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The coronavirus destroyed my business gradually, then suddenly

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Lubo Ivanko

"Thank you for your email; Unfortunately due to the coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on Bus travel; blank has been laid off  temporarily. Blank is a vital member of the family and will be brought back when things get back to normal."

Emails like this are my life now, but they won't be for much longer. It's almost over — the work part of my life, that is, not the pandemic.

I work for a midsize student tour operator out of Charlottesville, Virginia. It's nothing too fancy; we deliver a quality tour for what I, and I guess our many repeat customers, feel is a reasonable price. Our customers are schools from across the nation, and we're responsible for those eighth-graders everyone else loves to hate every spring. We take these kids, your children, to Washington, D.C.; the national parks out west; the Florida Keys; and really anywhere across the nation and even the world.

Just three weeks ago, we were gearing up for spring, getting those first tours on the road, dusting off the winter cobwebs for The Season, as most of us in the industry refer to it. For me, this means contracting our guides and arranging the motor coaches. These guides are all independent contractors, joining us for anything from a few hour "step on" tour (leading a hike in the Grand Canyon, for example) to multiple day "over the road" trips. Many are my friends, fellow veterans of my 15 years guiding alongside them before I took this position. The same goes for the motor coach companies; it's a small industry, and my relationships with many of their representatives has evolved beyond simply seeing them as a supplier. It's more than having a beer together at a conference in Cleveland. It's becoming involved in their lives.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment it all came crashing down. We thought we were ahead of things: preparing our staff, warning customers and most of all, urging all concerned to listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Time after time during February and early March, our account managers reassured clients that the government was not placing any travel advisories in place. In good faith, I continued to hire guides and contract with bus companies.

Then it started to crumble. Like all collapses, it was uneven and chaotic. We'd finish work, often late in the evening, only to come in the next morning to find everything we had said the night before was suddenly obsolete. But I distinctly remember March 9, a Friday. Worn out in every possible way, I took a shower and prepared to meet my wife at a friend's party. Knowing full well I'd be working all weekend, I was going to take a few hours off for myself.

That's when the first two cancellations hit. Both were trips leaving two days later. More trips followed. The weekend passed in a surreal blur as we worked to frantically unravel months of work. Since then, it's hard to say what I have and have not done. It's been a shellshocked kaleidoscope of never-ending work watching my entire industry disappear in the blink of an eye.

Now, it's over. All of it. The stern has snapped upright and is slowly and gracefully sliding under the waves. To torture the metaphor, a few of us will find some flotsam to cling to and ride this out.

The out-of-work guides won't. It's the busiest time of year and, like farmers and fishermen, they work incredibly hard during the short season. It lasts but a few months, and every week counts. It's gone now, and it will not come back. Outside of newly passed legislation in Washington, D.C., and a few other localities, most guides aren't even eligible for unemployment insurance.

The vendors we use are also left in the lurch. Museums, hotels, restaurants and motor coaches are in the midst of a severe and irreversible contraction. I force myself to press send on an email, fearing the autoreply bounce-back that so-and-so at XYZ Company has been let go. The palpable fear when I talk to them, many in parts of the country that already suffered from economic distress before the virus shut everything down, is crushing. These are good jobs, jobs they take pride in, and they're evaporating quickly.

In the midst of this chaos are our customers. Some react with understanding, even concern. But many are hurt and confused. We do everything we can for them, but nonrefundable deposits have been paid, and I'm struggling to make sure our guides get something for their time, even if it is a tiny percentage of what they deserve. There is anger, often displayed inappropriately. People are hurt, they're confused and we're a useful stand-in at whom they can direct their anger when they lack another outlet. We value each and every customer, and it hurts on a personal level — especially when I can see every point they raise.

We're not exactly manning a radar station in the Battle of Britain, but we're proud of what we do and the service we deliver. The satisfaction of working for months to build a product that brings joy to children is real, and it's why people in my line of work do this.

We're not going to simply bounce back from this. We're going to survive it, and not all of us at that. Companies like mine earn 80 percent of their revenue in three or four months of the spring, but many of our expenses, like payroll, last the entire year. With near zero income to tide us over, we will eventually reopen in the midst of a global recession — or worse — when schools are already making up for months of lost instruction time. Small business loans will simply allow debt to pile up without prospect of real relief.

We have to shut down. I get that. I trust our public health officials, and I am on board. But we are not all in this together. Some people are coping with teleworking and enforced inactivity, while others are facing the loss not just of a job but an entire industry. The long-term effects of this crisis will be felt by everyone, but for some of us, the immediate impact is already acute. And let's never forget others who are going to work in hospitals, as first responders, as grocery store clerks and many other roles on the front lines of this pandemic. Being out of a job isn't the worst thing that can happen. But it's not great, and it's coming soon to a job near you. This won't stop with student tour operators, or bus companies, or hotels or restaurants. A wave is building, and we can't even guess what it will sweep before it.

I'm a D.C. resident, so I don't even have a senator to call for help. And while my employer is based in Virginia, we're a small company. We don't have a lobby like the airline and cruise ship industries. When our owner calls his lawmakers for help, he gets the form letter in response. So if I were you, I'd call your own member of Congress now and see what they can do to help all of us. Because sooner or later, we will all be in this together.

Oh, and when this is all over, we're looking forward to welcoming your students back to Washington, D.C.

Krepp is the author of "Capitol Hill Haunts" and "Ghosts of Georgetown." He wrote this piece for The Washington Post.