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‘Everybody’s in the unknown:’ As federal coronavirus aid runs out, families brace for impact

Joel Massicot, co-owner of Masacote Entertainment, meditated amid packed boxes of his belongings while in his apartment in Lynn. Massicot said he's selling his condo in order to keep paying his employees because his Payroll Protection Program loan has run out.
Joel Massicot, co-owner of Masacote Entertainment, meditated amid packed boxes of his belongings while in his apartment in Lynn. Massicot said he's selling his condo in order to keep paying his employees because his Payroll Protection Program loan has run out.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

As President Trump and Congress debate the contours of another round of federal coronavirus relief, Joel Massicot, 42, decided he couldn’t wait any longer to find out if they planned to help.

So he sold his condo in Lynn this month in an effort to save his Afro-Latin music and dance instruction company, Masacote Entertainment, and avoid laying off its four full-time employees.

“Everybody’s in the unknown,” Massicot said, of guessing what future federal aid might be available for him or his business. “As a Marine, we understand how to pivot. The term is ‘adapt and overcome.’ ”

Many others are facing similar challenges — and overwhelming uncertainty — as the pandemic and related shutdowns stretch into their sixth month and federal aid begins to run out or expire. Congress passed a $1.76 trillion relief bill in late March that included forgivable loans for small businesses, an extra $600 per week in relief for unemployed people, and checks of up to $1,200 for individuals to smooth the effects of millions of job losses and an economy paralyzed by the virus.

But now, with the extra unemployment running out this week and the one-time stimulus checks long gone, it remains unclear when — and if — Congress will act to extend that relief.

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For Massicot, the stimulus check he received in April quickly went to bills that were piling up as his business was forced to stop its in-person dance classes. “That went by so quick,” he said. “It’s like it never even stayed in my hands once it came in. We had so many fires to put out.”

A Payroll Protection Program loan for around $14,000 covered his employees’ paychecks for about two months, but has also now run out. Massicot, a musician who started his business 15 years ago, then hatched the plan to sell his condo and downsize his living expenses, in order to pay off his credit card debt and keep the company afloat as long as possible.

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“When they sent out the $1,200 per person, that doesn’t even cover a month’s rent in Boston,” said Ana Masacote, Joel’s business partner. “In the four months since the pandemic started, they haven’t even given a month’s rent to people?”

The Globe has been following several people whose livelihoods have been jeopardized by the coronavirus to see whether federal aid reaches them and if so, whether it’s enough to stave off economic hardship.

For Warren and Tricia Riel of Tyngsborough, Congress’ decision to hugely expand unemployment benefits last March made the difference between economic disaster and survival for their family of three.

Warren, 50, lost his job at an auto body shop shortly before COVID-19 closures began, and his unemployment insurance claim stalled in the overloaded bureaucracy. As he continues to fight for his benefits, Tricia, 48, has been able to receive $150 in weekly unemployment plus the extra $600 after losing her job busing tables part-time at Olive Garden.

That additional $600, which expires this week, has become a source of debate in Congress, with some Republicans arguing it should not be renewed because it’s encouraging people to stay out of work. For the Riels, however, it was a lifesaver.

“Even when I was working almost 40 hours, I still wasn’t getting $600 a week,” Tricia Riel said. “It’s like ‘Wow!’ That was a blessing, especially with Warren not collecting. We would have really been in trouble.”

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The Riels still have hope that Warren’s claim will go through and be retroactive. If not, they don’t know how they will pay their $1,500 rent if the extra aid ends. Warren, who has been warned by his doctor to be especially mindful of the virus because of high blood pressure, has been looking for work, but so far hasn’t been able to find anything. The family has no savings.

“It’s so scary to think of the worst,” Tricia said. “I’m trying to think positive about it.”

The extra unemployment benefits helped Alyssa Mann, a 25-year-old waitress at Deuxave in Boston who lost her job in March, pay her rent, settle overdue bills, and focus on home-schooling her six-year-old daughter this spring.

“The first month and a half was a huge struggle; it was really hard,” Mann said. “But after I got the retroactive unemployment and a few grants, things got better.”

Mann and her boyfriend, who is also a server, went back to work at the end of June. She’s been adjusting to the changed landscape of her job; gone are the days of weaving between tables, dropping off items, and multitasking. Now, she disinfects between serving each table, slowing her down. But the tips have been generous, and she’s making as much as she was before, despite fewer customers.

Still, she hopes Congress extends the aid.

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“There’s so many people who lost their jobs and are depending on the extra $600 and I think it’s good for them to save money too,” Mann said. “If Deuxave ends up closing again because of another peak in coronavirus, knowing there’s another financial safety net for me would make me feel so much better.”

For Bob Keaney, a construction worker who lives with his wife and two young kids in Quincy, the extra unemployment money has meant being able to delay returning to work while the virus is still spreading, and the peace of mind that comes with that.

“I don’t really feel the need to risk it right now,” Keaney said. “When my son was born, he was in the NICU for lung issues for like a week and a half.”

Keaney has been angered by talk in Washington of reducing unemployment benefits, especially given the billions in aid that went to big corporations. “Do they think the economy is going to be better when all these people who are home, you rip their money away?” he asked.

But for Antonio and his wife, Pilar, that aid never arrived in the first place. Antonio, an undocumented immigrant who is excluded from receiving federal benefits, lost his job as a prep cook at a Chestnut Hill restaurant that closed in March, and his wife was let go from the day-care she worked at shortly after. They watched their savings dwindle to nothing, and Antonio maxed out his credit cards. Soon, they relied on food donations from a nonprofit called Casa del Trabajador, just to avoid going hungry.

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“It’s been really hard,” said Antonio, who asked to only be identified by his first name due to his immigration status. “It’s a really powerful problem because you don’t have any resources to respond to the situation.”

Antonio even considered returning with his family to his home country in South America, but there was no way to get there.

A few weeks ago, both Pilar and Antonio were hired back to their old jobs as their workplaces reopened. But they now bring in about 30 percent less in salary than they did before. The couple, who both get taxes deducted out of their paychecks, also have to pay for child care for their young son and face debts, including rent bills from their four months out of work.

In the meantime, Antonio feels as if his livelihood is held ransom by the virus.

“The first thing I’m hoping for is we won’t have a turnaround with an increase in the levels of COVID, because if that happens and we close down the workplace again, I have nothing to do,” Antonio said. “I don’t have cards; I don’t have savings.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin