SALT LAKE CITY — As statewide guidelines to prevent the coronavirus health crisis from spreading continue, civic leaders are working to implement efforts to keep small businesses afloat.

A panel hand-picked by Gov. Gary Herbert is putting a plan into action in hopes of prolonging the survival of local enterprises hit hard by the economic fallout of social distancing and Utah’s “stay home, stay safe” directive. The Economic Response Task Force was created to help businesses to remain economically engaged while supporting the state’s urgent response efforts to the coronavirus, Herbert said.

Herbert last week announced the Utah Leads Together economic response plan and its three phases of response — urgent, stabilization, and recovery — devised to help businesses balance the health of employees with the planning essentials necessary for ongoing operations.

“We identified as a task force, the very real and very urgent need to help these small businesses as much as possible navigate what can sometimes be a confusing process,” said Derek Miller, head of the governor’s Economic Response Task Force. He noted that the three phases are driven “almost exclusively by our response to and how well we are successful at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.”

He said the first phase seeks to consolidate and communicate resources that exist for businesses dealing with COVID-19, and out of that came the business section of the website. The second objective is to identify, assess and make policy recommendations to the governor.

“One of those policy recommendations, by the way, was the creation of this bridge loan program announced (by the governor on Monday),” he said. “The third objective was creating this economic response plan, which is now what is known as the Utah Leads Together plan.”

Herbert announced the Utah Leads Together Small Business Bridge Loan program to help Utah’s for-profit businesses with 50 or fewer employees obtain up to five-year, zero interest loans from $5,000 to $20,000.

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development will oversee the program using $8 million in “repurposed state economic development funds,” along with $500,000 from the Utah Department of Workforce Services and money from the state’s Industrial Assistance Account.

Additionally, Miller said the task force has created three ways to provide assistance to small businesses. The first is to work with the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis at the University of Utah to conduct virtual forums hosted by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.

“We think this will be the way to reach the most businesses, the broadest approach through these (online) seminars, which will not just be live, but they’ll also be recorded so they’ll be made available to any business (on demand),” he explained. “(Leavitt) is going to talk broadly about how any business should approach dealing with a pandemic, but then subsequent seminars will be industry-focused and very technically focused.”

The second support effort is the creation of a working group within the economic task force to develop a list of frequently asked questions to be posted on the website.

“So rather than having to go to an SBA website and trying to sort out the process, we’ve created a link to step-by-step guides of how you go through the process,” Miller said.

The third step is making sure businesses know all the options lenders have that can help them through the SBA loan application process, he said.

“So whether that’s a bank or credit union. We are working with the industry groups, the Utah Bankers Association, the credit union association, so that (businesses) will have the guidance that they need,” he added.

Nationally, unemployment claims are at historic levels and enterprises are struggling to endure what could be a prolonged financial hardship.

Last week, Congress passed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, aimed at providing assistance to businesses and citizens during the COVID-19 crisis. For the first time, the package extended unemployment benefits to include independent contractors, such as gig economy workers, as well as part-time employees and those who are self-employed, who had previously been excluded.

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In addition to the federal stimulus package, the state has developed its own effort to mitigate the effects of lost revenue at thousands of Utah businesses.

Miller said for the plan to work, everyone — businesses and individuals — will have to heed the advice of health experts who better understand how to “flatten the curve” by limiting the spread and impact of the outbreak.

“What they tell us now is that we think will start to get to the apex around mid-April and will start to come down towards the end of April,” he said. “But that’s if we do things right. That’s if we as individuals, as households and as businesses, are diligent and strict in adhering to the guidance that has been given.”

“The next two weeks is critical,” he added. “We’ll know in two weeks whether or not we’re hitting the top of that curve and whether we’re starting to get on the other side.”

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