify for and what their responsibilities may be.”

While the Chamber provides the most accurate resources for businesses, the changes in federal or state guidelines can create an obstacle.

“It’s changing every day,” Boesch said. “We’re trying to keep them abreast of those changes, as well as what’s accurate and inaccurate.”

Even with the challenges, local businesses do not feel they have been left in the cold during the pandemic, she said.

“Everybody seems pleasantly surprised by the amount of support they’ve gotten from the government,” Boesch said. “A lot of businesses have taken advantage of the Payroll Protection Plan and the Economic Injury Disaster Plan, both of which have been a big help.”

Restaurants have endured a large brunt of the economic hit, she said.

“Certainly, there are some businesses that have struggled before the pandemic that may continue to have struggles, and then you have some that have done makeshift drive-thrus that have done well,” Boesch said. “But we have only about 25 eateries throughout Iberville Parish – extending from Maringouin to St. Gabriel – so we need to protect them as much as we can.”

The expedition of loan processing by community banks has been one of the saving graces thus, largely because of the short turnaround in comparison to dealing directly with government agencies, Boesch said.

For Plaquemine Bank, the need for help through Small Business Administration programs gave the locally owned financial institution to reach out to many of those local business, said Steve Panepinto, the bank’s President, Chairman and CEO.

“Locally owned banks are the most accessible to mom-and-pop businesses, and that’s something some larger banks have had issues with,” he said. “We’re trying to help our customers first and we did take some non-customers, but we primarily tried to serve our existing customer bases and that’s what community banks have done.”

Plaquemine Bank provided approximately 100 loans – averaging about $100,000 per loan – that totaled between $9 million and $10 million.

Community banks have traditionally taken a more diligent approach to help small, locally owned businesses, Panepinto said.

“I came from an environment in which we as small local banks supported our local communities and we knew what we could or couldn’t do, and we always treated everyone the same … we treated them fairly,” he said. “Big banks didn’t want to go to bat for the local people.

“Small community banks are the backbone of the economy because we know our customers and we try to service them. We can’t do everything everybody wants, but we’re trying to do things in logical and good sense, with loans that are both safe and secure.”

Panepinto also believes the recovery may not take as long as some fear. He agrees with President Trump’s assessment on the path to rebound.

“Just like he has said, I believe we’re going to have a slow second and third quarter, but we will have a tremendous fourth quarter of the year and businesses will get back to normal operations, and hopefully we will get this coronavirus in check.”

At Citizens Bank, Plaquemine businesses received a “sizeable amount” of the 400 loans totaling about $300 million, according to senior loan officer Jim Purgerson.

“We helped out a lot of the Plaquemine businesses just with our strong ties to the community,” he said. “We utilized more than we thought, which was very gratifying for us to see we were able to help, especially where our roots lie.”

Community banks were able to mobilize much quicker because of the flat management structure and close ties to the community, Purgerson said.

“So, we were able in an uncertain time to be there for customers and non-customers after we decided to make it available to non-customers.”

A unique aspect in the process involved the joint efforts between community to decipher the process after it had been rolled out very quickly, he said.

“We had very little time to wait and get it up and going, so we collaborated with each other on the best practices and bounced certain situations against each other,” Purgerson said.

Some loans were as little as $2,000, although the average loan amounted to $100,000, he said.

“I felt like we were able to help every corner of the community,” Purgerson said.

Citizens Bank also allowed for payment deferrals on customer loans. In many instances, the grace periods – combined with funds from the Payroll Protection Program – helped businesses through the shutdowns when they could not pay debts, he said.

As with Panepinto, Purgerson sees light at the end of the tunnel on the economic slump.

“I believe there will be some aches and pains for the rest of the year, but we’re resilient and it’s not the first time we’ve faced a bad situation,” he said. “ I think that’s where community banks come into play.”