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Warner says issues with small business relief package getting 'ironed out'

Local small businesses are experiencing issues with applying for federal loans related to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Charlottesville area officials.

On a call Monday, Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner and local officials gave updates and answered questions about the effects of the pandemic and the federal government’s response.

“I think we’re going through what’s going to be some of the toughest next 10 or 12 days, probably that Charlottesville, Virginia and our country have faced,” Warner said, citing economic uncertainty and the number of people with the virus increasing.

The Virginia Department of Health reported Monday that 2,878 people in Virginia have tested positive for COVID-19. The Thomas Jefferson Health District did not report an update in local cases Monday, citing a new data system.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Elizabeth Cromwell and Center for Nonprofit Excellence Executive Director Cristine Nardi all told Warner that local businesses owners and nonprofit directors have had issues with the applications for loans and other federal small business offerings.

“… Many small businesses, including nonprofits, are finding it challenging in accessing the portals, and it’s creating some considerable stress since everyone knows that the money will eventually run out,” Nardi said.

A $2.2 trillion economic relief package was signed into law at the end of March, which includes about $350 billion in loans for companies with 500 employees or fewer.

There are four new temporary U.S. Small Business Administration programs to address the COVID-19 outbreak, in addition to programs set up locally.

Walker, Cromwell and Nardi said, locally, owners are having issues accessing the applications or are not receiving any kind of confirmation once their applications have been submitted, among other things.

Many across the country ran into issues on Friday when the applications opened, according to reporting by the The Associated Press.

Warner said he thinks the bumps in the SBA program are getting “ironed out” and he’s hoping things will start getting better this week.

Nardi said that some lenders for the Paycheck Protection Program are choosing only to work with present customers because of the challenge in putting together the portal, and that some of the area’s smaller nonprofits don’t have an acting banking relationship.

Warner said that the program was supposed to extend to non-traditional banking services, and if that if Nardi continued to find banks unwilling to take on a new client or nonprofit, that would be “disturbing” to him.

“That was not Congress’ intent,” he said. “We want to try to make this as easy as possible, and there’s supposed to be enough origination fees in this to make it worthwhile for the institution to pick up the business.”

University of Virginia President Jim Ryan and Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Dr. K. Craig Kent were also on the call and spoke about the university’s response thus far.

Ryan said there are now fewer than 300 students, down from 7,000, who are living on Grounds, and said the university is now really focusing on the health system, emergency preparedness and the financial impact of the pandemic. The UVa Medical Center opened 15 new beds last week, and plans to increase capacity further in the coming weeks.

He said the next phase of efforts is thinking about what to do for the fall.

“Our hope, obviously, is that we’ll be able to be back to normal for the fall, but it’s honestly too early to tell and we’re now working to identify the date by which we need to make that decision,” Ryan said. “We’d like to push it back as far as possible because we’ll have better information.”

Kent said that the medical center is obtaining equipment to sterilize some health care workers’ face masks so that they’ll be able to be reused. UVa also has set up its own donation spot for PPE and is preparing to move some first responders into residence halls.

The health system also has been enhancing capabilities for telemedicine for patients who don’t feel comfortable coming in but have a condition that needs to be addressed.

“We’ve continued to do surgery on certainly emergent patients, but ones that will be harmed if we delay their surgery over a significant period of time,” he said. “We’ve kept our clinics open to people that have semi-urgent and urgent problems and so our physicians are still at work trying to take care of the needy people that have the healthcare problems that are unrelated to COVID.”

Walker, Cromwell and Nardi also asked about expanding the federal government’s response, such as providing more direct grants to nonprofits, payroll protections for governments and future stimulus payments for Americans, among other things.

Warner said he would be open to another one-time payment for residents, but said he would prefer targeting relief for families that are most affected by lost wages or lost jobs.

“My highest priority though is where we have gaps in this CARES bill and where there are people that are really suffering the most, particularly if we missed them in this CARES package,” he said.

“I would like for you all to consider also payroll protections for governments,” Walker said. “We’re a city and we’re attempting to keep all of our employees employed on payroll, and with revenue decline, and it’s going to be a challenge even for cities to figure that out.”

Warner said there was about $3.3 billion that’s going to states to help with local governments, but more may be needed in the next bill.

Cromwell said she would like to have a plan for reopening the business community and resilience plans, and said she is considering launching an economic recovery leadership council.

“I think that all of our members are busy with … the 10 alarm fire, and what we really need to be looking at as well is what does this economy look like a year from now, and what have we learned through this whole process?” she said “And how can we put some of that learning into action and maybe start some new businesses as a result of you know, the ones that have unfortunately shut down?”

Warner said it’s “disgraceful” how ill-prepared the U.S. was for the pandemic in terms of ability to effectively test for the virus and provide personal protective equipment.

“I think we can’t even get to talking about reopening until we have more adequacy of tests and we have more of that equipment,” he said. “…I do think we need to think afterwards. I think this will have as much an effect on our country, our government as [September 11] had.”


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