Now the good news: Santa Claus is coming

Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst speaks at the North Shore Chamber of Commerce's business breakfast forum on Wednesday at Endicott College.

BEVERLY — Yes, North Shore, there will be a (masked) Santa Claus this year.

That might not have been the most important point coming out of a gathering of local business people on Wednesday at Endicott College. But in a time of uncertainty, Northshore Mall General Manager Mark Whiting’s assurance that Santa will indeed show up at the mall in Peabody this year stood out.

“He may have a big white beard covered by a big white mask, but he will come back,” Whiting said during the North Shore Chamber of Commerce’s executive breakfast.

Whiting was one of three speakers, along with Salem restaurant owner George Carey and Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst, who addressed a crowd of 50 physically-distanced Chamber members under a tent at Endicott College. Another 150 people watched via Zoom.

The title of the event was “Fighting for Survival — Small Businesses, Restaurants & Retail.” And the three speakers left no doubt that running a small business during a pandemic is a matter of survival, although not necessarily a death sentence.

Hurst, who lives in Beverly, broke down the toll the pandemic has taken on his association’s 400 members into thirds — one-third have actually done well, one-third are struggling or have closed, and another third are somewhere in the middle.

“If you never got shut down and were built to do curbside and delivery, or were selling essentials that people needed or were hoarding, you’ve done fairly well,” he said. “Those who have taken steps to reinvent themselves are doing better than others.”

Carey, who owns Sea Level Oyster Bar and Finz Seafood and Grill in Salem, said his restaurants are operating at 50% of their previous levels “at best.” He said outside dining has been a “lifesaver” for many restaurants and is sure to continue after the pandemic.

“It will be more like Europe,” he said.

Carey praised employees who returned to work even when they could have stayed home and collected unemployment.

“It’s taken a toll on our employees,” he said. “They should be complimented. They’re at the front of this. It’s really proud to watch and see.”

Whiting said the Northshore Mall continues to make progress on its expansion, highlighted by a fitness facility with an outdoor pool that is scheduled to open next spring. The mall also plans to extend its promenade, an outdoor walkway, from Legal Seafoods to Macy’s, which will provide more outdoor seating for restaurants.

“The secret to our success is evolution, transition, adaptation,” Whiting said.

He said that Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, will be “extremely challenging” this year. But, he added, “We think we’re going to be really well prepared to carry that out. We want our customers to know it will be a very safe, disciplined environment.”

Hurst said small businesses will face an extra challenge in the new year when new government mandates go into effect, including a hike in the minimum wage, the implementation of paid family and medical leave, and increases in health insurance and unemployment insurance. He called on the state and federal government to step in and help small businesses. 

“I’m concerned about how many small businesses will survive and be open a year from now,” he said. “I’m worried about the entrepreneurial spirit. People invested their entire personal savings to open a business. That’s going to be harder to do in the wake of this COVID crisis.”

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at pleighton@salemnews.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.

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