By Charlie Booher, MUCC State Policy Fellow
COVID-19 presents major, unique challenges to our society — trying our strength and humanity as it rips through Michigan communities. Industries ranging from healthcare and emergency services to agriculture and grocery stores have broken down under increased demands. The outdoor recreation industry is just as susceptible to the plights of this virus.
While the COVID-19 crisis has impacted a number of industries in different ways, stores deemed “non-essential” were shuttered and manufacturing ground to a halt. Given the massive public health crisis facing our state, I am the first to admit that it is hard to justify keeping stores open to buy shiner minnows and wax worms or a new turkey call. However, these closures put a huge amount of stress on retailers who rely on hunters and anglers for much of their income.
This crisis has tested the resolve of a number of industries and has tried the mechanisms by which we use the natural resources of this state and this country. Hunting and fishing make up a robust $11.2 billion outdoor recreation economy in the state of Michigan and support more than 117,000 jobs.
While much of this money flows through convenience stores, hotels, restaurants and bars, a great deal of it is spent at outdoor retail stores, both large and small. From big box stores to small, rural fly shops, the people who help us pursue our passions are hurting. Just like small-town diners and party stores, outdoor retailers are places where people of similar passions and convictions gather to share stories or advice and pass on Michigan’s rich hunting and fishing traditions.
As a kid growing up in Mt. Pleasant, we could never get through Clare or Gaylord on our way “up north” without a stop at Jay’s — as many of Michigan’s resident hunters and anglers do. I could hardly ever put my finger on something that I really needed when I walked in, but I often found myself walking out with a purchase. Something that would help me enjoy the outdoors on the lake or in the field. I know many others find themselves in this position as well, much to their parent’s or partner’s chagrin, but these purchases are the lifeblood of the stores that supply us with the tools necessary to pursue our passions (or at least make things a little easier).
Unfortunately, Jay’s closed their doors in mid-March and only recently reopened for limited service. Missing most of the spring sales and turkey season equipment will hurt, but they’re hopeful that summer sales will be better as the curve flattens out. Through all of this, they’ve tried to do the best that they can for their employees through their closure, said owner Jeff Poet, son of founder Jay Poet.
“This place is a real family legacy for me,’ Poet said. “So it’s really tough to see that threatened in any way, but I know we need to take some steps to get this under control. A number of our employees up in Gaylord know people personally who have had COVID-19, so we knew we had to act pretty fast. Business has been tight, but everyone at Jay’s has been doing their part to keep things afloat.”
Michigan’s recreational fishing economy has also seen a major slowdown, with both retail and manufacturing employees furloughed for seven to eight weeks at some facilities. Mike Powell, general manager of Mason Tackle and Ed Cumings inc., said this was exactly the case at some of the nation’s oldest tackle manufacturers in Genesee County, MI.
“We were in an especially tough spot here in the Flint area because of the extent of the outbreak right in our backyard,” Powell said. “We had to close down all of our production, but orders were still flooding in from regions of the country that were still open, especially in the southeast US. It’ll be a tough time for us, but we’ve been here for almost 100 years, and we’re planning on 100 more.”
It has been an especially difficult time for those who supply hunters, anglers and trappers, but folks outside of the traditional “hook-and-bullet” world are hurting, too. Retailers who supply climbers, paddlers, hikers, backpackers and cyclists have been facing closures and changes in operation, said East Lansing Moosejaw Manager Nate Holt.
“As an omnichannel business, we had the opportunity to offer the chance for almost all of our employees to work from home in some capacity,” Holt said. “Many different departments of the company used our traditional retail employees in places like online customer interface, team retail, marketing, data entry, product descriptions and in other elements of our e-commerce business. This innovation was really, really helpful to a number of our employees and helped some of our folks dig out of a long backlog.”
“Our online sales are really helping our business stay afloat and we are glad to be able to supply customers with good product advice and the things that they need to recreate responsibly,” Holt said.
These local businesses rely on our support and have been getting creative to do good by their employees and their customers. Many of them deserve any support that we can give them.
While smaller retailers have been hit hard, this is a far bigger issue than just stores here in Michigan — it is impacting national trends and supply chains for everyone who needs equipment to enjoy the outdoors.
“Over 90 percent of the sportfishing industry is made up of small businesses,” said Chad Tokowicz, inland fisheries policy manager for the American Sportfishing Association. “In many parts of the country these outfitters, bait and tackle shops and specialized tackle manufacturers are the linchpins of rural economies focused on outdoor recreation. Business closures and ‘stay-at-home’ orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly impacted these small businesses and the communities they support, but these impacts have ripple effects that sweep through broader, national economies.”
The recreational fishing industry in the United States has been hit hard through this crisis, as people couldn’t travel or boat during some of the most productive seasons. But while many tackle and marine manufacturers and retailers had to shut down for a number of weeks, the firearm and ammunition industry has done rather well.
The firearm and ammunition industry has seen a unique spike in sales during the COVID-19 crisis. Background checks in March were up 80.4 percent from 2019, keeping businesses ranging from firearm and ammunition manufacturers to retailers busy. National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) Director of Public Affairs Mark Oliva said that members of the firearm and ammunition industry have seen record sales in 2020.
“We know that many folks in our industry feel a deep obligation to their communities. Even as most have been able to stay open for business, quite a few of our members have been able to generously give back to their communities,” Oliva said. “Our members have converted production space and technology to manufacture personal protective equipment, run data analytics for public health experts and facilitate blood drives.”
Firearm and ammunition companies like Sig Sauer and Vista Outdoors have turned their attention outward after taking care of their own. While Sig Sauer manufactures almost exclusively firearms, Vista Outdoor Inc. is a global designer, manufacturer and marketer of products in the outdoor sports and recreation markets, owning brands like Federal Premium Ammunition, Hoppe’s gun cleaning supplies and Camelbak.
