Utah lawmakers free up millions in COVID-19 relief for renters, businesses and tourism efforts

Utah lawmakers voted Thursday to open up and widen access to at least $122 million in federal COVID-19 relief for residents, business owners and cultural groups as the state continues to reel financially from the pandemic.

With bills passed in the Legislature’s special session Thursday, they eased rules for spending up to $20 million in previously approved housing aid and $40 million in grants for rental assistance to commercial tenants, all in hopes of making more recipients eligible and getting the cash to them sooner.

State leaders also authorized a new $62 million grant program intended to boost struggling businesses and cultural, artistic and recreation groups that promote travel in Utah.

This is all money sent to the states by Congress through the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed March 27 to stem health and economic devastation from the virus.

“This is a great first step to give them that boost,” Rep. Richard Spendlove, R-Salt Lake City, said Thursday of those eligible for the $62 million in cultural assistance and economic recovery grants approved under HB5010.

The program, to be overseen jointly by the state Division of Arts and Museums and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, or GOED, targets cultural, artistic, botanical, recreational and zoological groups that provide attractions to Utah visitors — and could help those entities cover up to twice their yearly net costs.

On the business side, the bill provides subsidies to Utah’s colleges and university for retraining workers displaced by COVID-19.

It is also designed to help businesses purchase supplies including personal protective equipment for workers, such as masks and hand sanitizer, and to fund ad campaigns encouraging businesses and customers to comply with health guidelines.

“Coupled with other programs we’re seeing coming from the feds and our local governments,” Spendlove said, “this should really help rebuild some of the areas of the economy that have been hurt so much.”

And with SB5005, lawmakers modified two other assistance programs they’d approved in an April special session, one to help renters find or retain housing and another for commercial tenants hurt by COVID-19 who are struggling to pay their rents.

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, moves up the spending of $20 million in housing aid that had previously been set aside until August, instead making it available immediately to help those at risk of losing their homes.

That program, which officials have said is likely to dole the money out partly in the form of rental vouchers, will be overseen by the state Department of Workforce Services.

SB5005 also loosened the criteria for a separate GOED-managed program for businesses to apply for a total of $40 million in rental subsidies, also approved in April. The bill changed rules that were deemed so stringent before, Fillmore said, that most business owners didn’t qualify.

The amendments approved Thursday also opened the grant program up, he said, to newer businesses launched in recent months.