State unveils grants for small businesses affected by COVID-19

Restaurants, retail and hospitality operations employing 20 or fewer targeted for $75M initiative

Hundred-dollar bills
Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

After 19 years of growth, including an expansion that grew their workforce to about 50 people, LuLu Café & Bar in Milwaukee hit a wall when COVID-19 came to Wisconsin.

“We were open seven days a week for lunch and dinner,” says Cameryne Roberts, who co-owns the establishment with Sarah Jonas. “Since the whole shutdown, we’ve just been doing carryout and curbside pickup,” and cut hours to Wednesday through Sunday from 3 to 8 p.m. “Our business is down about 76%.”

Lulu did qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the federal government through the Small Business Administration, part of the federal relief legislation passed in March. But the application process was cumbersome and confusing at times. Roberts and Jonas had to wait for the second round of funding because the first round went so quickly. Now they’re studying the restrictions on how the money is spent in order to make sure they can meet the required terms for not having to pay back the loan.

“There’s all these conditions to get it forgiven, so we’re trying to be really careful not to screw that up,” Roberts says.

Small businesses have been hard hit in the pandemic. Many didn’t qualify as “essential” under the original state Safer at Home order that took effect March 25 and was extended until the state Supreme Court nullified it on May 13.

On Monday, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) announced a $75 million grant program to help up to about 30,000 small businesses with 20 or fewer full-time employees or the equivalent recover from having shut down during the Safer at Home order, and also to encourage them to implement measures to preserve public health as they resume operations.

The program is “a comprehensive effort to celebrate and help Wisconsin small businesses get back on their feet and support best practices to keep businesses, consumers, employees and communities safe,” said Gov. Tony Evers at the Monday afternoon media briefing by the state Department of Health Services (DHS). It will funded from Wisconsin’s allocation through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

‘We’re All In’

Dubbed the “We’re All In” initiative, the program will provide grants of $2,500 to qualifying small businesses that have been affected by COVID-19 and haven’t already gotten aid from the WEDC. Details of the plan will be rolled out next month.

Along with the plan, the state through the Department of Children and Families, is setting up a $51 million CARES-funded program to support childcare programs and centers. “Childcare availability, affordability and quality plays a critical role in a healthy economy,” Evers said.

Missy Hughes, WEDC CEO and secretary-designee, said the “We’re All In” program will focus on restaurant, retail and hospitality businesses that had to shut down as a result of Safer at Home.

Hughes said the plan “is asking businesses to commit to keeping their employees and their customers and their communities safe” in return for the grant, which would be used for costs including payroll as well as reworking workspaces to accommodate physical distancing practices such as ensuring people stand 6 feet apart and other safety measures, among other expenses.

New WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes (Photo contributed)

WEDC has published guidelines on what businesses can do to open up safely as part of the Badger Bounce Back plan, which DHS, the governor’s office and WEDC had offered as a step-by-step road map for moving out of the Safer at Home order before the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the order.  Those guidelines remain, but are being framed as “best practice.”

“There’s not a requirement to comply with the Badger Bounce Back plan” to qualify for the “We’re All In” grants, Hughes said. But businesses should watch the metrics posted by DHS on hospital use, COVID-19 infection and death rates, and related information “in order to make the best choices for their communities and their employees and their customers,” she continued. “Our hope is that everyone will work together to assure that we continue to stop the spread of COVID-19, because that’s going to be critical for the recovery of the economy. If we have to step back, if we have surges or hotspots [of the illness], that’s going to undermine worker confidence and consumer confidence.”

If customers at a business feel unsafe because they don’t see proprietors enforcing physical distancing or requiring other safety measures, such as wearing cloth masks to limit the spread of the virus, Evers said, “then they should not participate in shopping at that store.”

The governor said Monday his office has no plans to resume an attempt to propose an administrative rule that would replace the Safer at Home order that the Supreme Court overturned.

The 4-3 court ruling, on a lawsuit brought by Republican leaders in the state Legislature, asserted that the order had to follow the procedures required for an administrative rule in which legislative input is required. After the ruling last week, DHS submitted a scope statement, the first step in proposing a rule, but GOP leaders signaled they would not accept it.

Evers rejected the suggestion that his administration was “giving up” on the rule proposal.

“The Republicans made it very clear that they don’t believe a statewide approach is the right way to go at this point in time, and they also don’t believe that any restrictions are advisable at this time,” Evers said. “And they rejected our scope statement  So given that, it just doesn’t make any sense to spend a lot of time doing something that we know isn’t going to be successful.”

Evers said his office was willing to discuss other matters with lawmakers.

“We’ll continue to meet and talk about different things,” he said. “But as it relates to the rulemaking process, it’s not worth our time. We already know where they stand, and they control that process.”

Dane County business order

Meanwhile on Monday, Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) announced its own reopening order for business that bears some similarity to the original Badger Bounce Back plan before the DHS Safer at Home order’s cancellation. 

Forward Dane employs metrics and a timetable similar to what  was envisioned in Badger Bounce Back and Safer at Home, said PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich. After the Supreme Court ruling throwing out Safer at Home, Heinrich last week issued a health order echoing its requirements for the county.

Under Forward Dane, the county will track progress in reducing COVID-19 infections; expanding testing, contact tracing and containment of infections; and ensuring adequate healthcare system capacity. The order takes effect Tuesday, May 19.

The order sets requirements for businesses and other organizations over a series of four reopening phases. Each phase is to last at least two weeks — the amount of time it takes for a COVID-19 infection to incubate, PHMDC said in a statement. 

The new order initially removes travel restrictions, opens tennis courts and disc golf courses with restrictions, permits all businesses to perform minimum operations that help prepare for a safe reopening, imposes requirements for cleaning, hygiene and other protections business must follow to reopen, and eliminates criminal penalties for violating the order.