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Spokane County uses COVID-19 aid to launch $10.8 million hospitality grant program

Travis Dickinson, co-owner of Cochinito Taqueria, delivers a tray of tacos Monday to a table of customers. Cochinito gets much of its normal business from downtown events, and, since the pandemic, the restaurant has had to reduce its hours and lay people off to get by. Dickinson said a grant could help  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Travis Dickinson, co-owner of Cochinito Taqueria, delivers a tray of tacos Monday to a table of customers. Cochinito gets much of its normal business from downtown events, and, since the pandemic, the restaurant has had to reduce its hours and lay people off to get by. Dickinson said a grant could help (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane County Commissioners voted Monday to use $10.8 million in federal COVID-19 aid funding to set up a hospitality grant program which they hope will help the county’s struggling hotels, restaurants and event venues stay afloat.

The money is a portion of the $90 million the county was allotted in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds. The grant program will offer businesses with 249 employees or fewer up to $20,000 to cover expenses, which is twice what the county’s last grant program awarded individual applicants.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the funding is meant to help the industries hit hardest by the pandemic, especially businesses that haven’t been able to open their doors at all due to state-mandated restrictions.

“What this money was targeted for is sectors that have really, really been hit hard by the coronavirus and the shutdowns,” Kerns said. “These are probably the hardest hit industries that we have in our community.”

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said the commissioners have recently seen several local restaurants close due to challenges caused by the pandemic and she hopes the relief program will stave off more closures and help businesses retain their employees.

“I’m hopeful this can help sustain businesses, and keep them viable,” Kuney said.

The grant will be administered by Greater Spokane Incorporated with the assistance of Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Spokane Partnership, Visit Spokane and the Spokane chapter of the Washington Hospitality Association.

Derek Baziotis, president of the Spokane chapter of the hospitality association, said many businesses across the county have struggled over the last seven months and some worry they won’t be able to cover their basic expenses like rent and utilities through the winter.

“Rent didn’t decrease with our customer base,” he said.

He said several members of the hospitality association have set up outdoor seating to make up for the seats they lost indoors due to the capacity restrictions, but will no longer be able to do so now that cold weather has set in. He said some businesses are already planning to set up tents and heaters to allow people to drink and eat outside, but that takes an investment and many businesses don’t have the space or business model to do that.

Baziotis owns Bene’s, a breakfast and brunch restaurant in Cheney, and said breweries may be able to make outdoor winter service work, but he doesn’t believe his customers will want to eat breakfast outside on a snowy day at 8 a.m. in a tent.

He said the grant funds will likely offer a little relief to businesses that just need a little help covering their costs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the leisure and hospitality industry had an unemployment rate of about 19% as of September. In January, before the pandemic, the industry had an unemployment rate of 5.9%. At the height of the pandemic financial crisis in April, the industry had an unemployment rate of 39.3%.

Travis Dickinson, co-owner of Cochinito Taqueria in downtown Spokane, said this spring he had to lay off around 85% of his staff and experienced a massive reduction in revenue. He said since the state has allowed the restaurant to open its doors, he’s been able to bring back every employee, but most at reduced hours.

He said the restaurant is dependent on concerts and corporate events in downtown Spokane and after those events canceled, business plummeted.

“The shut down – it took a big chunk,” he said. “We’re worried about the holiday season. We’re definitely going to feel it as things cool down and people have more reasons to stay home.”

He said a grant, even if it isn’t the full $20,000, could help cover payroll or the other expenses that aren’t going away as revenue continues to stagnate.

“Knowing that you can at least pay rent and keep the lights on, that (would be) pretty refreshing,” he said.

The hotel industry has also seen large reductions in revenues due to the pandemic and most missed their busiest season, said Julie Cohen, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Spokane and the president of the Spokane Hotel Motel Association.

In April, Cohen said, the Holiday Inn Express lost about 65% of its business and the hotel had to lay off most of the staff.

Since then, she said, she and the housekeeping manager sometimes run the hotel by themselves to keep labor costs down.

She said people have started to travel again, though the numbers are still down compared to last year. She has been able to bring most of the staff back, but many aren’t working the same number of hours they were before the pandemic or have switched jobs as the hotel has adjusted to the number of customers.

She said most hotels in the Spokane area could use assistance going into winter.

“Anything is helpful for our businesses right now,” she said.

Lance Beck, president and CEO of the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the tentative window for grant applications is Nov. 4 through Nov. 16, but that could change.

He said eligibility requirements and instructions would be posted on Greater Spokane Incorporated’s website on Monday. Several webinar events are scheduled for next week to offer more information.

The grant is split into three sections, $10 million will be used for awards, $550,000 will be used to cover the cost of administering the grant, and $250,000 will be used for protective gloves for restaurants. This expenditure leaves the county with around $25 million left in CARES funds. This source of federal funding can be used only on coronavirus -related issues and must be spent by the end of the year or the county will have to return it to the federal government.

Beck said the administration cost is slightly larger than the previous grant because instead advertising to encourage applicants to apply, staff from the different organizations involved will be calling and visiting as many eligible business as possible over a few weeks to encourage them to apply directly. He said the funding’s tight timeline will mean that most organizations involved will need to redirect a significant portion of their staff’s time from their normal duties to build an application, invite people to apply, administer the program and give out awards.

“Time is no longer a luxury for us with the looming deadline of when those funds must be spent,” he said.

Cindy Wendle, a contractor who is working with the county to administer the grant and helped administer the county’s last COVID-19 aid program, said it was designed to help businesses that haven’t been able to open because of pandemic restrictions or have had to open at limited capacity. She said the exact parameters on what businesses are eligible are still being finalized and will likely be released next week.

Monday’s vote doubles the amount of money the county has used for direct relief to businesses and leaves the county with around $25 million to spend on pandemic relief in the county by the end of the year. The county just wrapped up an $11 million grant program which was open to most small businesses and non-profits.

Commissioners also voted to use $135,000 in CARES funding Monday to boost a business relief marketing contract the county has with the Inlander and an additional $2.5 million in food assistance for Second Harvest.

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