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Utah small businesses struggling to access funds amid COVID crisis

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City Weekly newspaper founder John Saltas talks with art director Derek Carlisle while in the newspaper’s Salt Lake City offices on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Carlisle comes into the office a couple hours a week while most staff members are working from home due to COVID-19.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah employers statewide are being forced to make hard choices in order to remain in business in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and while the federal government has worked to make financial resources available in the form of low-interest loans and some grants, accessing those funds has proved challenging for many local business owners.

“I did apply for this state bridge loan and received a form letter saying that I had been missing some parts of my application,” said Utah restaurateur Heather Santi. “And after asking around to my friends (in the restaurant business), we all received that same letter, even though my accountant put together my application.”

She also applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans through her banks and was approved.

“I’m pretty excited to get that funding,” she said. “I spoke with my banker (and) he says the communication between the federal government and the banks themselves is really slow, which is holding up these small businesses getting the funding even though they’ve been approved for the loan.”

Santi said that hold up is creating even more problems for her and other local businesses in immediate need of that funding. She runs establishments in Millcreek and in Logan. For the Cache County location, she uses a small, locally owned bank that she says has been much more accommodating during the current circumstances than the large national institution she works with for her Salt Lake area location.

“I bank with a small city bank called Cache Valley Bank. It’s owned by a local family in Logan ... and they have been a godsend through this COVID-19 for me,” Santi said. “They reached out to me and said, ‘Heather, get us your application as quickly as you can so that when this loan opens we can get you funded.’”

She said the bank has also checked in on her and patronized her business during the coronavirus crisis.

“They’ve ordered takeout for every single branch from my restaurant. That’s 85 people that they’ve allowed me to get lunch for, which I thought was such a blessing,” she said.

Contrarily, the major national institution she banks with in Salt Lake has been unresponsive.

“I have not heard from them. I have not had any information,” she said. “I went to their homepage. They have just generic information, but it’s not personable.”

For John Saltas, founder of Salt Lake City Weekly and who also organizes events and festivals in the West, the story of finding financial help has been equally difficult.

“We’ve made all the applications that were available to us. (Salt Lake City) put up, I think, a million dollar fund (but) we’ll get none of that,” he said. “The state put up $8 million (with) $2 million of it dedicated to rural Utah. And we did hear back from them (and) we’ll get a small amount from the state which we’re very grateful to receive.”

As for the Paycheck Protection Program, when the business’ bank finally did begin accepting applications, they were able to submit one, but haven’t heard back yet, he said.

Both Santi and Saltas have had to lay off employees due to dwindling revenue.

“We just had our first round of furloughs and reduction of force. That’s something we’ve never done in our history, pretty much,” Saltas said. “Even despite all the other times with the newspaper crises and all that kind of stuff, we didn’t. So it’s very painful.”

The business owners are hoping federal funding eventually comes through and allows them to remain viable for the time being, but they are both very concerned about what the future holds for themselves and other area businesses fighting the current economic battle.

“I hope for myself and my fellow restaurateurs that people still come out and support us because we need you. We need your business. We need to support each other during these times,” Santi said. “My family and I were trying to eat out at least every other day, we try and go get takeout so that we’re still putting our money into the economy where it needs to be.”

Last week, the Utah Independent Business Coalition — comprised of more than 300 Utah business owners and supporters — submitted a proclamation requesting relief for small businesses in Utah, calling on the governor and state leaders to “help fill in any gaps in funding from COVID-19 relief packages offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) or other federal agencies,” especially non-loan remedies to avoid piling on top of businesses’ existing debt. The letter said the relief could include financial assistance, deferred sales tax payments, grants or other legislation that would support independently owned enterprises.

Saltas also implored local leaders to work on developing plans that will help businesses remain viable through this crisis.

“We think the local, state, county and city governments need to really step up here in a huge way. It’s nice to say ‘we’re all in this together.’ But we’re not,” he said. “There’s certain segments of this community that are getting hit 10 times harder than anybody else. And when I hear from a government person saying, ‘We’re all in this together,’ it’s like, ‘Hey, shut up!’ You’re still getting paid by me paying taxes and you have health insurance. You’ve never had to look somebody in the eye and say, ‘Hey, you’re out of here.’ These are not people that are with us, unless they start paying with us.”

“They’ve got to come up with the proper way to help these clubs, restaurants and event people get back in business. Help the massage (therapist), help the tattoo guy, help the barbers,” Saltas said. “The absolute lifeblood of this community is the small business community.”