When the U.S. Treasury released its list of jurisdictions that would be getting money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, someone had to tell the Greenville County Council that the county was on it.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, I think I saw you guys on a website,’” said Council Chairman Butch Kirven. “We looked and printed out the list, and sure enough, there we were.”
Along with the listing was the amount of money the county would be receiving to help recharge its COVID-choked small business economy – $91.4 million.
“We had to scramble around a little bit to find out more about it,” Kirven said. “Were they going to send us a check? A debit card? What [were] the guidelines were going to be?”
Greenville got the money because it has a population above 500,000, the minimum-population area to which CARES funding is going. It was the only jurisdiction in South Carolina to get it.
The money itself comes with a few strict rules that, essentially, boil down to what it can be spent on – small business, nonprofits, veterans’ organizations, and tribal businesses – and what it cannot be spent on – tax relief, government services, and large businesses.
But past those restrictions, it is up to county officials to figure out where and how the money will be best put to use. Officials are working on how to do that. In a statement, county spokesman Bob Mihalic wrote:
“Greenville County staff has been diligently working on a plan that will support our community while adhering to the strict federal guidelines for use of the CARES money. Greenville County Council has stated that not a dime of this money is going anywhere until a plan is approved by County Council through an open process. County Council is fully aware that many questions remain before they can determine and agree on how the funds will be used for the intended purposes. Recommendations will be made shortly. Those recommendations will be shared in an open, public meeting.”
No date for that meeting has been set yet, mainly because county officials want to make sure they know exactly what they want to do with the money first, Kirven said.
“We take this very seriously,” he said. “It’s a great responsibility for our county to have this fund, and we really want to make sure that we do it right with maximum input from the citizens.”
Kirven added that the council wants to make sure the distribution of the funds “makes the difference between survival or not surviving, especially in the case of a lot of small businesses.”
While county officials don’t yet know exactly what disbursement will look like, Kirven says they do know it will concentrate mainly on rejuvenating small businesses in a way that allows them to recoup lost costs associated with the pandemic.
Those lost costs have been significant. In a survey of 330-plus businesses by the Greenville Chamber of Commerce – which is helping the County Council get a better read on what the business community is facing – small business owners reported a 45 percent drop in gross income in April. That’s actually better than projections, which were closer to 47 percent.
Also, the survey found that while half the businesses that responded said they had received PPP funding, one business in five had applied for it (or EIDL loans) but had not received any money. (See a larger breakdown of the Greenville Chamber’s May numbers at the bottom of this story.)
Nonprofits are another sector set to get a sizable share of the CARES funding. Megan Barp, executive director of the United Way of Greenville, said that the bite COVID-19 has taken out of the county’s nonprofits has been enormous.
“Nonprofits, on our best day, when we’re not in a global pandemic, are operating on a shoestring,” Barp said. “So COVID has had an impact that’s been huge. We’re still trying to figure it out.”
For perspective, The United Way did its own survey of nonprofits. About 500 exist in Greenville County and 54 responded to the United Way survey, Barp said. But the numbers are telling: More than $1 million already spent on COVID-related efforts; as much as another $3 million expected to be spent by year’s end.
In-house, Barp said the United Way’s 2-1-1 helpline has seen an 860 percent increase in calls compared to this time last year. On an average day before the pandemic, she said, Greenville’s nonprofits collectively answered about 60,000 calls a day.
“That number has ballooned,” she said.
Kirven said he and the rest of the County Council are taking in a lot of information from a lot of sources, but that the council will not make a move until it knows which one its making.
He is sure, however, that having to cope with a pandemic that has changed so much so suddenly has prepared the council to handle something like this again.
“We will take a lot of lessons from this,” he said.
That could mean helping find ways for businesses to operate safely in the future and have protocols in place to deal with the light switch effect with which the coronavirus pandemic caught us all off guard at its outset. But he’s already encouraged how businesses and healthcare centers mobilized so quickly to prepare for something that – he’s glad to say – did not materialize as badly as was feared.
Kirven said the CARES money will predominantly be used to help businesses operate better, but might include small allotments for county services or to help businesses enforce or monitor safe practices. But that is not something he wants.
“We’re going to try to avoid that,” he said. “We want as much money to go to the people who need it, out in the public, not to the government. But we do have considerations, like this building.”
He’s referring to the building that houses the council chambers, a labyrinthine former mall off I-385 where anyone can pop out of any of dozens of doors at any moment, and where the council traditionally holds its meetings in a closed-off room full of dozens of plush seats.
“When we go back to having open council meetings,” he said, “what’s going to be required as far as sanitizing those surfaces and those chairs and those places? Are we going to have to provide overflow capacity? Are we going to have to upgrade our telecommunications?”
That would be for webcast meetings, which the council has been conducting since April. Kirven said the council meetings are better attended online than they were in person before the outbreak, and that kind of detail might factor its way into how the county ultimately parcels out that surprise funding.
Results of the Greenville Chamber’s May Small Business Survey:
- Results demonstrated improvement in overall sentiment over April.
While 31 percent of businesses are worried about the impact of Covid-19 and staying in business, this is a marked improvement over the April survey results where 39 percent reported concern.
- While still improving over the previous month, almost 1 in 2 woman and minority-owned businesses are worried about impacts and staying in business.
49 percent of woman and minority-owned businesses reported being worried about impacts and staying in businesses, compared to the overall average of 31 percent.
- Reported gross income was reduced by 45 percent in April.
While slightly better than expected (businesses reported a projection of 47 percent reduction for April) businesses continue to report being significantly impacted year-over-year. Businesses reported an expected revenue reduction for May of 43 percent from May 2019.
- Businesses have taken a variety of actions to reduce financial strain.
Nearly 50 percent of participants have received PPP funds. 1 in 3 businesses have reduced their workforce while 1 in 5 have requested property or loan deferral or adjustments.
- Nearly 20 percent of businesses have applied for, but not yet received, federal funding.
1 in 5 businesses have applied for but have not yet received PPP and EIDL loans.
- As businesses reopen, safety is the number one concern.
Proving a safe environment for employees and customers topped the list, with 62 percent of businesses reporting this as a concern. Nearly 50 percent cited customers not returning as a concern. Other top responses included liability, Covid-19 testing and access to childcare.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan