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The high rate of Wisconsin residents being vaccinated is bringing customers back into businesses as they feel more comfortable visiting stores and restaurants.

“The vaccine is a real game changer” for businesses, says New North, Inc. President and CEO Barb LaMue.

With all Wisconsin residents over the age of 16 eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s now vital that as many people as possible get one so that businesses can continue opening up. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. launched a statewide initiative in April to help employers educate their workers and encourage them to get vaccinated.

“Employer support is key to getting Wisconsin’s workforce protected from COVID-19,” WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes said in a statement. “Getting immunized not only helps protect the employees, but also their families, customers and communities. It’s what we need to do to build our state’s economy back stronger than ever.”

The WEDC suggests the following to business owners:

· Provide employees with information on where and when to get vaccinated.

· Organize an onsite vaccination clinic.

· Provide paid leave for employees seeking a vaccination at a community clinic or their doctor’s office.

· Cover transportation costs to a vaccination clinic.

· Provide paid sick leave for employees who develop side effects from the vaccine.

The increase in vaccinations is just one factor driving optimism among business owners, says Jeff Sachse, interim director of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Center for Customized Research and Services. Since last April, the CCRS has conducted monthly surveys to get a snapshot of how businesses are doing and to get their thoughts on the future. In the latest CCRS surveys, businesses are reporting they’re in a better financial position, he says.

“Especially in the last month, business owners are optimistic, but we still have a long road to being where we were before the pandemic,” Sachse says. “Most of the jobs lost in the region happened last April and May, and those are slowly coming back since they are in areas hit hardest — hospitality and restaurants.”

As more people are vaccinated, the next big question on workers’ minds is, “When will we return to the office?” Sachse says. “There’s a lot of anxiety around that question as people wonder what the new normal will be.”

Signs of progress

Increased vaccination rates are just one piece of news driving the overall economic pickup, Sachse says. Some industries, including manufacturing, are seeing faster recoveries from the pandemic as demand increases for products.

During a UW-Oshkosh panel discussion on the impact of the pandemic on business owners, Ann Franz, executive director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, said a survey of NEWMA members found that 73 percent are bullish about 2021 and 54 percent predict they’ll hire more talent.

Franz adds that a near-equal number of NEWMA members saw business increase and decrease during the early months of the pandemic. “Our manufacturers responded well. One out of four made new products in response to demand for PPE products or out of necessity,” she says.

Sachse says the CCRS surveys found that 92 percent of manufacturers received funding through the Paycheck Protection Program. “We found a business’s established relationship with their lender as a critical factor in getting PPP (loans). Some industries, like restaurants, received PPP loans at a much lower rate,” he says.

In addition to manufacturing, logistics and transportation — another important industry sector in the region — did well during the pandemic, LaMue says. “Both sectors saw demand hold steady and were able to come out quickly” from the pandemic’s effect on business.

Sachse says the beleaguered restaurant and retail sectors also have seen signs of an economic turnaround.

“Businesses are doing well. There was a strong response to the shop-local campaigns, and restaurants and hotels are seeing reservations increase as people begin to get out more — mostly due to getting the vaccination and feeling less at risk of catching the virus.”