Some people say, and I'm one of those people, that the government isn't doing enough to help small businesses during this coronavirus crisis.
When the famed SXSW music/film/tech showcase was canceled in early March, it was as if someone put plastic explosives on the fragile bridge supports that newspapers have recently built and blew them all to shreds. Dollars targeted to announce the big summer concerts dried up. Few people blinked.
The NBA canceled their games when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The NCAA canceled their national basketball tournament. What could be worse? Oh, canceling St. Patrick's Day parades in Chicago, New York and Boston, perhaps? Yeah, that could be worse. St. Patrick's Day is the day when every Everyman is Irish for a day. This year, Everyman stayed home, and the Chicago River wasn't dyed green. A few people woke up.
In Salt Lake City on March 13, I spent part of the Friday night before St. Patrick's Day weekend behind a couple of Five Wives vodka sodas. My companion was drinking Tito's. Some people's kids. Gracie's was nearly empty on the night before the big parade—the parade that wouldn't happen, because it, too, was canceled. I began tending bar in 1975 or so, and I've seen 44 St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Utah, and one in Chicago. I was afraid for what would come next—a financial emergency in the club and restaurant industry. It came.
The hospitality industry took the first and most severe hit. Yeah, yeah—airlines, oil rigs and cruise ships need love, too, and they'll get plenty of greenbacks from this president. Yet, shutting down the hospitality industry hits not only Gracie's and every other club and eatery, but affects the entire food chain down to the grower and picker. From there, it ripples out to other industries like no other.
The federal government has committed dollar support in the form of guaranteed SBA loans (if you have decent credit) and also via the Payroll Protection Program—a novel way for the government to pay out unemployment without you having to go to the unemployment office, basically. Safe bet: The bulk of the SBA funds will not be sent to small businesses but will be doled out to persons and corporations that have multiplied in the swamp that President Trump promised to drain.
The federal government funding programs are a welcome but mismanaged mess. However, at the state and local levels, our leaders and politicians are just biding time while passing along meaningless phrases like, "We're in this with you." Sorry, no, you are not. You are paid by taxpayers. You have health insurance. Your takeout order from Wendy's doesn't do squat for local merchants. You're using Grubhub and calling it support? Well, Grubhub grabs about 30% of the bill from those local eateries.
That's not stepping up, guys, and neither is the mere $9 million dollars committed thus far by Salt Lake City and the State of Utah to help local businesses affected by COVID-19 (Disclosure: City Weekly has not been awarded SBA guarantees, nor the PPP, was denied city funds twice but was provided a state grant of $10,000. Thank you, Herbert and Cox!). Yet, that amount is less than 20% of one company payroll, let alone trying to pay for all other expenses. We're not alone. It will take 1,000 times that amount to make local small businesses whole again. Salt Lake County has no economic plan to assist local business. OK, local governments, if you can't fork over any money while you're sucking down your Arby's fake gyro or sickly Taco Bell taco (because that's easier than supporting local Greeks and Mexicans serving the real deal), at least do this: Get off everyone's back.
• We know a local business owner who was to file property taxes on March 25. He couldn't due to COVID-19, and disaster funds have not arrived. His taxing entity is charging fees and interest. Walk away, taxman!
• A business owner shut down by the county is being charged for water he is not using at the same time he has no business coming in. Give him water!
• Liquor license renewals are due May 1. Places holding liquor licenses have had no sales in a month, and the DABC has not informed license holders if they will defer payments due to forced closures. Stop, just, stop!
• A prominent Salt Lake business paid more than $1 million in state and property taxes in 2019 but was denied even the smallest loan amounts by both the state and city. However, that business pays nearly nothing to the federal government, which is where his last hope for funding help remains. That's backward!
Here's where the rubber meets the road for COVID-19 recovery: Either local government steps to the front and does all it can, or it needs to get out of the way. Stop the regulation nonsense and let our local businesses survive. It's becoming clear that the hundreds of millions of dollars in the state's rainy-day fund—much of it derived from the more than $1 million a day in Utah liquor sales—is going to stay there until there is rain on someone else's parade, someone or some industry more important in legislative lives than the low-grade fever employees in the hospitality industry.
The big boys aren't even close to feeling the pinch. The big boys also know they are only a phone call away from help. But the guy flipping burgers? He doesn't have a prayer against COVID-19. To the little guy, local governments all talk about tasty fry sauce, but they can't produce the bacon.
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