Small businesses throughout the city of Riverside struggling to cover their utility bills because of the public health lockdowns can now tap their security deposits with the city to clear overdue or pending invoices.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and it is incumbent upon us to provide assistance where possible,” Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson said. “This common-sense program will help our small business owners make progress on their bills while maintaining the financial integrity of the utility.”

The City Council unanimously approved the deposit withdrawal program on Tuesday. Qualifying businesses have until March 31 to apply to access it. More information is available at riversideca.gov/SBDC.

According to the city, most businesses are required to make deposits when they open their accounts with Riverside Public Utilities. The amounts generally range from $2,500 to $3,000.

The current financial relief program is one of several the city has implemented since last March, when the coronavirus public health emergency was declared citywide. Since then, an unspecified number of businesses have shut down, including two within a block of City Hall downtown.

“This measure builds upon the extraordinary efforts of the Riverside community to come together and provide relief for those most impacted by the effects of COVID-19,” said Councilman Ronaldo Fierro, the program sponsor. “Local relief measures such as these have and will be instrumental towards a successful economic recovery.”

Fierro cited a recent national survey showing that nearly one-third of small business owners indicated they will have no choice but to permanently close this month, unless they receive assistance or are permitted to completely reopen.

The new program requires that a business have fewer than 50 employees, have maintained good payment history for at least three consecutive months — between December 2019 and March 2020 — and demonstrate that the operation has suffered financial losses directly tied to the shutdowns.

Businesses that are exempt from the governor’s stay-at-home executive orders, which define “essential” businesses, cannot apply for the deposit withdrawal program.

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