Utah’s small businesses hit by COVID-19 losses plead for more state help

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Patagonia Outlet in Salt Lake City, closed and empty on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Hundreds of Utah small business owners are asking state leaders for additional economic help as they struggle with closures related to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Hundreds of independent Utah business owners are begging state leaders for more financial relief as they grapple with a loss of commerce due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter sent Monday to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Senate President J. Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson, about 300 business owners and their supporters called for more state aid to “fill in any gaps” in COVID-19 relief packages offered by the federal government.

“Our fear is that some small businesses will fall through the cracks and won’t receive the needed aid in time or at all,” said Doug Burton, president of the Utah Independent Business Coalition. “If they have to wait too long for help, many of these small family enterprises simply won’t survive.”

The letter was released Monday — just before Utah lawmakers called themselves into a special session set for Thursday to deal with aspects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Thousands of business owners in the Beehive State and across the U.S. have seen their incomes all but dry up in the health crisis and social distancing steps meant to contain it. Many of them are now seeking some of the nearly $350 billion in Small Business Administration loans and other assistance made available through the recently passed $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package.

But a number of small-business owners in Utah says the stimulus’s SBA Paycheck Protection Program and other forms of aid have seen a slow, confusing and, in some cases, chaotic launch since the stimulus package passed.

Burton said that nearly 100 people participated in a recent coalition-organized online teleconference as they sought answers on how to save their businesses, many of them fearful and frustrated.

“A lot of them are telling us if they have to wait and remain shut down for another two or three weeks ... they just won’t be around anymore,” he told The Tribune. “They will go out of business."

Nick Gradinger, co-founder and proprietor of Vessel Kitchen restaurants in Park City, Midvale and Sandy, said the chain of eateries had to assign a full-time financial expert to pursue the SBA aid application process.

“And it was incredibly difficult,” Gradinger told The Tribune on Monday. “Seeing the amount of time and energy we’ve had to allocate to that, my heart goes out to anyone who felt overwhelmed by that process.”

Congress is already debating a second round of aid targeting business. But Burton said the federal loan programs already available have large backlogs of applicants— and many owners can’t wait long enough for those to be resolved without some kind of cash coming in.

“Many locally owned neighborhood businesses simply don’t have the cash reserves to weather a monthlong shutdown,” Burton said.

The coalition’s open letter calls on state legislators to offer new grants for businesses, defer sales tax obligations and open other streams of financial assistance, possibly by tapping some of the state’s rainy day accounts.

Many of these businesses have loans and can’t take on more debt now, Burton said in an interview, so they are looking for “nonloan remedies” to help them temporarily cover ongoing monthly expenses such as rent, utilities, wages and insurance costs.

Time, business owners say, is of the essence. In their letter, they are pleading for “the state of Utah to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible to help save these beloved local businesses.”

Top legislative leaders are saying the special session will focus primarily on shoring up state budgets disrupted by the crisis and sorting through issues with a series of county-imposed stay-at-home orders.

But a document compiled by the Utah Legislature’s Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel and obtained last week by The Tribune confirms that lawmakers also have Utah’s struggling businesses in mind as a session on Capitol Hill centered on COVID-19 approaches.

Their list of priorities going into the session, according to the 13-page document, includes a possibility of new emergency loans or grants to bolster the state’s economy and deferring certain tax payments, including the option of delaying payment of the state’s tax on hotel and motel stays to help businesses in that sector meet rent and payroll obligations.

Wilson, the House speaker, has said the upcoming session — to be conducted electronically — will also probably spend between $50 and $100 million of nearly $700 million that Utah expects to receive from the U.S. government’s stimulus package aimed at easing effects of the pandemic.

Much of the rest, Wilson said, is likely to be kept in reserve for spending as Utah’s economy begins to stabilize from the current urgent phase of the pandemic.

The Utah Independent Business Coalition represents small stores, cafes, manufacturing and professional services firms and a host of other smaller independent firms “at the very heart of our community,” the letter says.

Small businesses make up about 90% of all employers in Utah — and represent just under half the state’s total workforce.

State officials, meanwhile, announced on Monday that nearly $4.89 million will be awarded to businesses and nonprofits applying this week for a series of bridge loans offered through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Those loans — being made in sums of between $5,000 and $20,000, with 0% interest for five years and initial payments deferrable for the first 12 months — are available to both small businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 50 employees, according to GOED.

The state has already given out $6.1 million in loans through what’s being called the Utah Leads Together Bridge Loan Program. New applications are being accepted from Monday through Thursday at noon. Find more information at coronavirus.utah.gov.