‘Exhausted’ Small Businesses Get Partial Lifeline With U.S. Aid

Small business owners facing a treacherous winter and tighter lockdowns plan to jump at the chance to take out a second federal relief loan -- but still worry it may not be enough.

The nation’s small businesses are digesting news that Congress reached a deal to fund a new round of the Paycheck Protection Program, with many scurrying to understand its rules and determine if they qualify. In the package that lawmakers passed, Congress allocated $284 billion toward PPP, as part of a more than $2.3 trillion bill that will provide Covid-19 relief and government funding for the fiscal year into 2021.

“Obviously, I am thrilled at the thought of another round of PPP,” said Karyn Schwartz, who sells teas and natural body care products at her Seattle shop, SugarPill. “It would carry me through the winter, which is gonna be rough.”

The renewed program has several changes from the version that passed in March, including capping the size of eligible small businesses at 300 employees from the earlier 500-person maximum and limiting the size of a loan to $2 million. And, in a win many businesses were seeking, the bill would allow small firms that already got PPP funding to take tax deductions on expenses paid for with the loans. The Internal Revenue Service had objected to allowing the deductions.

Clara Osterhage has been sweating the thought of having to make a million-dollar tax payment next year after receiving around $3 million from PPP to keep her 700 employees paid. The Centerville, Ohio woman owns 78 Great Clips salons primarily in the Buckeye State and had some doubts Monday about whether Congress would allow for the deductions.

Congress needed to “do the right thing and create deductibility for that which we spent the money on,” said Osterhage, whose sales have slipped since the virus began surging in Ohio and are down about 35% in recent weeks.

Restaurant Suffering

The relief comes at an especially precarious time for small businesses.

Many restaurants took advantage of relaxed city ordinances to sell cocktails to-go and to set up outdoor tables on sidewalks during the pandemic. However, many of those workarounds are moot when it’s cold and no one wants to eat outdoors.

Also, cities such as Los Angeles recently began re-imposing Covid-19 restrictions, including closing indoor and outdoor dining altogether, and New York City is contemplating the possibility of a full shutdown after the holidays.

More than three-fifths of small businesses said they believe the worst of the pandemic’s economic wrath still lies ahead, according to a recent survey of 600 small business owners by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and insurer MetLife Inc. Half of the respondents see having to shut down within a year unless the economy heats up.

Hard hit restaurateurs are especially eager to tap a second round of PPP, and a special provision of the bill gives restaurants extra help. Where most businesses can seek a forgivable loan of 2 1/2 times their monthly payroll costs, restaurants are allowed up to 3 1/2 times that amount, according to the National Restaurant Association.

In Greenville, South Carolina earlier this year, Josh Beeby got a $562,000 PPP loan to pay his 105 employees and keep his three restaurants afloat, including a Belgian-style place with more than 100 beers for sale called The Trappe Door. Beeby’s restaurants rebounded in late summer as Covid-19 cases went into a lull, but things turned south quickly when the virus surged again in October, and he’s eager to tap another round of the loan program.

Never Say Never

In St. Petersburg, Florida, where it was a relatively warm 63 degrees Monday, Mark Ferguson’s eponymous sports bar, Ferg’s, has benefited from a big patio, balmy weather and a return of team sports. Still, his inside seating capacity is rarely above 30%, and his revenue has dropped to $3 million this year from $4.5 million a year ago. He’s open to another loan, because he can’t rule out having to close again with all the uncertainty.

“Before you’d go, ‘Oh, that will never happen,’” Ferguson said. “Now we’ve taken that word out of my vocabulary.”

For Schwartz, the Seattle independent retailer, the last several months have been grueling. She estimates she’s only taken off one day in the past three months and was working alone in her shop on Monday at a time when she normally would be busy enough to keep two or three other employees on hand.

She got about $11,000 from the first round of PPP over the summer, which helped pay for two months of rent and wages. But, even so, she was never able to hire back her full staff of four and says the Christmas shopping season isn’t what it has been in years past. Still, she said she hadn’t had a chance to look into the details and was worried that the shops like hers won’t get the same level of assistance as the earlier round.

“But any bit will help,” she added. “I’m exhausted.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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