COVID-19 relief package could be a ‘bridge’ for some local businesses, others might be left behind

Published 11:40 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2020

SALISBURY — After months of negotiations, Congress on Monday came up with a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill that could provide direct payments to people and aid to businesses.

The COVID-19 relief package was part of a nearly 6,000-page bill — reported to be the longest in history — that would also fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year. The bill is now scheduled to go to the desk of President Donald Trump, but the president publicly slammed the bill on Tuesday night and asked congress to send him another version. While he didn’t say that he would veto the bill, he did call for significant changes, including increasing stimulus checks from the proposed $600 to $2,000.

If Trump vetoes or elects not to sign the bill by Monday night, the federal government will shut down. It is unclear if lawmakers will fall in line with Trump’s request for a revised bill.

While the bill could change in the coming days, what Congress agreed to on Monday would have a significant impact on businesses across the country and in Rowan County.

The COVID-19 relief package includes $284 billion in additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program and provisions that will allow previous PPP loans to be tax deductible.

As more is unveiled about the behemoth piece of legislation, local business and government leaders are poring over available information to determine how it will impact Rowan County’s businesses.

Elaine Spalding, president of the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, said she is thankful that federal representatives were able to pass legislation that could prove help to local businesses that still “desperately” need assistance after a challenging economic year.

The aid package has designated certain funds for various types of businesses, including hospitality and tourism, the arts and small and minority-owned companies.

“There are some really good targeted funds in this new federal stimulus bill that we are encouraged will help some of our businesses and not-for-profit organizations get through the next few months,” Spalding said.

Barring a change to the legislation, here is how the COVID-19 relief package in its congressionally-passed state could impact Rowan County:

Funds available for small and minority business owners 

The new COVID-19 relief bill earmarks $12 billion to support small banks that serve low-income and minority communities. The first round of PPP also included a portion of funding that was directed to minority-owned businesses, but studies and reports have shown that those businesses had a more difficult time accessing the funds than others.

Elia Gegorek, chair of the Minority Business Council for the Rowan Chamber of Commerce, isn’t optimistic that this round of PPP funding and the new relief package will be any more effective at helping minority-owned businesses in Rowan County.

“Yes, the assistance is out there, but if they don’t know when to file, how to file, what to submit, that’s going to be a breaker and they’re not going to get that help,” Gegorek said.

Gegorek, who works closely with local Hispanic businesses, said that small and minority business owners face additional hurdles when it comes to applying and receiving federal aid. 

Many small and minority business owners, Gegorek said, are a one-person operation and don’t have extensive backgrounds in accounting, which means they must rely on outside help to navigate the application process. That becomes even more challenging when a language barrier might exist or when a business owner simply doesn’t know where to turn for guidance.

Despite the barriers facing small and minority-business owners, Gegorek has one plea for them: don’t give up.

“Those businesses need to follow up and don’t give up,” Gegorek said. “Make sure that they do fill out the right documentation and submit it.”

Spalding said that the Chamber of Commerce is available to provide resources to businesses attempting to navigate the PPP application process. The chamber can be reached at info@rowanchamber.com or by calling 704-633-4221.

Assistance for the arts, hospitality sectors

When the pandemic began, the hospitality sector was impacted immediately. As coronavirus case counts have risen and restrictions have been implemented, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues have continued to struggle.

That’s why Rowan County Tourism Executive Director James Meacham is excited that the COVID-19 relief package includes special provisions to help businesses in the hospitality industry.

“Places of gatherings are largely closed or restricted, so those areas have been hurt substantially more,” Meacham said. “Many restaurants and accommodations haven’t been able to recover at the same pace as other businesses have.”

Meacham said that two aspects of the relief package seem especially promising for the hospitality sector.

For one, restaurants and accommodations are able to apply for a PPP forgivable loan that is 3.5 times its monthly payroll cost, which is an increase from the 2.5 times that other businesses can apply for. Another aspect that Meacham believes could provide significant help is that businesses are only required to use 60% of their PPP loan for payroll costs, allowing them to use the other 40% to pay off any debt, utilities or rent payments.

The relief package also includes $15 billion for the Save Our Stages program, which would provide relief grants to entities and individuals operating live performance venues, performing arts organizations, museums, independent movie theaters, and talent agencies.

“On the surface, it does look like there will be a number of entities locally in the arts and culture realm that will be able to participate in Save Our Stages,” Meacham said.

Meacham said that Piedmont Players, Lee Street theatre, the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra and the Rowan Museum are all local organizations that could seek to benefit from the Save Our Stages initiative. 

The last two rounds of PPP funding did not include money specifically designated for the arts and culture. With that money now earmarked, Meacham said that those entities would have a better chance at getting their share of the pie. 

He encourages all businesses and organizations who are interested in applying for a PPP loan to contact their accountant and financial partners for advice.

More of a bandage than a bridge

With vaccine distribution underway, both Spalding and Meacham said that they hope the COVID-19 relief package would serve as a bridge for businesses.

“The three-and-a-half months for restaurants and accommodations is really a lifeline,” Meacham said. “That is a bridge from January into the spring.”

Anthony Nero, who owns Pinocchio’s Italian restaurant in downtown Spencer with his wife, Amy Ray, said he isn’t sure he sees it that way.

“It’s going to be a lot of rebuilding to make up for the last few months of sales,” Nero said. “It could be a bridge, but it’s more of a bandaid than anything else right now for us and a lot of other people.”

Pinocchio’s received a loan as a part of the second wave of PPP funding this summer, Nero said, but will likely reapply for an additional loan when the program reopens.

“We’re going to have to,” Nero said. “We still have the same bills, except for some of the bills we’ve had have gone up. We’re still hurting.”

Pinocchio’s was doing well when relying on solely takeout early on in the pandemic, but the reduced indoor capacity has reduced business. Instead of being able to seat guests at 12 tables, the small restaurant is only able to fit six tables under the current regulations. That has forced Pinocchio’s to turn away guests, Nero said.

Nero won’t be the only business owner looking to take advantage of the PPP program again. The coronavirus relief package includes a stipulation that allows businesses to apply for a forgivable loan again if they can show losses of 25% or higher in 2020 over 2019 revenues.

Regardless of whether it’s a bridge or bandage, the COVID-19 relief package could help keep local businesses alive. Meacham pointed out that the PPP program would provide funds during the “slow time” of year for many hospitality and tourism businesses.

Spalding said that she encourages business owners to start gathering and preparing their information, especially any payroll-related items, so that they can immediately apply when the application goes live online on the Small Business Administration’s website. Spalding said that loan application forms should be available next week.

The Rowan County Chamber of Commerce will likely apply for a loan from the PPP program, Spalding said. That wasn’t an option before, since the chamber is classified as a 501(c)(6) organization and wasn’t eligible. Spalding said that the loan would help the chamber help more local businesses.

More information about the Paycheck Protection Program can be found at sba.gov.