With Minnesota bars, restaurants and fitness centers temporarily closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, Anoka County officials are making a final push to allocate what's left of $6 million in federal relief grants by Monday's deadline.
More than 250 businesses and 65 nonprofits across Anoka County have received $10,000 to $30,000 in federal grants since applications opened in late August. About 80 have been forced to shut down for the next four weeks under Gov. Tim Walz's recent executive order.
And because not all of the federal CARES Act money earmarked for struggling businesses in the county was spent, the County Board took swift action with the fast-approaching deadline to allow those affected by the recent restrictions to dip back into the pot of money.
The deadline for allocating CARES Act funding received directly from the federal government is Dec. 30, but federal money passed through the state must be spent by Nov. 30 or returned to the state.
"The latest shutdown … hurt our hospitality industry the hardest, and this is our way of hoping we can get them through the next four weeks and beyond if necessary," County Board Chairman Scott Schulte said.
Brandon Lamson, owner of Garphish Brewing, said the relief grants have been a lifeline for his brewery on Main Street in Bethel, a town of 400 people.
"Without it, I wouldn't be able to afford to employ anybody," he said. "I would have to do it by myself, or my wife would have to do it for free. I went most of the pandemic without a paycheck as an owner."
Lamson didn't apply for the Paycheck Protection Program or take on any additional debt for his two-year-old business, but he did qualify for a $20,000 grant from the county in October and hopes to receive another $10,000. The money helped him retain his staff of nine part-time employees; before grants were available during the first shutdown, he could afford to keep only one-third of his staff.
"It gives us a buffer and some time to think and plan instead of being reactive to 'Oh, we're shut down again,' " he said.
Not all businesses in dire straits qualify for the grants, such as recently opened Campanelle Restaurant and Bar in Lino Lakes.
Owner Kent Bergmann worked in the restaurant industry for nearly 30 years before deciding to open his own place in March, right before the pandemic hit, said Commissioner Jeff Reinert. Despite a delayed opening and other setbacks, the business has been successful. But Bergmann "was in tears when he found out he had to close again," Reinert said. "He didn't know if he was going to make it — I'm sure not an isolated situation."
Of the many grant qualifications, businesses need to be open for at least six months before March 1. Reinert asked about exceptions to the criteria so places like Campanelle could get some help. But Jacquel Hajder, the county's economic development specialist, said the criteria couldn't change on such short notice.
Hajder added that the application process can last weeks, so this was the most efficient way to give out remaining grant dollars. Of the $6 million in grants available, she said a few hundred thousand dollars will go unspent.
The county is not accepting new applicants at this time.