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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Many small businesses who received grants still struggling, fear more hardship this winter

Sherry Stone, owner of Heavenly Special Teas poses for a photo in a dining area decorated for Christmas on Friday, November 20, 2020, at Heavenly Special Teas at 5012 North Market St. in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Despite a lack of customers, Sherri Davey still has fine china out on every table in her tearoom and festive Christmas decorations throughout her shop.

Davey’s teashop, Heavenly Special Teas in Hillyard, has seen a fraction of the business she normally brings in around the holidays, but she has been able to stay open due to a small business grant funded through federal COVID-19 aid. Her $10,000 grant and the $4,000 Paycheck Protection Loan she received is nearly gone and small tea retail sales are not enough to make up for revenue she is losing from COVID-19 restrictions shutting down her tea room.

“It’s devastating for us,” Davey said, “you can’t do takeout, they pay for the experience and there is no compensating for that.”

She said the decorations are out in anticipation of when her most loyal customers, people over the age of 60, can return. She said every day without business or outside help makes that seem less likely. Davey is working on applying for more aid, but like many other businesses across Spokane County, knows that the help available is limited and many businesses are preparing to get through a long winter without it.

“Unless something changes, I don’t know what will happen next year,” Davey said.

Many Spokane-area businesses have received some form of COVID-19 aid, mostly through small business grants administered by Spokane County, the city of Spokane Valley, or the city of Spokane. Spokane County has already sent out about $11 million in federal COVID-19 grants to small businesses with awards ranging from around $2,500 to $10,000. A second $11 million in grants which can be up to $20,000 per business is scheduled to go out later this month.

About 1,340 small businesses and nonprofits have been awarded grant funds through the county program so far. The largest share of grants went to accommodation and food service businesses, about 18%; service sector businesses, about 16%; retail businesses, about 15%; and health care and social assistance businesses, which includes the medical field and child care, which was about 12% of awards.

The remaining grants were split between technical service businesses, construction, arts, entertainment and recreation businesses, real estate businesses, educational services, finance and transportation businesses. The next wave of grant funds scheduled to go out from the county will mostly be for hospitality, restaurants and entertainment businesses.

Some businesses have also received PPP loans from the federal government which can be forgiven if most of the money is used for payroll. Businesses say a significant portion of that money, if not all, is already gone, and most of the remaining aid money available for small businesses expires at the end of the year. At least 160 businesses in Spokane County received PPP loans of more than $1 million, but most small businesses that received a forgivable loan were awarded $50,000 or less according to Small Business Administration data.

Spokane County used more than $22 million of the $90 million it received in federal COVID-19 aid funds in direct grants for small businesses, and smaller communities throughout the programs ran similar, smaller programs. The county has about $12 million remaining in unspent COVID-19 aid, some of which is set aside for the Spokane Regional Health District, but it expires on Dec. 30 unless Congress meets to extend the deadline.

Bill and Mary Ann Van Dinter, owners of Car Emporium of Spokane, a used car dealership located in Spokane Valley, said they have also burned through their $10,000 grant to keep their employees on staff and cover basic expenses.

“It’s taken us 30 years to get the kind of employees we have now, and to lose them, that’s really difficult to even think about,” Bill Van Dinter said.

Mary Ann Van Dinter said even if they are able to get another grant, she anticipates the business won’t recover unless families receive increased unemployment or some sort of direct stimulus again, or a vaccine is widely available. She said there was a noticeable difference in the number of customers between early and late summer, when families had an extra $600 a week and were able to purchase a used vehicle if they needed one, compared to more recently, when many are preparing for a hard winter and have gone into survival mode.

“Without that extra income, people are going to buy food and pay for rent,” Mary Ann Van Dinter said. “They’re not going to buy cars. Cars are a luxury.”

The couple plans to adapt their business over the winter months, potentially turning their dealership into a repair shop to get by until a vaccine is developed. Mary Ann Van Dinter said she doubted the business will be on its feet again until people feel safe to go out and are economically secure.

Bloem Chocolate, Flowers and Paperie, a long-time downtown business that was located in River Park Square at the start of the pandemic, has had to overhaul its business model.

Kathryn Julyan, who co-owns the business with her mother Johanna Julyan, said receiving the grant may have saved their business, which struggled after walk-in traffic downtown dwindled.

“(When we got the grant) my mom called and she was teary-eyed because it’s just been month to month,” Kathryn Julyan said. “We’ve kept three employees and my mom and I have put in hard hours and weren’t receiving anything.”

She said the business, now located in the old Spokane City Hall building on Wall Street, has transformed and now primarily sells flowers online. She said they still have three employees, but they cannot afford to have them all work full time because they are receiving about a third of the business that they had when people walked in and bought flowers and chocolates in person.

She said they are working on applying for more aid but are worried about winter, when many of the programs that are currently available for businesses are scheduled to dry up.

Phuong Cox, owner of Super Nails in Spokane Valley which received a $2,500 grant, said the influx of cash has helped her cover rent and payroll, but the lack of customers and child care availability make it difficult to turn a profit. She said even if she received another larger grant, she likely would still struggle because the vast majority of her customers and a few of her workers can’t afford to come back.

She said one of her employees who she has tried to keep on is sometimes only able to work one day a week if she can work at all because of the lack of affordable child care. She said her own family and many of her customers have taken virus restrictions very seriously, and rarely leave home out of fear of getting sick.

“It’s a very hard time for everybody,” Cox said.

Cox said she’s recently finished paying off missed bills from the first pandemic shut downs, and fears the grant she just received won’t be enough to cover her losses from the second wave.

Both Cox and Davey said they are hoping for more aid from the federal government, in the form of small business grants, or forgivable loans, but also direct stimulus to individuals as well. Davey said she is nervous going into the new year that she might not be able to make it, and Hillyard could lose an anchor business. She said she is applying for more grants, but fears that hers, and other businesses that are still operating at a loss after nine months of restrictions may only receive piecemeal assistance, or be cut out entirely because they’ve accepted help before.

“It’s frustrating, they’re putting a Band-Aid on a waterfall of problems,” Davey said. “We appreciate the Band-Aids, but we need more, not just one and done.”