Just about every aspect of our lives has been affected after nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic.

But small businesses, the operations that employ millions of Americans, have been particularly hard hit. Thousands folded or closed temporarily due to diminished business or had to quickly create new ways to offer their products or services.

And national studies indicate that nearly 70% of small businesses haven't seen sales rebound to pre-pandemic levels. That's why it's been especially important for government to assist small companies in an effort to keep them and their employees afloat.

Hennepin County officials have wisely stepped up and used more than $70 million in federal and state recovery funding for small grants to 6,500 businesses, nearly half of which were owned by people of color.

In addition, the county more recently launched Elevate Business Hennepin County, a $1 million program offering up to 25 hours of free consulting services. That initiative is designed to help businesses weather the multiple COVID-related problems caused by the pandemic and help position them to succeed long term after pandemic subsidies are gone.

Last fall, the Hennepin County Board allocated $9 million to fund the program for the next three years. The board also voted earmarked $10 million for grants to help provide affordable commercial rental space for small businesses.

More than 700 business have used Elevate for help with social media, web development, legal, finance and marketing issues.

"Small businesses needed technical help on how to pivot online sales on a dime," Patricia Fitzgerald, the county's director of community and economic development, told the Star Tribune. "The businesses didn't have time or money to access consultants to solve those challenges."

Elevate Business now contracts with more than 20 nonprofit and business advisers, including the African Development Center, Latino Economic Development Center and Women Venture. The initiative joins other efforts, such as the Open to Business program of the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers, that support smaller companies.

Since 2012, Open to Business has supported 2,465 businesses. In 2019, the organization reported that of those who received financing or loans, 40% were women entrepreneurs and 43% were minority entrepreneurs.

"It's really difficult to overestimate the importance of small and local businesses to a community," Fitzgerald said. "Storefronts are part of what makes our communities livable."