Chambers of commerce across the region are stepping up to help their members affected by COVID-19

Just hours after Governor Mike DeWine handed down the state’s first “shelter-in-place” order in mid-March to slow the outbreak of COVID-19, Jourdan Ivory, program director at the African-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, was already hatching a plan to move in-person programming online. The first program, “Project Management Made Easy,” went virtual on March 18, only two days after the governor’s order went into effect.

“We had the benefit of having a lot of our tech advances in place, which allowed us to pivot to the online space with ease,” Ivory says. “I think that most of the success is because we were able to focus in more on helping our members and attendees navigate the new software and virtual space versus having to install it, onboard staff, and then onboard our members.”

The chamber is still on track to offer more than 200 programs for its members and affiliates this year. The 20 or so virtual programs it has done so far have been recorded and posted on the organization’s website and YouTube channel.

“With there being a need now more than ever to fill your time at home, we felt that it was important to make sure that we were still able to offer this amazing programming in a space that was not only safe but easily accessible,” Ivory adds. “We are now doing programs on Zoom and plan on keeping the platform rolling even after social distancing has been taken away.”

Like the AACC, specialty chambers of commerce all across the region are finding ways, big and small, to support their members who are being hit hard by COVID-19.

“March and April have been transformational in a negative way,” says Alfonso Cornejo, president of the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA (HCC), which has 350 members. “This is hitting the economy in a complicated way.”

For example, he notes, the HCC discovered through a recent phone survey of 100 Mexican restaurants in Greater Cincinnati that a third of them are not operating at all while the rest are doing takeout orders to varying degrees of success.

The chamber continues to remain in contact with its 350 members by phone and email, and plans to take some of its in-person meetings virtual starting this month, but Cornejo remains cautiously optimistic for improvements throughout the summer months.

“May and June may be more of the same,” Cornejo adds. “I think July, August and September will be the best test for everybody.”

Pat Frew, the executive director of the Covington Business Council, says the organization has reached out to each of its 400-plus members by phone or email to show support.

“We asked them how they are doing, what we can do to help and have thanked them for investing in us with dues, sponsorship support,” Frew notes. “They have voiced appreciation of the personal touch.”

The council has also suspended the deadline for its members to pay their renewal dues.

“Our restaurant and non-profit members, which make up over one quarter of our total membership, tell us they appreciate that gesture,” he adds.

During the first week of the “shelter-in-place” order back in March, the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce created the “OTR is Open” campaign, a multi-prong approach to promoting businesses in the neighborhood.

“We were immediately looking at how we help our members,” says Kelly Adamson, the executive director of the OTR Chamber. “We pulled together a list of alternative shopping options, tips for shopping safely, and information on relief.”

The chamber provides email updates to its 300 members three times a week; works with members to maintain the “OTR is Open” business database on its website; offers weekly Facebook Live conversations with members through its “OTR On My Mind” series; and tells the stories of how businesses are pivoting during the pandemic through its “OTR In Action” series.

“Our members were incredibly grateful. I received a lot of personal emails and text messages saying, ‘We appreciate the quick work you did’ and ‘Thank you for being a guiding light,’” Adamson adds. “The fact that they even stopped to say thank you during this time tells me about the people I’m so fortunate to work with.”

Continued COVID-19 coverage has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, a program run in partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Local Media Association.
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