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'It's not just about me, but the whole world is struggling,' says owner of St. Louis black business trying to survive pandemic

"The whole pandemic has been traumatizing and the reason is because this is something we've never experienced before"

ST. LOUIS — For the past 50 years, Afro World Hair and Fashion Shop has become a popular staple near Natural Bridge and Lucas and Hunt Road in Normandy.

Sheila Forrest is proud of her family-owned, North St. Louis County business.

"My dad when he started the business it was strictly mail order and then we expanded to retail in the 90's and it just took off, " Forrest said.

Those two, money-making models proved highly successful for the small business, but now?

"I'm going back to mail order and doing sales through our drive-thru window," Forrest said.

Necessary and potentially life-saving changes she's made due to the lingering coronavirus pandemic.

"I can't figure out this pandemic and I don't know how to keep my customers safe. I think the best thing for me to do is to be proactive, the best way I can. If somebody comes into the store that means I have to wipe everything down and you know I don't have enough staff to do that. The whole world is struggling," she says.

Analysts say the struggle is especially tough for some African-American business owners.

According to 2017, U.S. Census data, there are currently more than 6,000 black-owned businesses in St. Louis and St. Louis County.  The St. Louis Regional Chamber estimates about 30% of those businesses are still struggling and may not survive the pandemic if the deadly virus continues.

"Our black customers, a customer is a customer, and if they're not making money, they don't have money to spend, it's a trickle-down effect," Forrest said.

"Due to decades of inequity, you have financial issues, a lack of access to capital, the predatory discriminatory loan practices. Also, many of these businesses do not have bankers, lawyers or accountants around them who know where the resources are, so there are myriad of reasons why the struggle is so much harder for a number of black-owned businesses, " said Valerie Patton, the Senior Vice-President of Inclusion and Workforce at the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

 "We're gonna really have to put aside our systemic issues, work through them and create sustainable solutions for this African American business to continue to thrive and survive this pandemic," Patton added.

"And I know this is not gonna last forever. It's just a  matter of taking one step at a time over this mountain and I believe we can do it," said Forrest said.

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