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COVID-19 / Events / Federal government / Funding / Small businesses

‘Just trying to keep these businesses afloat’: Baltimore entrepreneurs sound off on aid at forum with U.S. senators

At the forum organized by Fearless, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen said they were collecting input as they looked to replenish funds for the Paycheck Protection Program, and look toward future legislation.

Fearless hosted a small business forum with U.S. Senators on April 17, 2020. (Courtesy photo)
In an unprecedented crisis that’s still evolving, there are going to be solutions that are needed to get moving today, as well as fixes that will need to be engineered to make impact tomorrow.

As they listened to Baltimore entrepreneurs and leaders during a virtual forum organized by software agency Fearless on Friday, U.S. senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen had both on their minds.

For one, there’s the current negotiation that they are rushing to complete. After shipping 14 years’ worth of loans to cover payroll and other expenses for small businesses in 14 days, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program is out of funds and can’t process new loans. It has entrepreneurs who submitted applications seeking answers, like Pixilated CEO Nic China, who has applied for both the PPP and Economic Injury Disaster Loan that were initially funded by Congress. And the announcement about being out of funds came just two days after a new program was introduced to help Baltimore’s underserved entrepreneurs access the program via the Lendistry platform.

So the Maryland Democrats are working to get a bill to the floor of the Senate that replenishes the money in both of those programs.

“We now need to replenish those funds,” said Cardin, who is the ranking member on the Senate’s small business committee. He added that he hoped an agreement could be reached in the “next few days.”

For those who submitted applications and are still waiting, Van Hollen said there’s been different messages in a program that is being administered through a wide variety of banks.

“Some are saying if you have it in already they’ll hold it,” he said. “Others are saying that they want people to refile and saying they want people to put applications in again.”

The Maryland Democrats are working to get a bill to the floor of the Senate that replenishes the money in both the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan.

But as the program rolled out, they also see fixes that need to be made. Hamilton Hospitality Group’s Garth Hamilton, who owns restaurants in the region, gave voice to how a program that covers costs for two months will need extension if stay-at-home orders keep dining rooms closed through June. So Cardin said they are working on relaxing the requirement that payroll cover the eight-week period.

And there’s a need to ensure all communities are reached. It’s an issue that Dr. Tammira Lucas of Moms as Entrepreneurs discussed as she gave voice to solopreneurs who don’t have a payroll to fund.

“They don’t have employees. They’re not even taking a paycheck for themselves. They’re just trying to keep these businesses afloat,” she said.

Federal guidelines allowing the CARES Act to assist these firms have been slower to develop, Cardin said.

Howard Libit, who is executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, talked about how local nonprofits weren’t made a priority by banks who are ultimately charged with administering the loans.

“Even two-decade relationships aren’t a priority if you’re a nonprofit as opposed to a business,” he said of banks.

Those are among the areas where Democrats are seeking fixes alongside the replenishment of funds. As national outlets have reported, those additional fixes are also what are putting them at loggerheads with Republican members of the Senate, who simply want to give the PPP a re-up. Negotiations were continuing on Friday afternoon in D.C.

And at the same time, they have in mind folks who are seeing the uncertainty extend beyond a single season. Arts groups like Chesapeake Shakespeare Company have had to cancel for the spring, but are now thinking to the summer, said Managing Director Lesley Malin. Visit Baltimore’s Al Hutchinson talked about the hotels and businesses that cater to conventions that make up the hospitality industry, and Cardin pointed out that large gatherings are unlikely to resume soon.

We took some small steps in the right direction as part of the CARES Act, but we need to do much more in round 4.

There are also the systemic issues that are only being exacerbated in the crisis. As Dionne Joyner-Weems of The Audacity Group pointed out, digital equity is a big concern.

“What we’ve seen as a result of the coronavirus is a spotlight on a lot of the inequities that existed before the coronavirus and needed urgent attention then and need really urgent attention right now,” Van Hollen said. “We’re also really seeing it when it comes to this issue of the digital divide and internet access, especially as our schools which are closed have to move to more distance learning.”

Van Hollen said the CARES Act allowed school districts to use funds to expand tech access to devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, and Baltimore city got $48 million in that category. But the “long-term solution,” he said, is to have dedicated federal funding. To that end, he has proposed a key policy change by the Federal Communications Commission.

“We took some small steps in the right direction as part of the CARES Act, but we need to do much more in round 4,” he said, referring to the projected next bill.

The push for small business relief is taking place on multiple fronts. Just after the forum ended, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he sent a letter to food delivery app companies including DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub  and Uber Eats. Though restaurants are still able to deliver, some chefs have voiced that the fees charged to the businesses by apps are further squeezing them in a tough time.

Young called for the rates to be capped at 15%, which is on par with what San Francisco regulated this week.

“We have stressed the life-or-death importance of our residents remaining indoors as much as possible, and many have come to rely on their access to meals through delivery apps,” Young said in a statement. “We want to make sure that these companies are able to charge a reasonable rate per transaction without further burdening small businesses that are struggling to remain in business.”

Companies: Fearless / U.S. Small Business Administration
Series: Coronavirus

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