BILLINGS — Based on 240 economic injury forms completed three weeks ago by Yellowstone County businesses, the county lost 1,450 jobs due to impacts from COVID-19, Steve Arveschoug, executive director with Big Sky Economic Development told the Billings City Council Monday.
“We will likely have to be dealing with the recovery phase for likely months or potentially years beyond this point. I don’t mean to over exaggerate that, but there’s so much unknown now," Arveschoug said.
In mid-March, Big Sky Economic Development asked businesses and events impacted by COVID-19 to fill out an economic injury worksheet.
From the worksheets, Arveschoug was able to calculate a rough estimate of the Yellowstone County economic impact from COVID-19 and related mandated closures from county and state government.
Arveschoug said he received about 240 economic injury worksheets. Information pulled from them stated the county immediately lost 1,450 jobs, Arveschoug said. Business owners were uncertain if an additional 1,060 jobs would be lost three weeks ago.
“Again, rough numbers. Just a snapshot based on the worksheets that were filled out just by 240 businesses that we had at that time. We will continue to track those numbers. We will get stronger data from the state on unemployment claims. And we will continue to do some analysis on what the economic impact would be," Arveschoug said.
The actual number of job losses in the county is likely higher because Arveschoug hasn't heard back from some businesses.
With at least 1,450 jobs lost based on the economic injury worksheets, the county may stand to lose $350 million in lost economic activity, Arveschoug said.
“Needless to say, it is a significant issue for our community. As being the economic driver in our region and the state, when something like this happens, we’re going to share that impact in proportion to our economic prowess, as it were," Arveschoug said.
Big Sky Economic Development is leading the branch of the county's disaster response dealing with economic recovery. Arveschoug said he's put together an "economic response and recovery team" to help local businesses.
The recovery team is currently made up of seven business leaders and six technical support staff. Billings City Council Member Shaun Brown and Yellowstone County Commissioner Don Jones are representing their government organizations in an unofficial capacity, Arveschough said.
“For the most part, the members of that team are business leaders representing important sectors in our economy. We have a strong representation from our hospitality industry and retail because they are maybe being disproportionately and significantly impacted right now. And there is more room for input on that resource team," Arveschoug said.
The team is scheduled to meet every Thursday and so far has only met once. The first meeting focused on setting goals and understanding the type of help small businesses need.
"(Big Sky Economic Development is) doing some things, but we want to make sure we understand what our partners are doing so we understand how those things dovetail together. So our first job is to talk about how we’re responding individually so we can understand how we can coordinate that. And what gaps might exist in how we’re responding to the needs of our community," Arveschoug said.
A website is in the works from that group that Arveschoug said would be a "one stop shop" for businesses looking for resources about disaster loans from the federal Small Business Administration.
"We have information and resources on our website at Big Sky Economic Development. So does the Billings Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Billings Alliance. The city has some information. We wanted to create a site where all of you, all of us could say 'your first click, go to this site.' It will unfold for you all of the information that's important to you as a business in Yellowstone County," Arveschoug said.
Arveschough said the aim is to have the site operating by Friday.
The economic recovery group is also working on a plan with Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton to help reopen closed businesses, although no one has a firm date in mind. On Tuesday, Gov. Steve Bullock extended his stay-at-home order for two weeks to April 24, which mandates the closure of certain businesses deemed nonessential.
Arveschoug said Felton is scheduled to attend the group's upcoming Thursday meeting to discuss when it's safe for businesses to reopen.
“What we agreed to is we want to be thoughtful about what that strategy looks like. How can we guide our restaurants through a process towards reopening? And how can we make sure that clients or customers that they are serving feel safe as they begin to reopen?" Arveschoug said.
Arveschoug urged businesses with questions about assistance should email email@example.com, or visit their website bigskyeconomicdevelopment.org.