Pam DeMarce got up off the canvas only to get punched in the gut again.
After being forced to close her businesses for several months in the spring during the first shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the owner of two Mankato bowling alleys and an event center scraped through the summer on the strength of federal stimulus programs.
A workforce that once numbered more than 100 people was now down to about 30. But she was paying her bills — barely — even though state health orders kept her businesses operating at 25 to 50% of capacity.
Then, last Wednesday, came the call she’d been dreading. State officials told her that new executive orders from Gov. Tim Walz would close her businesses once again, effective last Friday and lasting until Dec. 18.
“It’s so awful, what’s happening,” she said. “It’s a dire thing that we’re having to go through, like we did before. And I hope the federal government will be there, like they were before.”
Walz plans to release a business-targeted COVID relief package on Tuesday, he revealed at a news conference on Monday. It could include sales tax forgiveness for businesses that sell food and beverages, waived state regulatory fees, direct relief to individual workers, and one-time grants to businesses to provide food to health care workers, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.
Walz said the state help he intends to propose is meant to act as a bridge to struggling businesses as they await more federal aid. He said he hopes for a special legislative session soon to act on his proposal.
More than 102,000 Minnesota businesses got a share of nearly $11.3 billion in federal stimulus money this year to fight the impact of the coronavirus. It came mostly through two sources: the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provided a forgivable grant to cover employee pay, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), a low-interest program offering additional money that must be repaid over 30 years.
DeMarce and other small-business owners in Minnesota say that the federal stimulus programs kept them alive. DeMarce received about $259,000 from the PPP and an EIDL loan of about $149,000.
But with money from the programs spent and COVID-19 raging stronger than ever, more federal help is desperately needed, she and others said.
Yet a second round of COVID-19 relief has been tied up in the U.S. Congress, as lawmakers have been unable to agree on what a new stimulus package would include.
“Those grants we got saved us,” said DeAnn Zavoral, managing partner of the Tavern on South Shore, a bar and restaurant in Bemidji. Zavoral’s restaurant received about $85,000 in PPP money to cover her 18 employees, as well as a number of smaller grants and loans through state and local programs. But she’s not sure whether she can survive the latest shutdown.
“My heart was in my throat” waiting for word of Walz’s order, she said. A hockey tournament was scheduled for this past weekend, and she was anticipating a good crowd. Now, she has shut down her restaurant for the second time this year. She’s allowed to do takeout orders but said they proved earlier this year to be not worth the effort.
“My poor staff,” Zavoral said after word of the shutdown came down. “It’s the holidays. It’s Christmas.” Many of her employees, she said, have already used up their unemployment benefits for the year.
“It’s very scary. I just want to say that,” she added. “Financially, for my restaurant, yes. But I’m worried about people, too. It’s dark at 4:30. There’s just a lot of factors that are going to mess people up.”
Stimulus helped some thrive
Earlier this year, bankers and financial consultants were working “nonstop” to process applications from businesses for federal stimulus money, according to Wendy Anderson, a consultant with the federal Small Business Development Center in Springfield, Minn.
Anderson helped hundreds of businesses get stimulus money, estimating that at least three-quarters of her clients in nine south-central Minnesota counties applied for PPP relief.
“I would love to see it continue,” Anderson said, referring both to PPP grants and EIDL loans. She said she’s particularly worried about the future of small, independent restaurants as another shutdown looms.
“I’m afraid they’re going to be impacted the worst,” she said. “The holidays are huge for restaurants. I’m afraid that industry will see a lot of businesses close that never come back.” Even restaurants that weather the latest shutdown could face another challenge when it ends, she added.
“How do you find staff to rehire?” she said. “It’s hard enough to find staff out here.”
Some recipients of stimulus money have done more than survive — they’ve thrived. Arnold Volker owns Next Innovations, a small manufacturing company in Walker, Minn., that makes a variety of home decor and gift items. Volker employs about 25 people and said he was hesitant to take stimulus money, but he eventually applied for and received about $102,000 in PPP aid.
The financial lifeline, he said, allowed his business to adapt to changing conditions. Next Innovations typically sells most of its products to wholesalers who place their orders at industry trade shows. But as trade shows were canceled earlier this year, customers began placing their orders online.
By July, the company had more than 1,000 unfilled orders. But with the additional revenue, Volker was able to add an electronic service to move the orders through his system more quickly.
Relieved of some payroll worries, the company could concentrate on growth rather than cuts.
“It helped us stay focused on trying to bring in new accounts, where otherwise you might have laid off some people, and then it’s almost a spiral down,” Volker said. Bolstered by online orders, Next Innovations is projecting a 40% increase in revenue over last year.
The COVID-19 stimulus, Volker said, “was a good thing, and it should be looked at and extended if possible.”
Not all businesses have been as fortunate. Some continue to struggle even after receiving stimulus payments.
AA Auto Technicians of Hastings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October, allowing it to continue operating as it reorganizes its finances. The company received a forgivable PPP payment of $38,000 earlier this year, along with a low-interest EIDL loan of $154,000, according to court records.
“I’m trying so hard to make this work,” said owner Traci Wherley. “We see it affecting all the small businesses now.”
‘Interesting times we live in’
Even a little bit of stimulus money made a big difference for some small businesses. Alan Hunt does handyman work in Fairmont, Minn.: snow removal, tree removal, demolition and other similar jobs.
“You name it, I do it,” said Hunt, who received $2,200 from the Paycheck Protection Program.
“It was kind of a small amount but it does help,” said Hunt, who’s hoping for another round of stimulus. He’s applying for low-interest loans to buy additional equipment that could help him expand and possibly hire several employees.
Meanwhile, other business owners are waiting and hoping the federal government will show some urgency in revisiting the stimulus programs.
“I’m very sad about the gridlock we have,” said DeMarce, the Mankato bowling alley owner. “It’s going to be in other people’s hands to get it done.
“It’s interesting times we live in, that’s all I can say. Interesting times.”