St. Louis County relief process shows 'desperation' in small-business sector
A nearly $13 million disparity in funds available versus those requested could only hope to be picked up in another round of federal aid related to COVID-19, a county official says.
St. Louis County businesses flooded a third cycle of COVID-19 relief with applications this month as desperation reared its head roughly one year into the pandemic.
During a 15-day application period, 900 businesses submitted requests totaling $16.4 million. The applicants more than doubled the previous wave (380), and came at a time when the county has only $3.8 million in funding from the state to offer in grants.
"This cycle was the most applications we've had," said Matthew Johnson, St. Louis County director of planning and community development. "This is well over twice the previous demand, and the desperation written into the applications this time around is very apparent."
The county recognizes the need is far greater than the funds available, Johnson said, putting it in a position to hope for another federal relief package. President Joe Biden is attempting to push a $1.9 trillion aid package through Congress.
Until then, the county is sorting through applications by prioritizing businesses and nonprofits which were shut down beginning in November, including bars, restaurants, and fitness centers, as well as businesses that did not receive money from a recent round of state COVID-19 relief payments.
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That top tier of businesses was approximately 200 of the total applicants.
"Our first priority was to help the businesses forced to close by executive order," Johnson said, referring to Gov. Tim Walz's shutdown order in November.
For the remaining 700 businesses, the county is first verifying applicants meet all grant eligibility requirements. Once the county knows how many businesses and nonprofits are left, the county will sort them based upon their demonstrated need: Was a business forced to close? How much did it spend on COVID-19 expenses? How much revenue did it drop in 2020 as a result of the pandemic? Did it receive other COVID-19 relief?
"Our goal is to stretch these funds to as many of the eligible applicants as possible, which means the potential to approve smaller grant amounts due to the extremely high demand," Johnson said.
Because of the high demand, businesses were likely to receive only a portion of what was requested, and some none at all.
"We certainly can appreciate the difficult position they are in, but we have less than a quarter of the funding needed to satisfy all of these requests," Johnson said.
All grants will be awarded by March 15, although funding notifications will begin within the next few weeks.
"We knew the need was great and I’m happy the county can provide some assistance," Johnson said.
The businesses that applied, but don't receive funding will remain in line for another prospective round of funding.
"We encouraged everyone to apply and are hoping that Congress gives us another large round similar to CARES funding we received in the amount of $24 million," Johnson said, referring to last spring's $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. "If that happens in the future and we run a small business program, we hope to help some of the businesses that potentially heard a 'no' on this phase."