Government officials are marshaling their forces to provide lifelines for small businesses that might not survive the coronavirus crisis. But are they reaching all the ones that need the help the most?
Probably not — if a sample from a survey of small businesses in Boston is any indication.
A new report from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration indicates that slightly more than one-third (36 percent) of small businesses in the city have applied for all three of the most prominent forms of public assistance available to them: federal disaster loans, the new Paycheck Protection Program, and small-business grants from the city. (Of the three, the city’s offering appeared to be the most popular.)
John Barros, Walsh’s economic chief, said he was both surprised and concerned that participation levels weren’t higher. With an estimated two-thirds of the city’s small businesses closed during the pandemic, most need all the help they can get.
First, the good news. More help is coming. The City of Boston’s $2 million small-business relief fund was vastly oversubscribed, and had to stop taking applications within a few days after it opened. But its federal funding stream, the Community Development Block Grant program, was just replenished and adjusted by Congress.
Boston alone stands to gain at least another $10 million, and probably more (although it’s not clear how much of this will go into the small-business fund). On Thursday, the city of Quincy launched a similar grant program to help its small businesses, with $1 million to $2 million of CDBG money. (Other cities, such as Worcester and Cambridge, have created their own versions.)
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve on Thursday expanded its Main Street loan program, designed for businesses that couldn’t get into the PPP or need additional aid. And on Wednesday, the state started accepting applications for up to $4 million in grants to help nonprofits that would provide advice to small businesses.
Now, the bad news. Advocates point to a number of reasons why small businesses might not be taking advantage of all their options. To some extent, there’s a lack of awareness, particularly among minority and immigrant communities — an issue exacerbated by a language barrier. Many small-business owners fear taking on additional debt, and might not know that portions of the PPP and disaster loans can be essentially converted to grants.
Specific restrictions also could discourage applicants. For most of the PPP debt to be forgiven, a small business has to rehire most of its displaced workers by the end of June. But many restaurant owners fear they won’t be able to reopen in time, and if they do, they likely won’t need the same staffs that they had in the boom times of a few months ago.
Carlos Espinoza-Toro, director of small business services at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp., said many small-business owners had been starting to despair, just over a month after the pandemic shutdown began. But he said money from the federal disaster program and the city’s small-business relief program (both provide grants of up to $10,000) have started showing up in the last week or so, giving a glimmer of hope to some of the luckier business owners.
That relief could be short-lived, however, if the state government doesn’t come up with a concrete timeline to reopen the economy soon, he said. The Baker administration on Tuesday extended the shutdown of nonessential workplaces through May 18, but also appointed an advisory panel that will craft protocols by that date for returning people to work.
Scott Nogueira, the owner of the Porters Bar and Grill near TD Garden, hedged his bets. He applied for the federal disaster loan program, the PPP, and Boston’s relief fund. He had to close down for the COVID-19 emergency in mid-March, when he laid off his 20 employees. It didn’t make financial sense, he said, to stay open by offering takeout.
The grant-and-loan programs could give Nogueira a fighting chance to reopen, and keep the restaurant he’s run for 20 years alive (although he does hope Congress adjusts the rehiring requirements in the PPP). The most important government assistance for him? It’s actually the beefed-up unemployment program, which gave him some assurance his loyal employees could pay their bills for the short term, at least.
Government aid, however, can only do so much. Many challenges await Nogueira and other small-business owners, including high rent costs established before the pandemic hit, in a completely different economy.
As president of Eastern Bank, Quincy Miller hears about these challenges on a daily basis. He’s still working almost around the clock to push as many applications for PPP funds as possible through the Small Business Administration’s system before the second round of funds runs out.
Miller said Boston entrepreneurs are alike in two ways: They’re resilient, and they’re hopeful.
Those traits could end up being more important to the survival of their businesses than any government program.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.