Utah small businesses welcome rule changes for federal relief loans

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Co-founder Nick Gradinger at the newest Vessel Kitchen location in Salt Lake City's popular 9th and 9th neighborhood, as seen on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

The U.S. government has steered a massive $5.2 billion to Utah in COVID-19 relief loans for small businesses, as of last Saturday.

Now, with a series of new rule changes passed by Congress, those business owners will have more time and flexibility on how they use the money — while still qualifying for the loans to be forgiven.

For thousands of establishments knocked into financial crisis by the pandemic, those small tweaks to the Paycheck Protection Program are proving beneficial in what remains a dire situation.

“It’s really helped,” Missy Greis, owner of Publik Concepts, which includes Publik Coffee Roasters in Salt Lake City, said Wednesday.

Greis, who received a PPP loan in April, initially faced having to deploy the cash quickly to hire some of her employees back from furloughs, while stay-at-home directives were still being dialed back and many customers remained fearful about going out.

Like other PPP recipients, Greis now has six months instead of just eight weeks to use the relief money, without it turning into a low-interest loan instead of an outright grant. Borrowers can also spend up to 40% of the cash on items like rent, utilities and similar overhead costs instead of payroll, up from 25%.

Her businesses have yet to start back up, but with the changes Congress passed Friday, Greis now has a little more flexibility on coming to terms with safety and comfort for employees and patrons when she does reopen those doors.

Polls indicate consumers are still wary, she said, “but I can actually just go with my gut and my sense that what I believe I want to rebuild and reopen right now is different from the current criteria for reopening.”

Across town, Nick Gradinger, one of the co-founders of Vessel Kitchen, was busily sorting out conflicting health guidance and other hard issues in hopes of welcoming customers to restaurants at four Utah locations, with a return now scheduled for next Wednesday.

Juggling all of this stuff is overwhelming,” Gradinger said. “And when it comes to PPP, it’s kind of the same thing. We feel like we have worked our tails off to do all of this to the letter of the law, and yet we’re still incredibly nervous because, you know, you can’t get a straight answer."

Publik Coffee and Vessel Kitchen are among 48,572 Utah businesses and nonprofits approved for PPP loans so far, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s most recent tally. (The Salt Lake Tribune, a nonprofit, has received one of those loans.)

The program has reached more than 4.5 million employers nationwide with a total of $511 billion thus far across the country, the SBA reported.

And while a large share of the lending has been to firms in hospitality sectors, far more has reached those in healthcare, professional services, construction and manufacturing, SBA numbers show.

For a sense of scale, the $5.2 billion in PPP loans in Utah so far is equal to about a quarter of the state of Utah’s entire budget for fiscal year 2021.

The SBA reported that as of Saturday, roughly $130 billion in PPP loans remained available through the program.

The revisions under what is called the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act will mean that many more Utah businesses won’t have repay what they borrow, said Roger Christensen, senior vice president over marketing, communications and business development at Bank of Utah.

The clean-up legislation has also loosened key rules on who counts as a rehired employee, Christensen said, “which is going to help tremendously.”

And in spite of a sputtering initial launch that frustrated many businesses and lenders, Christensen said, PPP has gotten "money into the hands of our customers to help them survive through this time and get back on their feet so they didn’t lose everything.”

Utah businesses getting the relief continue to face challenges to reopening due to diminished customer support, difficulties in rehiring employees and disruptions in their supply chains, said Tim Crisp, a business and commercial finance attorney with the law firm Holland & Hart.

“This gives those companies a whole lot more certainty that they will be able to maximize forgiveness,” he said.

But Rep. Ben McAdams called the latest changes “a start” and said he’s continuing to push the SBA and the U.S. Treasury Department for “a drastically simplified loan forgiveness application” as part of PPP, particularly for those borrowing less than $350,000.

The Utah Democrat said in a statement that change would “streamline the red tape facing small business owners.”