The federal government’s COVID-19 relief efforts are serving up a bitter dish to our nation’s small businesses.
Among the first to get a taste are independent restaurants. The few who got the first round of government assistance are grateful they can pay their people for two more months. But they’re also dismayed, because once they spend the proceeds as the loan requires, they’ll have little money left to reopen or pay bills that added up during the shutdown.
Many don’t even want the loan, because unless the money is spent as its terms dictate, it will turn into debt and further choke their already suffocating businesses.
These entrepreneurs are doing everything in their power not to permanently close the restaurants, bars and cafes that they poured their hearts into. They are also brutally realistic about whether small food and drink establishments can survive in a COVID environment of new health rules and fewer diners.
The nation’s 500,000 independent restaurants are among the most vulnerable businesses in this new era of social distancing. During the past month, restaurant owners around the country have been forced to lay off wait staff, line cooks, dishwashers, bartenders and other employees amid mandatory public space closures to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread. A majority of these workers rely on every paycheck. Because of delays in receiving unemployment benefits and federal stimulus checks, many urgently needed money to pay for necessities, but there was no mechanism, public or private, to get them funds quickly.
The family foundation my wife, Sheri, and I lead created one, and on April 6 launched The Plate Fund to rapidly provide $500 grants directly to the hardest hit food-service workers in the Seattle area. Thanks to donations from other philanthropies, businesses and individuals, the fund is on course to distribute almost $7 million to 14,000 eligible workers who applied online and receive money within days.
For three weeks, the Plate Fund has been helping workers get by until the arrival of government assistance. But it’s only a short-term fix for a slice of the nation’s small business employees whose jobs have been lost or are jeopardized due to no fault of their own.
America’s 30 million small businesses are a powerful economic engine. Collectively, they employ 59 million people, create two-thirds of net new jobs, and account for 44 percent of U.S. economic activity, according to the Small Business Administration.
Quite simply, small businesses are too big to let fail.
To help, the federal government moved with surprising alacrity last month to pass the CARES Act. The law’s shortcomings have been widely discussed, and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has already exhausted the $350 billion designated for low-interest loans for small businesses. But even if PPP works as intended, the CARES Act, like The Plate Fund, is just a Band-Aid.
What plagues our economy won’t heal by summer. The country will not magically re-open one day as if all companies have been on ice and can resume business as usual. Most won’t have the resources to hire back 100 percent of their staff, restock shelves or pay their bills. Most also don’t have the knowledge or the supplies to do so safely.
Survival in the COVID-19 economy will be fraught with new challenges. Consumer behavior is already undergoing a sea change so dramatic that many businesses will have to transform to accommodate the shifts in how we eat, shop, work, travel and entertain ourselves. Not until we have a vaccine, can we even expect a return to stability.
To increase the chances that as many small businesses as possible survive beyond a few more months, this unprecedented pandemic requires unprecedented creativity and courage.
Flattening the curve of economic carnage starts by shifting our collective thinking from Band-Aid solutions to building a very long and very strong bridge to a vaccine.
Pouring an additional $310 billion into PPP alone, as Congress has agreed to do, is not sufficient. We need a Marshall Plan for small businesses that begins with providing federally backed loans that cover what it will cost businesses to reopen and reinvent themselves for the COVID economy. These expenses include things like buildouts in workplaces and retail spaces to accommodate social distancing; regular virus testing for customers and employees; hiring and training; reconnecting or redeveloping supply chains; and converting products and services to meet evolving customer demands.
These “transformation” loans should operate like start-up financing, but be longer-term, lower interest, include one year of no payments, and a portion that’s forgiven. A new federal facility should be established to purchase the loans from banks, removing the loans’ risk to banks and speeding their flow.
Small business loans and grants can also originate from unlikely sources: philanthropies and large corporations. The former have rich endowments to tap on behalf of businesses in need; the Schultz Family Foundation seeded The Plate Fund with $3 million, for example. The latter have cash reserves thanks in part to the current administration’s generous tax cut in 2017, the bull market of the past ten years, and a country that has given for-profit entities unparalleled circumstances to achieve unlimited growth.
Beyond capital, large companies can provide expertise, applying to retailers in their communities and manufacturers in their supply chains the same innovative rigor that they apply to their own products and operations.
Now more than ever, many large corporations have the resources and the responsibility to support the country that has contributed to their prosperity — and that includes ensuring that small businesses can eventually reopen and operate safely and profitably.
Preventing their demise will preserve economic opportunity for tens of millions of Americans rather than exacerbate inequality. In this way, the pandemic can be the pivotal moment American capitalism needs. Corporations must focus on all stakeholders, as 181 CEO members of the Business Roundtable have already pledged to do, and include small businesses in their efforts.
Staggeringly long lines at food banks from Iowa to California are just the beginning — imagine if just 30 percent of all small businesses permanently shut down, taking more jobs with them. The cost of doing nothing will be far greater that the cost of bold decisions now. The economy and the social fabric of our country will be impacted in ways that no generation alive has ever known if we fail to act with the urgency small businesses deserve, and this moment demands.