As small businesses await new US aid, it’s too late for some
This Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, photo shows a line of empty chairs bearing the names of workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, outside Crumbs restaurant in Danville, Calif. (AP Photo/Michael Liedtke)
NEW YORK (AP) — Clay Reynolds is starting to make peace with a gut-wrenching reality: He may have to once again close his business, Arrichion Hot Yoga and Circuit Training.
The $900 billion pandemic relief package that Congress has just approved contains billions in aid directed specifically at struggling small companies like Reynolds’. Arrichion received a loan last spring from the government’s earlier economic aid program. But Reynolds, a co-owner, needs another. Business was down 75% in the third quarter. The fourth quarter will likely be worse.
Like other independent fitness studios and gyms, his has lost many longtime members who feared working out alongside others indoors or don’t want to wear a mask while exercising. And after being forced to close during the spring, Reynolds worries that the surge in virus cases will bring new government restrictions.
“There’s a good chance this type of business will be shut down again in the next few weeks,” said Reynolds, whose studios are in North Carolina and Utah.
America’s entrepreneurs welcomed Congress’ long-delayed relief package, which provides $325 billion in aid to small companies and makes it easier for them to gain access to grants and loans under its renewed Paycheck Protection Program. But the rescue comes too late for tens of thousands of businesses that have already closed or may have to soon, a consequence of a pandemic that has kept away diners, shoppers and customers since early spring. The National Restaurant Association, for example, estimates that 110,000 U.S. restaurants — 17% — have shut down indefinitely or for good, doomed by restrictions on their hours or capacity and by Americans’ reluctance to eat out.
“If you closed already, it doesn’t help you a bit,” said Henry Pertman, director of operations at Total Image Creative, a Maryland-based hospitality consulting firm. “We lost a lot of restaurants that didn’t have to go under. They saw no light at the end of the tunnel.’’
It’s a fear that weighs heavily on one restaurateur, Amy Sidhom. She isn’t convinced that the new federal aid will be enough to significantly help her or the 21 workers she furloughed heading into the holiday season. The surging pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to her restaurant, Crumbs, in Danville, California, about 30 miles east of San Francisco
After she’d spent about $35,000 to set up for outdoor dining, Crumbs’ sales had finally returned to their pre-pandemic levels, enabling the 2-year-old restaurant to recall its entire staff of 25. But the comeback was short lived. After outdoor dining was banned through most of California earlier this month, Crumbs was forced to return to takeout only.
Sales have plunged 85% to 90% in recent weeks. Crumbs now has only four employees.
As a stark reminder of the pandemic’s economic toll, Sidhom has set up in front of Crumbs’ now-empty outdoor seating area a row of empty chairs bearing the names and sad stories of the employees who have lost their jobs.
“We are kind of day-by-day now,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like there is an end in sight, and it doesn’t seem like there is empathy toward small businesses, particularly restaurants. So, no, I am not optimistic.”
Many small and independent retailers are in jeopardy, too. They typically collect an outsize proportion of their annual revenue during the holiday shopping season. But government restrictions are limiting how many customers can be in a store at one time. Even apart from such restrictions, many consumers are staying home anyway as a precaution against the resurgent virus.
Especially vulnerable are small independent shops, many of which are barely hanging on and will likely close their doors after the holidays — joining more than 8,600 retailers that have already gone out of business this year, according to market researcher CoreSight.
For them, Congress took too long and probably offered too little relief on top of a $2 trillion rescue package that the government enacted in March but whose benefits had largely expired. That aid package introduced PPP loans, which are meant to help small businesses keep employees on their payrolls.
“We really needed this second round and renewal of the program back in August to help many businesses to get through the last quarter of 2020,” said Karen Kerrigan, president of the advocacy group Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.
Reynolds, the fitness studio owner, is hoping for government help to tide his fitness company over until a coronavirus vaccine becomes widely available and customers feel comfortable enough to return to Arrichion.
Now, he said, “would be the right time to get it, to get us through the winter.”
At the same time, for small businesses the new aid is in some ways an improvement on the original rescue package. It will, for example, let small businesses take a tax deduction for expenses paid for with PPP money, including payroll, rent and utilities. And companies that already received one PPP loan can seek another if their revenue has dropped by 25% in any quarter of 2020 from a year earlier.
Under the new relief measure, hard-hit restaurants and hotels receive especially generous treatment: They can obtain PPP loans worth up to 3.5 times their payroll expenses, versus only 2.5 times payroll expenses for other companies. And the loans are available to hotels and restaurants that employ up to 300 workers per location. For other businesses, loans are limited to companies that employ 300 in total.
“The PPP money is going to be a huge difference maker if you’re on the cusp right now,” said Pertman, the restaurant consultant. “For the people on the bubble, who are putting their own money in day and day out, it’s going to be huge.’’
That said, some of the problems that small businesses now face are simply beyond Congress’ capacity to solve. How long, for instance, can they survive when their customers are either locked down or choosing to stay home?
Tiffany Joy Murchison, who couldn’t receive a PPP loan during the first round because of a series of miscommunications with her bank, is willing to try again now that there’s more money available. She needs the aid to help her New York-based publicity firm find new clients. She’s lost revenue during the pandemic because her clients are generally small, struggling organizations.
“I would be able to continue paying my staff while putting full effort into scaling my business, going after larger corporations, organizations, and government agencies that are less likely to be impacted by swings in the economy,” Murchison said.