“We took exhaustive measures to prioritize the health and safety across all facilities,” said Tom Taylor, chief marketing officer & executive vice president of Sig Sauer. “After taking care of our employees, we turned our efforts to providing safety masks and face shields to law enforcement, fire departments, healthcare facilities and community organizations in the regions where we operate to fill gaps in the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). To date, we have donated more than 15,000 KN-95 masks to 55 local police departments, 20 fire departments,15 healthcare facilities, and multiple community organizations.”
“The pandemic has brought out the best in Vista Outdoor and our brands as we fulfill our outdoor mission in new ways during these unprecedented times,” said Fred Ferguson, vice president of public affairs and communications for Vista Outdoor. “We have expanded support for outdoor causes, outfitted medical professionals with PPE and continued our support for law enforcement and first responders. These efforts are core to who we are and we will continue to do our part to support the outdoors as we transition back to normal.”
The goggles, held and distributed at Vista Outdoor’s Rantoul, IL manufacturing and distribution facility, will be delivered to hospitals and other public health facilities in 18 states and 41 different health care facilities.
Before members of the firearm and ammunition industry knew the impacts of this crisis, NSSF leaders negotiated a deferment of federal excise tax payments. These funds were established through the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act and use an 11 percent excise on firearms, ammunition and archery tackle to fuel state fish and wildlife agencies. Currently, the deferment is only scheduled for one fiscal quarter, and all excise taxes collected in that time will still be paid by businesses in the firearm, ammunition and archery industries. A number of nonprofit hunting organizations have weighed in on this deferment, including the National Deer Alliance (NDA).
“Part of our mission is to work on behalf of hunters and the hunting industry, so we need to support these companies and make sure that they can stay in business during this difficult time,” said Nick Pinizzotto, CEO of NDA. “Conservation organizations need to let folks in the industry know that we care about them, and a deferment of PR excise tax payments is one way to do that in the short-term. Deferring payment of the tax would have no impact on state fish and wildlife agencies despite some confusion about that, so I see it as a win-win in this incredibly difficult situation.”
While groups like NDA have been supportive of this deferment, some other conservation organizations have worried about the impact that this could have on state fish and wildlife agencies or the precedent that this action might set for an already vulnerable conservation funding system. As long as these payments are not forgiven, are paid in full and aren’t deferred any longer, they will not impact state fish and wildlife agency budgets. If any of those things do happen, this would do significant harm to nationwide fisheries and wildlife funding in the coming years. However, NSSF staff told me that they are proud of their contributions to conservation and plan to fulfill these obligations fully.
“We expect to see some very healthy Pittman-Robertson fund contributions next quarter,” said Oliva. “And our members are committed to fulfilling our obligation to the conservation community because they know that these funds go towards good work around the country. The firearm and ammunition industry has put nearly $13 billion into natural resource management since 1937 and we plan to keep up that commitment long into the future.”
COVID-19 has undeniably created hardships, and these harms will likely continue in the coming months. However, these challenges have created opportunities for innovation and creativity in the outdoor recreation community. Many shops have adapted and are offering online and curbside services, while partnering with other businesses and nonprofit organizations. Others have been able to take advantage of the time to reset their operations.
“It has been nice for us to be able to take the time to do a deep clean and reset the store,” Holt said. “We’ve been able to do some cool things and take care of projects that we never had time for before – just like how many of our customers have been able to clean out their garages at home. It will be exciting for us to reopen our stores better than they were when they closed!”
When these businesses do reopen, they may see some new faces. As COVID-19 rules have forced a number of individuals to work from home, people are returning to sports like fishing and hunting for spring turkeys.
“We are very excited to see a number of new individuals getting out and reconnecting with the outdoors during this season,” Pinnizzotto said. “Preliminary license sales are up in quite a few states, more people are spending time outside, and folks are feeling a need to be more connected with their food supply. All of those people are going to need equipment and there are plenty of opportunities for them to support the outdoor recreation industry as they gear up for future seasons.”
However, as businesses reopen, it is important that customers follow instructions closely, especially as these stores take on modified operations. Some will only be allowed to open at limited capacity or by appointment only, and customers should respect the constraints and pressure that these owners face.
“We really need folks to pack their patience,” Poet said. “We’re all working under very unusual circumstances and we know some people might be frustrated, but things will continue to be pretty different. We want things to be back open just as much as everybody else, but we know that we can’t just throw the doors open. We’ve had some real difficulties over the last few months, but at least this didn’t start in September or October. That would’ve really been devastating for us.”
This has been a cause for concern, but these folks will rebound through innovation, creativity and, ultimately, our patronage. While the jury is still out on how big of a hit this will be, the support of local communities will keep these businesses afloat.
“I’ve been shocked at how much support we’ve received from folks around the county,” Powell said. “People are coming from all over the region to buy out of the shop next to our production line and that has really kept us busy. I’m so blessed to be in a position to help people continue to enjoy the outdoors, and hopefully get some peace of mind, through all of this.”
The people who help us pursue our passions are adapting, but they need our support more than ever. While we are all facing layoffs, record unemployment and mass furloughs, the reality is that at least some of these businesses may close their doors for good. It is important that we keep these places in mind as we make our annual purchases in the coming months and support those who have given us so much over the years. I’ve been lucky enough to keep my job and paycheck through this difficult time and I have dedicated myself to supporting both conservation non-profits and the outdoor recreation industry because I want these places to remain. From the parks, trails and fields of Michigan to the baitwells and high shelves of the stores that I so enjoy, I want to make sure that these places remain open and available for all of us.