The Bank of Eastern Oregon helped 33 Grant County small businesses secure loans through the Paycheck Protection Program last week before the funds ran dry. This includes five additional businesses outside of the county with ties to the area. Congress appeared to reach a deal to extend the program Tuesday, but the details were not finalized before press time.

The forgivable loan, established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, is designed to support small businesses to maintain their payroll and some overhead expenses through the period of emergency. The purpose of the program is to keep workers employed during the crisis.

Bob Quinton, a commercial loan officer with the Bank of Eastern Oregon, said the PPP loans are for small businesses with less than 500 people. Companies who maintain or rehire staff can have the loan wholly forgiven if they spend 75% of the money on payroll and the remaining 25% on rent, utilities and other operating expenses.

Quinton said the Bank of Eastern Oregon received about 44 applications, and at one point, the online SBA portal was completely inundated.

He said in the past 14 days, according to his SBA representative, the SBA processed more loans than it had previously handled the past 14 years combined.

“It’s been overwhelming,” Quinton said.

He said some business owners were hesitant because of the lack of details and the ever-changing terms of the loan process.

“There were so many questions and not enough places to get answers,” Quinton said.

Meanwhile, business owners in Grant County remain in limbo as Congress hammers out the details of both the PPP program and opening up the economy.

Shawn Duncan, the owner of the Squeeze In Restaurant and Deck, said that she applied for the PPP loan through both Umpqua Bank and U.S. Bank. She said she never heard back from Umpqua, and U.S. Bank said the SBA stopped accepting applications.

Duncan said she temporarily closed to keep her staff and customers safe. She said she is concerned that easing the coronavirus restrictions too quickly could have unintended consequences for a community like Grant County, with 30.4% of its population 65 and older.

She said her kitchen is small and is not sure how employees will maintain proper social distancing.

Squeeze In kitchen manager Desi Burrill, who during the closure painted the kitchen at the restaurant, said she would like to see the state take its time in easing restrictions.

Squeeze In employee Stephanie D’Angelo said she is immunocompromised and that she needs to be careful when the social distancing directive gets lifted.

Duncan said the closure has been hard, and she misses both customers and staff.

“They are like family,” she said.

Meanwhile, El Cocinero owner Fernando Leal in Prairie City said he wants to open his restaurant next month.

“We need to get back to work,” he said. “This has gone on for too long.”

He said a former employee who helps him with paperwork from time to time helped him fill out an application for the PPP loan, but he said he did not know if he was approved.

Leal said he had to lay off his staff and has been running the restaurant by himself.

Kattie Piazza, the owner of House to Home in John Day, said she applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, what many were calling a grant of up to $10,000, but found mid-process that the loan is based on employees and that she potentially can qualify for $1,000, which barely covers her operating expenses.

Piazza, who is in her fourth year of business, said she has shifted to online sales, even creating a Youtube channel to drive sales.

“I am finding ways to try and be successful in this current environment and honestly praying that it does not last until September,” she said.

She said she is averaging roughly two sales a week, and those have been local sales.

Piazza said more money is going out than is coming in, and she cannot sustain the closure for much longer, two months at best.

“I feel like rural America has been left out “ Piazza said.

Joe Madden, co-owner of the recently-closed Blue Mountain Mini Mart, said he looked into the SBA loans, but realized the qualifications were based off payroll.

Madden said closing the Mini Mart was difficult and it was not an easy decision. He said laying off his longtime manager, Jolene Moulton, was especially hard.

“(Laying off an employee) is actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and one of the worst feelings that there is,” he said. “She had been the lifeline of the business.”

Madden said he and his brother, Jesse, do not know if they can keep Suds Pub in Mt. Vernon or Prairie Pub in Prairie City open. He said they have been trying to keep food from expiring and that alcohol and lottery sales were a significant income stream. He said 100% of the payments to keep the business open are out of pocket.

Madden said he is trying to keep things in perspective and recognize others are going through much worse.

He said his son was sick, and it looked like he might have had the virus, but doctors ruled that out and now he has recovered. Madden said the experience made him much more aware of the public health crisis.

“People are losing loved ones,” he said.

Reporter

Steven Mitchell is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. Contact him at steven@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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