In early March, Noelle O'Connor, the founder of TanOrganic, was in a buoyant mood. Her product - the world's first and only eco-certified organic self-tanning brand - had landed on the shelves of 250 Boots stores in the UK at the start of the year. As a result, TanOrganic had posted highest-ever sales for January and February, months when demand for self-tanning is typically low.
But mid-March ushered in an existential threat to both O'Connor and the Newbridge-based business she had set up during the last recession, with the help of an investment secured on RTÉ's Dragons' Den. On March 16, she suddenly experienced a high temperature, extreme fatigue and headaches. It would be the end of April before a test finally confirmed she had suffered from Covid-19.
When the country was locked down to halt the spread of the coronavirus, and TanOrganic's 12 staff were put on the Government's temporary wage subsidy scheme, O'Connor feared the company would be out of business by June.
"Our sales from Ryanair and Aer Lingus were gone, and pharmacies were only allowing one person in at a time," says O'Connor, who has since made a full recovery.
The entrepreneur, whose chain of medical spas succumbed in 2009 to the last economic collapse, sought out Pat Sutton, managing partner of the O'Kelly Sutton accountancy practice in Kildare town, for financial planning. She pivoted sales to a new website, which now accounts for 40pc of revenue, compared to 3pc before the crisis. But she worries how TanOrganic and other small and medium-sized enterprises in Newbridge will be able to open up and maintain local employment.
"Cash is what keeps the lights on," O'Connor says. "It would be awful for good businesses to go out of business just because they have no short-term cash."
SMEs employ more than one million people in Ireland, according to the Central Statistics Office, and are the economic backbone of towns and villages - especially those without large multinational employers. These enterprises range from butchers, clothes shops, pubs and restaurants to small engineering firms, garages, and manufacturers.
Long-vacant commercial buildings on main streets and depopulation are testament to the struggle of many local economies to keep pace with the national recovery from the 2008 crash. In 2018, the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland warned that small-town Ireland was facing "a perfect storm" due to out-of-town shopping centres, online shopping, higher costs, the dissolution of town councils and high vacancy rates.
And the rocky road to the next recovery may be littered with SME casualties after the Covid-19 crisis unless they are provided with the right financial support from the State, experts fear.
Of the six counties that posted the poorest employment growth between 2011 and 2016, five are located in the western region, according to the Western Development Commission (WDC), a statutory body set up to promote social and economic development in Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare.
Tomás Ó Síocháin, chief executive of the WDC, says: "SMEs are the dominant employer of the more than 80pc of people in the west of Ireland who live in areas with a population of less than 10,000. In the short term, Government supports are crucial to getting the doors of these SMEs open, as is working capital and consumer confidence."
On May 2, the day after the caretaker Government set out its five-stage roadmap for easing the coronavirus restrictions, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and Business Minister Heather Humphreys unveiled a €6.5bn-package of business supports. This included up to €2bn in loans for SMEs that would be 80pc guaranteed by the State. Two weeks later, Humphreys announced a "restart grant" worth a total €250m for SMEs that employ fewer than 50 people and that paid commercial rates in 2019. They are eligible for grants of between €2,000 and €10,000 apiece.
These moves were in addition to measures introduced in April that included a waiver on commercial rates for firms that have been forced to close for three months and a "warehousing" of Vat and payroll tax debt by Revenue for 12 months at zero interest rates after trading restarts.
However, as Allan Shine, chief executive of County Kildare Chamber, points out, some €4bn out of the €6.5bn supports package cannot be implemented until after a new government is formed and the incoming Taoiseach appoints the 11 Seanad members needed for the upper house to pass legislation.
Shine, who says almost 80pc of the chamber's 400 members are SMEs, believes "no business in the country is going to go looking for loans".
"We are putting in 14-hour days, six days a week, answering queries from our members," he says. "At the outset, they were asking about the wage subsidy scheme and whether they should go for it. Now we have reached the first reopening stage, cash is king. Microfinance Ireland loans at 4.5pc have been pushed out, but businesses need really good grants and they need a government now to implement these initiatives.
