The roads were empty. It started with 15 days to slow the spread. Stay at home orders were in place and Americans were on lockdown. Everyone was confined to their homes, glued to their televisions to learn more about the dangerous contagion that was bringing their world to a complete stop.
The personal toll would be enormous. Many of us lost loved ones. People had to cope with the added pain of not being able to visit family members or, in some cases, attend their funerals. And with no treatment or cure in sight, the future seemed grim with each passing day. As the days turned into months, the hope of ever returning to normalcy began to fade.
Stay at home orders were in place except for essential workers. In March of 2020, if you were an essential worker and had the courage to leave your home, you literally had the road to yourself. Your commute into a major city would take minutes rather than hours. However, with the majority of the population on pause, there was an eerie sense of uncertainty for everyone, even for the essential worker.
Surprisingly, construction trades such as stone professionals, were considered essential businesses. There were no banners displaying slogans like, “Thanks to our stone workers.” But many stone professionals traveled the empty roads to work every day, risking their safety to provide services to clients who depended on them. Residential and commercial installations moved forward during the prolonged lockdowns. Stone heroes may not have been as brave as the frontline nurses and first responders, but our industry professionals helped average people through the lockdown by making their spaces functional and habitable.
The Payroll Protection Program (PPP) kept businesses afloat while the mandates remained in place. Businesses may never see this type of assistance again from the government. The badly needed relief couldn’t arrive fast enough. Nothing less than a miracle, the lifeline to business owners would run out eventually. But as long as supplies and labor were available, there was plenty of stonework to be done.
Any business that was able to adapt could survive. As if the virus wasn’t enough, pitfalls emerged. Headwinds from artificial materials, tariffs and logistics created additional challenges. A common problem was the shortage of badly needed labor. Finding skilled workers is challenging enough without mandates or extended government payouts. But business owners navigated through the rough waters and found ways to keep going.
The falloff in business slowed, then rapidly changed course as demand quickly outpaced supply.
We watched as the cost of a 2 x 4 at Home Depot went from $2.00 to $11.00 and fuel prices steadily climbed. Ocean freight rates more than doubled for importers, and shipping delays pinched supply chains for consumers.
Inventory was king, and wholesalers saw demand for their products pick up. In spite of all the adversity, the stone industry remained strong. A feeling of optimism emerged as the doom and gloom of the pandemic was starting to fade. Equipped with new protocols and procedures, the stone community was ready for the next challenge.
If your business had a Covid-19 Action Plan in place, you were leading the way. The transition to virtual meetings transformed businesses. A Zoom call became a new phrase in our vocabulary and was rapidly replacing human contact. Virtual meetings taught us that much more could be accomplished without the need to travel or meet people face to face. Now a visit to a stone factory, quarry or stone showroom would be replaced by a mobile device or computer screen.
However, for many of us in the stone business, physical meetings, trade shows and visits to our suppliers could never be completely replaced with a Zoom call.
Everything would be different now. With much of the pandemic worries behind us, we should be excited about the future. After all, with change there is always opportunity. For example, shifts in supply chains during the last 19 months created new opportunities for quarries, producers and other stone professionals. With most natural stone slabs more economical than artificial substitutes, reclaiming lost markets given up to alternative materials just got easier.
Now is a great moment for natural stone and a unique opportunity to benefit from its popularity. Natural stone is the best building material available, not only for its performance value and beauty, but also because it is a responsible choice among architects and developers in terms of its environmental impact. Natural stone production has a lower carbon footprint than its artificial, stonelike counterparts (https://naturalstonecouncil.org/sustainability).
With all the talk about saving the planet, one way to help the environment is to use natural stone instead of engineered products that are made to look like stone.
It’s time to get out and visit people. It’s great to see relatives and friends, but make sure to include your customers and suppliers. Trade shows are finally back, and that’s where you can meet other serious stone professionals. It is also a place where you’ll find innovation and enthusiasm in the stone industry.
Visit both of America’s largest stone events TISE, February 1 to 3, 2022, and Coverings, April 4 to 8, 2022. If you can’t make it to the shows, why not register for a Study Tour of the New York/Pennsylvania Bluestone Quarries on Sept 11 to 15 2022? (https://naturalstoneinstitute.org/education-and-events/events/study-tour/)
Nothing can change the past, but the crisis we all experienced only made us smarter and better people. As our lives get closer to normal, we can all be more relaxed and focused. Construction will continue to be strong and nonessential businesses will rebound from their darkest days. Pent up demand from the end of stay-at-home mandates will usher in a period of growth, restoring happiness back to families and communities around the world. Inflation, travel restrictions and politics may try to get in the way, but with the pandemic finally behind us, the public’s optimism will prevail. Their outlook will remain positive and things may just get back to normal in 2022.
Jonathan Mitnick is a partner at CCS Stone, Inc. and president of Mitnick Stone Inc., a stone advisory company. A director for the Natural Stone Institute (NSI), Mitnick is also the only NSI Accredited Fabricator in New Jersey. He is past chairman for the NSI Safety Committee, a speaker at Coverings and TISE, and participates in the Women in Stone Mentorship program.