Small businesses make tough calls while waiting on government loans

Jeanie Wright was planning for a year of major growth in 2020 with her confection business, Alaskan Sweet Thing’s. The company makes gourmet taffy, popcorn, fudge and more from glacier water, selling online and at its retail location.

A big part of her business comes from tourists traveling to Alaska, as the state has become a major cruise destination. Then the coronavirus hit, lobbing a major blow to the tourism that some 90% of her business relies on.

“The whole tourist industry in Alaska has just been decimated — there are no ships scheduled to cruise here until July. The season normally starts at the end of April. The border to Canada has been closed and air flights are severely impacted,” Wright said. “I don’t think most people want to get on a plane and come up here.”

Wright, like many small-business owners on Main Streets around the country, is facing down impossible decisions — like whether to keep her four employees on board, one of whom is her older sister — as they apply for loans that might offer them a chance to stay afloat amid the disruption caused by the efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. 

Outbreak-related travel restrictions hit hard for gourmet confectioner Alaskan Sweet Things, as the candy maker relies on tourism for some 90% of its business. Source: Jeanie Wright/Alaskan Sweet Things

Jeanie Wright | Alaskan Sweet Things

“We just had payroll yesterday,” she told CNBC on Friday. “I’ve told my sister, as of today, she might want to start the process for unemployment. I just completed my Small Business Administration disaster loan application, but it is going to be three or four weeks before we get to see any money. It’s very hard.”

The National Federation of Independent Business said some three-quarters of small businesses have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing everything from supply chain disruptions to slower sales and sick employees. Recent data from Goldman Sachs is even more dire — with 96% of small businesses saying they’d already been impacted as of mid-March. About 51% said their business would only be able to survive for between zero and three months.

The CARES Act signed into law Friday will throw small businesses like Wright’s a much-needed lifeline in the form of billions of dollars in loans under the SBA 7(a) loan program. Up to $10 million in loans, based on payroll, will be offered up for things like mortgages, leases, paying staff and utilities. There’s also SBA’s disaster loan program, with smaller loans of up to $2 million, for businesses impacted in hard-hit areas. But the message from Main Street is clear — the capital is needed now.

“Small business owners are desperate to support their employees during this unprecedented crisis facing the country, and the capital access and tax credit provisions will allow them to do just that. Moreover, these provisions will keep more small businesses intact and help to ensure we have a small business economy once this crisis is behind us,” Karen Kerrigan, CEO of advocacy group the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, said in a statement.

Jason Duff, founder of Small Nation, develops and revitalizes small towns, and has been working on the renewal of Bellefontaine, Ohio, for the past several years. Two weeks ago, the town was in the “best financial shape it’s even been in,” Duff said. Then Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine took proactive steps to send students home and close nonessential businesses in the face of the quickly spreading virus.

“As someone who develops properties, we saw 80% of our tenants be mandated to close,” Duff said. “I think what was even scarier, and challenging, was the way that our small-business owners were having to lay off their friends and family. Employees really are family — it’s figuring out what are we going to do to preserve cash? Can we stay open? Those kinds of decisions were not only traumatic, but challenging to work through.”

Adam Rammel, a business owner in Bellefontaine, Ohio, has applied for small business disaster aid and is awaiting 7A funding to support Brewfontaine, his taproom and restaurant, and The Syndicate, an event space that was supposed to open in May.

Adam Rammel | Brewfontaine

Both Duff and his business associate Adam Rammel, owner of Brewfontaine, a taproom and restaurant in Bellefontaine, have applied for SBA disaster loans and plan to apply for 7(a) aid under the CARES Act.

Rammel has kept take out open at the restaurant, but the operation is down to a skeleton crew and running low on cash. After last week’s payroll, the company has $20,000 in its checking account.

“I’m staring at a $7,500 sales tax number, you know, this past Monday, which I just decided not to pay,” he said. “Right now, I’m only paying payroll, and food and beer vendors, until we get through this. We’re doing everything we can, day in and day out, just to keep our head above water. This cash cannot come soon enough.”

And while businesses await these essential loans and more details on the application process, David Barr, a franchisee and franchisor in myriad businesses ranging from Yum Brands’ Taco Bell and KFC restaurants to TITLE Boxing gyms and Lash Lounge studios across the Southeast, said he’s hopeful entrepreneurs will lean into borrowing to keep workers on their payrolls. Barr is former chair of the International Franchise Association, the industry’s largest trade group.

“My hope is for those businesses that are open, that people will lean in on the employment side, that’s what the [CARES Act] is intended to do. Doesn’t mean necessarily that people are going to have to get back to 100% employment,” Barr said. “But if all of us lean in, there is some patriotism to that.”

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