Sales tax revenue in Cache County broke records in June after abysmal figures in March and April, according to the Utah State Tax Commission.
“If it weren’t for COVID-19, we’d just think the economy is growing and doing better than we’ve ever been, just because we’re still seeing sales,” said Cameron Jensen, Cache County’s finance director.
While December is typically the highest-earning month of the year, June’s tax revenue in the county was the highest amount of any month previous. Jensen said the diversity in industry in the area has been crucial for county businesses’ success throughout the pandemic.
Outdoor recreation and gardening retail stores never suffered during COVID-19 related shutdowns. In fact, The Sportsman has never seen a better season, co-owner Mark Fjeldsted recently told Jensen. And it was similar for appliance and furniture and other home improvement-style businesses.
“People still have an itch to spend,” Jensen told the Cache County Council at a budget workshop in August. “Maybe less people are traveling away from the county because of pandemic issues, and instead of saving that money for travel next year, they’re spending that travel money this year. They’re spending (money) inside the valley that maybe wouldn’t have been spent here in the past.”
But the lack of travel has also been a “double whammy” for the county, according to Julie Hollist-Terrell with the Cache Valley Visitors Bureau. While local money has tended to stay in the area due to cancelled plans and vacations, local hotels have also seen higher-than-ever vacancies.
“And even when they’re filling up rooms, as much as they can, they’ve often discounted them quite a bit to be able to do that,” Jensen added.
Similarly, catering companies took a hit without large gatherings and events. While most brick-and-mortar restaurants were able to eventually pivot and offer take-out and delivery options, many large events and gatherings were cancelled due to the virus.
For example, the Utah State University Small Satellite Conference went virtual this year to mitigate risk of the virus. This led to at least two local caterers losing at least $250,000, according to Hollist-Terrell.
“And that’s only two of the caterers I talked to, because I know that they use every single caterer practically there is,” she said. “That’s the kind of economic impact we’re looking at with just one event that wasn’t able to be held.”
Plus, the weeklong event typically means every hotel room in the valley is booked, and many participants choose to eat out and shop at local stores while in town.
“They have just vanished,” Hollist-Terrell said. “The economic impact of this for the tourism sector is massive and almost beyond words.”
However, Hollist-Terrell said she expects no hotels will be forced to close due to the pandemic though it has yet to see the recovery that’s visible in other local restaurants.
“With the restaurant tax, we’re still behind where we were a year ago,” Jensen said. “But June this year was stronger than June last year. And that’s with summer citizens being here and all the things we had going on last year.”
Hollist-Terrell said “it’s still tenuous.”
“They’ve got a big hole to dig out of,” she said. “It’s a battle.”
However, some restaurants that were already offering take-out options never saw the dip the typical dine-in restaurants did.
Some did so well they were able to “pay it forward” to those struggling during the pandemic. Several entertainment businesses, like the Cinefour movie theater, had to cut back on advertising due to loss of income but were given a helping hand, according Cam McCullough, who owns the local coupon book company Cache Valley Direct.
“They’ll be affected for years to come,” McCullough said. “Normally they release about 500 films a year. It sounds like they’re going to release close to 150 films next year, so the industry of filmmakers and the industry of movie theaters, they’re going to take an 80% cut in their pay.”
While many of the businesses hit hardest were forced to lay off employees, either permanently or temporarily, the unemployment rate in Logan is still hovering at 3.5% — just below the national level.
And Jensen said that’s a good sign for chances of recovery, as it was when Logan was recognized during the Great Recession of 2008 for the city’s ability to weather the storm.
“In many ways, it’s surprising that it’s been resilient as it has been,” he said. “But it’s a diverse economy here. And that tends to mean we don’t feel the ebb and flow in the same way a lot of the country does.”