"The first thing a lot of small business owners are doing first thing in the morning is checking their bank balance. They need prompt seven-day payments, but larger companies are insisting on the same 90-day payments they had before Covid-19.
"I think the whole way towns and villages operate will change drastically in 12 months because a lot of businesses won't reopen. The towns with good footfall and business parks should survive. Our retailers need to go online and need to offer a 24-hour turnaround on deliveries.
"Also, Ireland is one of the most conservative countries in Europe in terms of unwinding lockdown - it'll be another 15 weeks before we are back fully. In Italy and Spain, the hairdressers and cafes are open and they were only two weeks ahead of us with lockdown. In some Eastern Europe countries, there is only a one metre requirement for social distancing so we need to change our guidelines from two metres for hospitality. If a restaurant could fit 40 people instead of 25, that would increase profit."
Sutton, whose accountancy and business advice practice is one of the largest in Leinster outside Dublin and mostly deals with SMEs, says local enterprise offices and Enterprise Ireland have helped businesses seek out funding, with the LEO business continuity voucher of up to €2,500 proving especially useful to help SMEs get online. But many of his clients are wary of taking on any debt and are fearful of what will happen to their businesses if the wage subsidy scheme isn't extended.
"There's a lot of loan financing floating around and the SBCI (Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland) has been approving a lot of them. But loans are not really going to be the answer. Debt could be a noose around the neck of some businesses.
"The wage subsidy scheme has been a godsend and if they pull back on that there would be a huge fallout. The wage subsidy scheme and grants could be tied to, say, a company's future performance or holding onto employees."
Like Sutton, John Moran, chairman of SME Recovery Ireland and a former secretary general of the department of finance during the Troika bailout years, believes loans are not a panacea. Moran, whose group includes ISME and Retail Excellence Ireland, believes the Government needs to treat SMEs as a priority because they will be the driving force behind the country's economic recovery, particularly in towns and villages.
"SMEs in Dublin will recover more quickly," he says. During the last recession, "restaurants in Dublin came back more quickly than in places like the midlands and it was only initiatives like the Wild Atlantic Way that gave the west coast a real boost".
SME Recovery Ireland, which has set out a recovery plan that Moran outlined to Humphreys' department on Thursday, has estimated that the SME sector will incur some €9bn in losses this year.
"If we had a natural disaster like an earthquake or a flood that caused that level of destruction, the country would have compensated them and rushed to help.
"The Government has smaller measures like grant aid for companies but these businesses are still accruing costs while the Government has asked them to stay closed and I don't think it's fair to ask businesses to bear these costs. A lot more needs to be done to reduce the cost of getting money to people.
"In Denmark, which is roughly the same size as Ireland, with a capital and a large agricultural region in Jutland, they have a compensation scheme along the lines we are looking at, where they pay off the fixed costs of the businesses that had to close down. In France, they gave cash to the businesses that was guaranteed by the government. It's a totally different scale to what's happening over here.
"We are all in this together and should share each other losses. When companies are back on their feet in two to three years, they should not be operating with less help than other countries' SMEs. This week it was said that hundreds of thousands of people will be unemployed and we can't just sacrifice those people for a number of years.
"So let's have a two to three-year plan for small business with payments for losses, much better and cheaper liquidity and cash, and measures like a better examinership process so if businesses are fighting with their landlord or bank they have ability to do it."
A failure to prop up SMEs would not only ravage the economies of towns and villages, but would affect social cohesion and the ability of local businesses to sponsor community initiatives and GAA clubs.
O'Connor, meanwhile, is hopeful that the community spirit shown during lockdown will prompt more people to continue shopping locally after restrictions on travel are eased.
"Once I was able to leave the house, after six weeks, I would buy meat in the local butcher and I started going to a local fruit'n'veg shop I'd never been in before because that €20 will mean more to them than to Tesco.
"Spending in local businesses will help keep people in jobs."