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Stimulus money hasn't saved these small businesses

Updated 5:09 AM ET, Fri May 22, 2020

Washington (CNN) - Wagner Opticians had been around for 50 years when Covid-19 hit. It took less than two months for the pandemic to put the family-run shop in Washington, DC, out of business.

At first, owner Dianna Finisecy, who goes by Dee Dee, felt she should stay open, but reduce hours to limit her and her workers' exposure to customers. The shop, which shared a building with a hospital, was frequented by doctors and nurses, but business still slowed and she wasn't bringing in enough to make rent. Finisecy closed for good at the end of April, bringing some frames home with her and calling up 1-800-Junk to pick up the rest. "It's an awful way to go," she said.

It wasn't until May, more than a week after Finisecy shut her doors for the last time, that she was finally approved for a forgivable relief loan from the government's Paycheck Protection Program. She used it to pay off her March and April rent as well her employees' full salaries, like she was supposed to -- and now, with the shop gone, she's worried she might wind up having to pay it back.

"I'd hate to go out after 50 years and have that monkey on my back," Finisecy said.

Slow to reach the people who needed it most

That wasn't how things were supposed to go for small business owners in the pandemic. Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program in March as part of its sweeping $2.2 trillion economic stimulus response to get money quickly into the hands of small business owners. It's doled out more than 4 million loans worth $512 billion over the past seven weeks and has saved 50 million jobs, according to the Treasury Department.

But it was slow to reach small companies like Wagner Opticians as big businesses, like Shake Shack and the LA Lakers, got money first. Plus, there are restrictions on how the money can be spent that are making it hard for some business owners to even use the money while they remain shut down.

The loans are forgivable if 75% of the money is used on payroll within an eight week period -- a controversial time frame that both Republicans and Democrats have expressed support to change. It may have been reasonable in March when it was hard to imagine cities and states would have stay-at-home orders in place for so long.

Despite the bipartisan support, the Senate adjourned for a week-long recess Thursday without voting on extending the eight-week window. Meanwhile, some businesses that were among the first to get the money are entering their eighth week carrying loans and are unsure if they should risk spending the money without knowing if it will be forgiven later.

No return to normal

It's becoming clear that the loans won't be enough to save many small businesses as the pandemic continues for longer than most people, including the lawmakers who drew up the bill, expected.

More than 6% of small business owners surveyed by the Census Bureau said that they don't ever expect to return to normal operations and about 7% said they don't have enough cash on hand to last more than a week.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned this week that the central bank and Congress may have to do more to prevent some jobs from going away forever.

"If we let people be out of work for long periods of time, if we let businesses fail unnecessarily, waves of them, there will be longer term damage to the economy," Powell said in an interview with CBS.

"The good news is we can avoid that by providing more support now," he added.

Restaurant owners don't know if customers will return

Restaurants have been particularly hard hit. During the last week in March, the National Restaurant Association said 3% had already permanently closed.

Cathy Rasco will reopen her shop, Arabica Coffee, in Portland, Maine, on June 1. But she's already decided that her second location, less than a mile away, is staying closed for good.

That location, near ferry and cruise ship terminals, was always slower in the winter. She couldn't imagine making it without a strong tourist season too. Rasco, who's been in business since 1995, moved everything out of what had been that larger of her two spaces, and is still looking for a home for her coffee roaster.

She doesn't know if customers will come back once she reopens and is afraid to spend any of the loan money she received from the Paycheck Protection Program with so many unknowns and a lack of clarity around the rules. She plans to start by bringing back just a handful of the 26 staff she had when closures took effect.

"I feel like I'm just gambling, and it's not the time to do that," Rasco said, noting that selling a low-price-point product like coffee means she needs hundreds of customers to be profitable.

She's installing acrylic glass along the bar to protect her workers and plans to allow customers in just one door and out another, encouraging one-way foot traffic.

"I'm very aware this could be the end of Arabica, and if that's how it is, at least I know I'm giving it my best shot," she said.

The loan program is a 'total failure'

Portland's LB Kitchen, named for its co-owners Lee Farrington and Bryna Gootkind, has been filling to-go orders for smoothies, salads, and sandwiches since late March. Gootkind says she doesn't know if they'll fully reopen until there's a vaccine.

On Wednesday, they announced that their second location would be closing permanently. "LB West," as they called it, shared a space with a nonprofit organization and it seemed that it would be too hard to control people coming in-and-out while adhering to safety guidelines.

They also received a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, but at this point, don't intend on spending any of the money.

Like many business owners, Gootkind said it didn't make any sense to bring all of her 24 workers back on payroll when her shop is still not fully open. Some workers find that, with a separate congressionally-approved $600-a-week boost to benefits, they're earning more on unemployment than they would by coming back to work -- especially if hours are reduced.

But that means LB Kitchen's loan might not be forgiven. So instead, they plan on giving it all back.

"Honestly, it's not even worth trying to figure out. It's like trying to crack a code," Gootkind said. "I feel like it's a total failure."

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