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‘I am pretty pessimistic’: Small business owners worry coronavirus relief may come too late

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The economic peril from the coronavirus is growing more stark every day, and the $2 trillion stimulus may not deliver a rescue in time for the many small businesses and families who lack the cash to stay afloat for more than a week or two.

Many businesses shut their doors either for a lack of customers or on orders from state or local governments as emergency declarations began rolling across the country in mid-March,. Yet it could be weeks more before the business loans, bigger unemployment checks and direct payments to individuals from the stimulus plan flow into the economy.

Read more: SBA small-business loans: 8 things to know about the Paycheck Protection Program

And there is no quick escape. President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that guidelines to maintain social distancing would remain in place at least until the end of April.

Small businesses account for almost half of U.S. private employment. A complete collapse of even some of those enterprises not only would dash the dreams of entrepreneurs and threaten the livelihoods of many, it risks sapping the power of an eventual economic rebound as the financial distress ripples through to landlords, vendors and lenders.

Time’s running out

Greg Jones, 36, said he and his wife, Angela, who own the Synergy Fitness gym in Amherst, New York, near Buffalo, already have had to dip into their retirement savings. He isn’t holding out much hope for the relief package.

“I am pretty pessimistic on it actually benefiting us,” Jones said. “In my opinion, it’s going to be too late.”

Even after laying off all seven of his employees, Jones figures he has at most a month left before he won’t have enough capital to restart his business, after meeting his family’s personal expenses and the business’s rent, utilities, and equipment loan payments.

Already, 50,000 retail stores have shut in just over a week across the country, putting more than 600,000 workers on furlough, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Read more: Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers during the coronavirus pandemic

Last week, the Labor Department reported a record 3.3 million people filed unemployment insurance claims in the previous week, and economists forecast that will be topped by 3.5 million more making claims when new data is released on Thursday.

Andrew Metrick, a Yale University finance professor, said quickly distributing the relief in the coronavirus aid package to get money in the hands of small businesses in time to keep them viable will be a challenge for the system.

“There’s a fair amount of money,” Metrick added. “But ultimately we have capacity problems getting the money into the hands of the small businesses fast enough, without fraud or bad actors effectively figuring out how to siphon money off.”

The White House is dispatching staff to the Small Business Administration as that agency struggles with a flood of requests for financial aid, according to people familiar with the matter. So many people tried to access one SBA loan program last week that the agency’s website failed repeatedly.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin vowed to have the $349 billion small business loan program funded by the coronavirus legislation “up and running” by the end of the week. Yet it may take longer for firms across the country to document they meet requirements and get money from authorized lenders.

Expanded unemployment benefits and direct checks to low- and middle-income families may take longer. Trump indicated the direct checks would go out by April 6, according to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. But during the last recession, it took about two months for those to go out.

Read more: Everything you need to know about stimulus checks being sent to Americans as part of the coronavirus relief bill

Almost half of U.S. small businesses don’t have enough liquid reserves to handle two weeks’ expenses, according to a 2019 JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute study. Four in 10 Americans can’t cover a $400 financial emergency, according to the Federal Reserve.

Rob Snow, president and chief credit officer for Blue Bridge Financial, which services an $85 million portfolio of 1,900 small business loans, said the phones have been “ringing off the hook” with requests for payment deferments.

“The calls we’re getting, they’ve already laid off their staff and they have no reserves left,” Snow said. “These were often our more responsible customers.”

The SBA released a sample form and rules for applying on Tuesday,

The National Federation of Independent Business, had a record 13,000 people register for a webinar it hosted Monday on the stimulus plan and financial resources. The small-business advocacy group’s webinars typically draw 300-500 viewers, according to Elizabeth Milito, the organization’s senior executive counsel.

After the webinar ended, more than 900 emails flooded in, she said, with business owners asking: “Am I going to have anything left? Will I be evicted? Will I have to file for bankruptcy? Will I be able to reopen?”

“The emails almost make me want to cry,” Milito added. “What I’m hearing from members is fear, uncertainty and almost heartbreak.”

Even small business owners with longer lifelines find themselves up against a wall.

“Like most retailers, we pay the bills we got today with the revenue we got yesterday,” said Jerry Akers, who co-owns 27 Great Clips hair salons in Iowa and Nebraska. “It’s a very narrow window for us and we’re stronger than most small businesses.”

His revenue fell between 50-70{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} in the weeks leading up to the closing of all the shops about two weeks ago, he said: “We actually ate up much of our cash reserves during that lessening of the revenue cycle a couple of weeks prior to the shutdown.

“This last week we’ve been working diligently with our banker to keep every single cash reserve dollar we’ve got to take care of things we absolutely have to pay until some of these loan programs become available and we can get cash out of them,” he said. “I’m not a big government-subsidy guy by nature, but right now, that’s our lifeline.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

USPS might have to shutter by June as stimulus package provides no funding
—Everything you need to know about the coronavirus stimulus checks
Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
—Political activists make sure Americans register to vote—from a distance
—During the coronavirus crisis, equal pay is more important than ever
—Coronavirus fight could prove fatal for addressing climate change
—PODCAST: Two health care CEOs on why coronavirus tests and vaccines are the ammunition needed to fight COVID-19
—VIDEO: World leaders and health experts on how to stop the spread of COVID-19

Subscribe to Outbreak, a daily newsletter roundup of stories on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on global business. It’s free to get it in your inbox.

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