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Pandemic has had varying impacts on Stanly economy

A year ago, Lori Misenheimer was giving presentations about how she expected 2020 to be a good financial year.

“There was a lot of positive things going on,” said Misenheimer, a senior financial advisor with Uwharrie Bank.

But then a pandemic unlike anything seen in 100 years arrived and everything was seemingly turned upside down.

“How quickly in four and five weeks things can change,” she said, noting, as a good advisor would, that “that’s why we have to be prepared.”

Uwharrie Bank financial advisor Lori Misenheimer.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, Misenheimer, in a recent interview, noted that the financial fundamentals for many people have remained the same. She encourages people to make sure they are living within their means and putting money aside for retirement, have six months of living expenses safely tucked away at the bank and make sure their investments are properly diversified.

Misenheimer has also found that many people are being more frugal with their money, avoiding personal expenses except for necessities like groceries and pharmaceuticals and other health care needs.

To make sure people are better prepared for when emergencies arise, Uwharrie has given out emergency envelopes to its clients so they can store key information — current prescriptions, emergency contacts, copies of insurance cards, etc. — in one place.

“That’s important so that when the situations like this occur, you’re not caught off guard and it doesn’t create a negative impact financially,” she said.

Peter Asciutto, owner of Vac & Dash in downtown Albemarle, credits the store’s range of products (bicycles, vacuums and running equipment) and services (screen printing and UPS shipping) for allowing him to stay afloat last year.

“I’m just fortunate that we’re a very diverse business,” he said, noting that the store was deemed an essential business mainly due to its shipping capabilities. He was able to keep his employees on the payroll, though many worked reduced hours.

Though Vac & Dash struggled during the early months of the pandemic — its screen printing, which is a big portion of its revenue, fell considerably, Asciutto said things picked up near the end of the year. The store had its best month ever last October, which likely stems from more people shipping items and an increased demand in bicycles and disc golf equipment, he said.

Over the past year, the biggest thing Asciutto has learned is that businesses “just have to roll and adapt” and do the best they can.

But not all businesses were able to remain open during the early months of the pandemic. Due to its small size, Off The Square in downtown Albemarle decided to close in mid-March and did not reopen until a few weeks before Christmas. The restaurant was able to survive in part thanks to a PPP loan it received from the federal government, which allowed it to keep its employees on the payroll.

Other workers in the county were not as fortunate. As a result of the pandemic, the county’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to 9.9 percent in April, up from 4.3 percent in March, with almost 3,000 people without jobs.

Though the rate gradually decreased as the year went on, it still remains much higher than it was in the months before the pandemic — though it’s lower compared to neighboring counties. As of November, which is the most current data available, Stanly had 1,570 people unemployed, which translated to a 5.1 percent unemployment rate. In February of last year, the rate was 3.7 percent.

In 2020, 425 workers in Stanly were laid off to some degree, according to data from the state’s current Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) report. For the six previous years’ reports, 129 workers in the county were laid off, all of which occurred in 2019, due to the closing of Cap Yarns in Oakboro. A total of around 31,500 workers across the state were affected last year by businesses either closing or laying off employees, a significant increase from the roughly 8,100 workers affected in 2019.

Though sales tax revenue last year was relatively strong, due to people not traveling and instead spending money locally, County Manager Andy Lucas noted that, from a budget perspective, some of the impacts of the pandemic might not be felt for years to come.

“We may not see the impact of this…until 2023-2024,” he said, especially if businesses defer replacing equipment or expanding.

Economic Development Commission Director Candice Lowder echoed Lucas’ sentiments, saying that while certain metrics, like unemployment numbers, home sales and sales tax revenue, offer clear data about the short-term impact of the pandemic, consumer confidence “will be measured over a longer period of time as the vaccine is distributed and we attempt to return to pre-pandemic work/school routines and social habits.”

Unlike during past economic downturns, like the 2008 recession, when people were overwhelmingly concerned about their finances, this pandemic has impacted people on two different fronts: they are as worried (if not more) about the health and safety of themselves and their families as they are about their financial circumstances.

Misenheimer said she and other investment advisors have had calls with clients making sure their beneficiaries were up to date and asking if they should update their wills and other legal documents. She estimates she had more calls last year about people wanting to verify or update their beneficiary information than the last five years.

“It’s not just being as concerned about finances, it’s making sure that we’re prepared on the health side as well,” she said.

When it comes to retirement savings, Misenheimer hasn’t seen anyone taking large withdrawals due to job loss. There was a hardship provision where people, under certain guidelines, could withdraw money from their 401(k) plan due to the pandemic, but Misenheimer didn’t see many people take advantage of it.

Another difference between the past year and other recessions is that this one has not impacted everyone the same. While some businesses have really struggled to survive, especially those in hospitality and tourism, Misenheimer said she has talked with some business owners who have been doing really well.

“It’s very mixed,” she said. “It’s not like in past recessions where everybody was feeling that pain through the whole period of time.”

But, with so many people getting vaccinated each week, there is a real hope that people could return to their pre-pandemic lives sometime before the end of the year — which would be a major boon for the local economy. There are some estimates from health experts that people could return to some sense of normalcy potentially by the fall.

Lowder said she “remains optimistic” that as more people get vaccinated in the coming months, “we will regain the economic equilibrium across sectors we enjoyed before the pandemic.”

“For the most part, people feel good about the potential growth of the economy,” Misenheimer said. “We don’t see it getting worse, we only see it getting better.”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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