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Small businesses say they could run out of money before federal loans come through

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Some entrepreneurs hurt by the coronavirus shutdown say they're facing delays tapping emergency loans from the Small Business Administration, even as the White House calls for billions more in funding for small businesses.

The SBA announced a coronavirus disaster loan program Thursday, offering up to $2 million per business to help small firms overcome the loss of revenue amid the health crisis.

SBA cautioned at the time that each state must seek and receive a disaster declaration from the SBA before the agency can start lending in that state. Entrepreneurs say that process, required by law, is holding things up.

The dire straits some businesses are facing underscore how close to the bone many entrepreneurs function. A few days' delay wouldn't matter to a large corporation, but one can make or break a small business, they said.

"People are still taking bills out of my account and I don't have money coming in," said Jason Smith, who employs seven people at M&M Car Care Center in Merrillville, Indiana. "It's going to get tight really quick."

Smith said his wife called the SBA on Monday after hearing about the loan program. She was on hold for an hour and forty minutes before getting disconnected, he said.

The couple also tried the SBA website. At first the site "crashed," Smith said. Later that day he accessed the site and found that Indiana hadn't yet been granted the disaster zone status.

Smith says he's not pointing fingers. "I understand there's a lot of turmoil going on, with people trying to figure out what to do," he said. He estimates that he needs about $50,000 to be able to pay his bills and employees for the next several months.

The SBA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. On Tuesday, the agency said it was easing the program requirements to enable states to receive emergency declarations faster.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, announced Wednesday that the state had requested a disaster declaration from the SBA.

The Trump administration is working with congressional Republicans on an emergency stimulus package that would devote an additional $300 billion toward helping small businesses avoid mass layoffs, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. It wasn't immediately clear whether the SBA would play a role in that lending.

Small businesses employing fewer than 500 people contributed about 44% of the country's gross domestic product and employed about 48% of the workforce in 2014, according to the SBA and the Census Bureau. Businesses with fewer than 20 workers employed 18% of American workers that year.

Calls to protect small business are growing more urgent as signs of layoffs grow around the country.

Mary McNamara, owner of Mountainside Mercantile, an antiques store in Kodak, Tennessee, said she wasn't yet eligible for an SBA loan, because her state had not received a disaster declaration when she checked Wednesday morning.

"My family has been in business since 1955," she told The Post. "Our storefront is tied to the tourism seasons in the Smoky Mountains. March is when we see an uptick in sales, after weathering the lean winter months. With pretty much everything closed here until at least early May, there is a significant possibility our family will lose our business."

"Our landlords have never been willing to accommodate us in the past, so we are fairly certain they won't now," McNamara said.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, said Wednesday he had requested the disaster declaration.

Some firms won't qualify for the SBA loans. "A business owner would probably have to show they were running a successful business before coronavirus. This is definitely not just throwing money at a problem," said Chris Hurn, chief executive of small-business lender Fountainhead Commercial Capital, who is familiar with SBA requirements.

Help is cropping up in other quarters. Facebook this week said it would distribute $100 million in grants to help small businesses hurt by the health crisis.

Tim Watson, owner of a charter-bus company in Endicott, New York, said he was unable to apply for the SBA loans as of Wednesday afternoon because New York hasn't received a statewide disaster declaration. State officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Watson's company employed 30 people until he laid off many of his drivers a few weeks ago, after all of his customers canceled planned trips.

"We have bus payments, insurance payments, mortgage payments," Watson said. "We're looking at all of our expenses and looking at zero cash flow. We haven't even started an engine in probably a week."

"We're not looking for the bailout the airlines or cruise industry are looking for. . . .We're just looking for some kind of alternative to bankruptcy," he said.

In the 70 years his family-owned business has existed, money has always been tight, he said, calling that the nature of small business.

"If everything went perfectly all the time it wouldn't be running as closely as that. But then a transmission goes out or something happens and all your budgeting goes out the window," he said. "You do depend on next week's business to pay this week's bills."

Smith said the same is true of his auto-repair business in Indiana. He has far less buying power for auto parts than chain stores do, making his costs much higher, he said.

He also provides health insurance for his employees, covering 100% of the cost, he said. A few months ago, he opened his second auto-repair shop, making the timing of the crisis particularly bad.

On Wednesday, Smith bought lunch for his staff from a local restaurant that's also fallen on hard times. "Everyone is just trying to help everyone out," he said.

Customers have mostly stopped coming into his shops, and those who do stand six feet away from the counter, Smith said. "The phone's not ringing. People are scared," he said.

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