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Utah small businesses fighting to survive statewide coronavirus shutdown

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Dennis Malcom picks up a to-go order at The Bayou in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. A Salt Lake County health order prohibits dine-in options for all restaurants, taverns, bars, clubs and entertainment venues in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of the edict from Salt Lake County that effectively eliminated inside dining in all restaurants, taverns, bars, entertainment venues and clubs for the foreseeable future, establishments are scrambling to figure out how to stay afloat with far less revenue than they normally generate.

The announcement came down on Monday when officials in Utah’s most populous county made the decision in hopes of decreasing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The order affects all retail and service-oriented businesses within Salt Lake County, though takeout, curbside, drive-thru and delivery from restaurants are all still permitted. However, delivery services are “drop service only.” Additionally, all grocery stores and cafeterias will eliminate seating areas “as well as any other opportunity to congregate.”

On Tuesday, a day after Salt Lake County’s announcement, Gov. Gary Herbert ordered all restaurants, bars and food service establishments in Utah to suspend dine-in operations for the next two weeks starting Wednesday at 11:59 p.m., extending the concerns faced by workers in the county to their counterparts statewide.

For proprietors like Mark Alston, president of The Bayou and the Beer Nut homebrew shop in Salt Lake City, the decree has put his business and employees in a difficult financial bind.

“We’re playing it day by day. ... We’re doing to-go orders, curbside to-go orders,” he said. “But we have no idea how long that’s going to remain sustainable.”

Established 18 years ago, Alston said this kind of situation is “unprecedented, literally.” He said approximately 80% of his employees will have to file for jobless benefits until he can resume full operations. But for now, they will try to make a go of it with primarily curbside service.

“We don’t need a full restaurant of servers and bartenders and barbacks, so all those folks have been instructed to file for unemployment as quickly as possible, and we’re going to try to make them as whole as possible when we reopen and hire everybody back,” he said.

Another wrinkle he is contending with is that a good number of the kitchen staff is in various stages of working toward their U.S. citizenship, and part of the process for citizenship precludes applicants from taking any government assistance for 10 years. That could leave them vulnerable without any way to make a living during the shutdown period.

The Bayou employs 45 people, and the vast majority will be heavily impacted by this order in one way or another, he said.

“We’re keeping all our kitchen staff on and we’re just trying to find as many projects as we can for as long as we can to make sure that those guys keep a roof over their heads,” Alston said.

As a businessman for the past 25 years, he said understands the county’s reasoning for the decision to limit exposure during the coronavirus pandemic, but it has created a host of problems for thousands of people throughout the Salt Lake metro area.

“I see things like the bill that the (U.S.) House, put through to do the paid sick leave and all sorts of great actions, but unfortunately because this is so unprecedented things have been forgotten. All of the restaurant industry staff that is forced to leave get no sick leave protection, because we can’t pay them sick leave because they aren’t sick,” he said.

“There’s just a lot of things the county says and the city says that they’re working to try to find resolutions for, which I completely believe that they’re doing. It’s unfortunate that on a governmentwide basis we’re scrambling to figure out solutions to problems so far after the fact.”

Alston said he could make it about a month or two before things become financially perilous for his business, but he is concerned about the impact on local small enterprises that have limited resources and may not be able to survive if the declaration lasts more than a pay cycle or so.

“There’s a lot of small, small restaurants in town, a lot of restaurants and bars that just opened in the last few weeks that I’m really worried about,” he said. “I have friends that own a restaurant that they’ve already mortgaged their houses and everything just to get the place going, and now they have no access to any funds at this point.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Small Business Administration is working to mitigate some of the financial hardship that has been imposed as a result of the effects of the pandemic. According to Marla Trollan, director of the Utah District office of the U.S. Small Business Association, the agency is preparing to offer small-business owners low-interest disaster loans to help them remain financially solvent during the coronavirus health crisis through the Office of Disaster Assistance.

“Small businesses are already starting to feel the impact of a coronavirus due to the decline in business, which includes closures, lack of travel and tourism, disruptions of supply chains to export markets, employee and staffing issues, social distancing, etc.,” Trollan explained. “As long as they can demonstrate that there is a resolved loss of revenue and economic injury as a result of this virus, then they can basically submit an application for disaster loan to the SBA.”

The loans — up to $2 million — can be used to pay fixed debts, employee payroll, accounts payable and other bills that cannot be paid due to the disaster’s impact. The interest rate for small businesses without credit available elsewhere would be 3.75%, while businesses with other credit available are not eligible. The interest rate for nonprofits would be 2.75%. 

Repayment for the disaster loans can be up to 30 years. Terms are determined on a case-by-case basis, based upon each borrower’s ability to repay, a news release stated.

Information on the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program is available on the agency’s website or at 800-659-2955, while displaced Utah workers should visit the state Department of Workforce Services website.

Contributing: Katie McKellar