Things were looking good, then the pandemic hit. How four Pittsburgh-area businesses are weathering the COVID era.

COVID-19 has brought hard times to small business owners across the nation. The online review website Yelp estimated that before July 10, 73,000 small businesses in the United States had closed permanently. Times have been difficult for businesses in the Pittsburgh region, and while the outlook is uncertain, PublicSource spoke to the owners of four resilient businesses that have stayed afloat by obtaining credit, going online, developing new streams of revenue, and in one case, simply breaking the rules.


At the start of 2020, Justin Strong, owner of Strong II Dry Cleaners in Homewood, was looking forward to celebrating the 90th anniversary of his grandfather, Dennis Strong, starting the family’s fabric care business.

However, as the April anniversary arrived, there wasn’t much to celebrate: The governor had ordered a statewide lockdown in March and the dry-cleaning firm began to lose business.

“Over the last five months, we’ve lost around 49% of our business compared to the year before,” said Strong, who currently runs his dry-cleaning operation with just one employee and, sometimes, a seamstress.

Strong didn’t give up. “We kept going. We had to shut the storefront down, but we converted all our customers to the valet service, pick-up and delivery. We tried to be more efficient with our production. We cleaned when we had enough stuff, maybe once or twice a week.”

Photo of Justin Strong.

Justin Strong. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

According to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Black-owned businesses have a greater chance of failing during the pandemic, and many Black businesses were left out of aid programs. Strong managed to escape that trend.

“Prior to the COVID crisis, I could never get a regular loan,” he said. “All you had was some very predatorial lending that you have to pay back in six months and they take money every day.”

That changed with the pandemic: “Soon as all the financial aids came out, I was on it.”

First, his credit union extended a line of credit to the company. “Their sentiment was like, ‘It is so hard for Black businesses to get credit and you guys have been with us for a while, so here you go.’”

Strong also received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans [EIDL], the Minority Business Recovery and Growth Loan Fund from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, Honeycomb Credit and, to top it off, a small grant from Facebook. Altogether, he received about $93,000. He’s not sure how much he’ll have to pay back but estimates it as being anywhere between $63,000 and $70,000.

Strong said he believes his long track record as a business owner contributed to obtaining the loans. From 2000 to 2013, he was, among other ventures, co-owner of the Shadow Lounge and AVA Lounge, well-known former venues in East Liberty’s nightlife.


Things were looking good, then the pandemic hit. How four Pittsburgh-area businesses are weathering the COVID era.




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