Riverside County supervisors Tuesday approved the establishment of an assistance program that will provide $45 million in grants to help small businesses cover overhead and other costs resulting from the public health orders that shut them down amid the coronavirus emergency.

“We have to take what we can get and give it out as quickly as we can,” Supervisor Karen Spiegel said ahead of the 5-0 vote in favor of the Small Business Assistance Grant Program, which relies on an allotment from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security — CARES — Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in March.

The county received a total $431,091,226 in CARES funding, and the business assistance program is a permissible expense as part of that disbursal.

Small businesses are defined as those with 50 or less employees, and according to the county Economic Development Agency, there are 64,000 such enterprises countywide.

The program will provide a maximum $10,000 per grant recipient — and only 4,500 will be selected because of the funding cap, officials said.

The program’s guidelines specify that nonprofits are not among those who can qualify for funds, and applicants that have received prior Small Business Administration relief loans tied to the health emergency, or that have accessed funding streams via the Paycheck Protection Plan also set up to address the economic impacts, are not eligible to apply for a grant, which does not have to be repaid.

What’s more, businesses must have been in operation a minimum of one year to qualify.

Spiegel said the grant money can be used for a host of expenses, including capital investments, employee retention and purchasing health care equipment.

The board designated Oakland-based Main Street Launch, a nonprofit that specializes in handling micro and other lending programs to promote economic development, as the manager of the Small Business Assistance Grant Program.

EDA Director Susan Holland had originally proposed a 10-day window for business operators to apply for grants, but Supervisors Kevin Jeffries and Jeff Hewitt both disliked the narrow application period.

“Ten days is a really fast turnaround time for businesses to get to work on this and fill out applications. We don’t require that of anybody,” Jeffries said.

Hewitt said he did not feel mom and pop operations would be able to work sufficiently fast to apply.

“There are businesses who might not get the message and need longer to do the paperwork,” he said. “They might need an extra period of time because they’re slower like me. Right now, it’s like the Oklahoma Sooners, where we open up, and everybody runs out there to make a claim.”

Jeffries also expressed concerns about turning the entire vetting process over to Main Street Launch.

“How do we make sure the good ole boys who are well-connected in the county are not funded first?” the supervisor wondered. “This scenario seems like we’re just letting $45 million go out the door, and then we’ll look at it some other day.”

Holland assured him that Main Street Launch would be employing a “random” selection method, adhering to basic criteria that EDA had put in place. She also said regional chambers of commerce and business organizations were being made aware of the program and the availability of the grants.

The county’s recently formed Economic Recovery Task Force, comprised of private interests and members of merchant advocacy organizations, is additionally out front, spreading the word, Holland said.

In order to ensure adequate time for proprietors to complete and submit applications, the board modified the 10-day window and extended the period for paperwork to be filed to June 19, effectively doubling the size of the window.

According to Spiegel, 96% of the county’s commercial operations fall into the small business category.

More information about the new program is available at www.rivcobizhelp.org.

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