RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Help is coming for thousands of small businesses waiting in a backlog for coronavirus grant funding in Virginia but it may take months to get it.
It comes as some industries argue existing relief programs have largely left them behind. Some are calling on the state to expand eligibility for the new pot of funds or set up different avenues for direct aid.
Since the Rebuild Virginia Economic Recovery Fund launched in July 2020, Grant Application Manager Amy Brannan said about 3,000 businesses have been awarded funding that can generally be used to cover payroll, rent, utilities and one-time COVID-19-related expenses.
To date, Brannan said more than 9,000 applications remain in the queue since the program ran out of money before all of them could be processed.
Nina Whittleton, co-owner of Classic Party Rentals of Virginia, has been on the waiting list since August of 2020.
While she received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, her business wasn’t eligible for direct relief programs like the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Over the last 15 months, Whittleton said she has lost roughly $4 million dollars.
“I laid off 33 employees just to make it through. I have three locations and one is still not open. It has devastated us,” Whittleton said. ‘“I’m concerned about this delta variant and I’m very concerned the Governor is going to take social gatherings back down to 10 to 25 people and that will put me out of business.”
Last week, the General Assembly passed a multi-billion dollar spending plan that includes $250 million in additional grant funding for Rebuild Virginia.
“The money that we are putting into this particular budget is more than enough to go ahead and clear that backlog that is out there and then also open us up to a new round of applicants,” said Del. David Bulova (D-Fairfax).
Still, Whittleton fears the maximum grant amount of $100,000 won’t make a dent in her losses as the wedding industry plays catch up with cancellations from 2020.
Further, Whittleton has no idea where she is in the queue, when the money will arrive and if she needs to update her application.
“There has been no communication,” Whittleton said.
It’s frustrations like this that led her and others in the wedding industry to create Virginia’s Organization of Wedding Standards (VOWS) to raise their collective concerns to lawmakers.
“We wanted a voice and we wanted a seat at the decision-making table,” Whittleton said. “This industry has been forgotten.”
The wedding industry isn’t the only one that feels that way.
Under the spending plan passed by state lawmakers, priority for new applications received after June 30, 2021 should be given to businesses in the hospitality and tourism industries, as well as restaurants who have not received federal assistance through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund or the Paycheck Protection Program.
However, according to the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, existing criteria for Rebuild Virginia has left behind several hard-hit hotels.
To be eligible in the past, applicants have had to have 250 or fewer full-time employees and gross revenue of $10 million or less pre-pandemic, among various other requirements.
B. F. Saul Company Hospitality Group President Mark Carrier said those measures have made it impossible for him to apply for relief for the 12 hotels he operates in Northern Virginia, even as they continue to lose money from a lack of business travel.
“One cannot offset the damage done. It has just been so significant. But every dollar that helps us recover is money well invested,” Carrier said.
Carrier is among those pushing the state to expand Rebuild Virginia’s criteria or carve out an exception for hotels on a per-room basis. He said places like Maryland and D.C. are already providing direct aid to the industry.
“To me, it’s stunning that it’s not just ok of course that is what we’re going to do…especially since we’re 18 months into it now,” Carrier said.
Brannan said eligibility for new applications hasn’t been finalized yet.
“We’re working to reach as many small businesses as we can,” Brannan said.
Brannan said there are no plans to immediately reopen the application portal. She would not share their internal timeline for getting through the existing backlog but estimated it would take months.
“Right now there is nothing for applicants to do. They just need to be patient and wait for a member of the team to reach out to them when their application is being reviewed,” Brannan said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian said it’s possible that the General Assembly will allocate more money towards Rebuild Virginia in the 2022 regular session. He said it’s not entirely clear how much will be left over for new applicants since the $250 million in new funding was calculated based on an average of previous awards and approvals.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky sent the following statement:
Governor Northam is proud to have dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to small business relief over the last year. We know the need is great, and unfortunately funds ran out in January. We were pleased to work with the General Assembly to invest $250M in small business relief in this latest session, ensuring the full pipeline of applicants will be processed as soon as possible.