CLEARWATER — When shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Edward Quezada’s restaurant felt the impact especially hard.
Employees in the Executive Center business park mostly began working from home, eliminating most of the regular clientele for Executive Deli & Café. Quezada and his wife, Kellen, dipped into their savings to pay rent. They had to lean on a credit card to buy food to keep take-out orders going.
Then came some help. The City of Clearwater in May launched its Back-to-Business Program, which offered $3,000 in upfront grants for brick-and-mortar businesses and the potential for an additional $2,000 for those who then complete $1,000 worth of professional services training.
“It was a blessing from heaven, it took a burden off our shoulders,” Quezada said.
While dozens of small business owners like Quezada have received city financial assistance through the pandemic, Clearwater’s coronavirus relief program has not reached close to the number of businesses it was created to help.
One month after the application window closed, the program has allocated only about one-fourth of the $4 million set aside for the grants.
A total of 232 businesses have been approved for funds and another 173 have been denied, according to data provided by the city on Tuesday. About 100 applications are still under review. The program is only open to small businesses with fewer than 26 employees.
Economic development and housing director Denise Sanderson said the city did not receive as many applications as expected during the one-week application window that closed May 18. The city also structured its criteria on Pinellas County’s COVID-19 financial assistance program, which excluded most essential businesses from qualifying, except for restaurants.
“We mirrored our criteria after the county’s program because we wanted to have less confusion in the marketplace, but there are unintended consequences,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson said the intention is to grant all $4 million by the end of the year. She expects to discuss the program with the council in July and that the city could re-open the application window for denied businesses to try again and to give other businesses a chance to apply for the first time. She said the qualifying criteria could also be relaxed to include previously excluded businesses.
Because of the demand on three staff members to review hundreds of applications, the city has also not yet referred any of the approved businesses to outside professional development services, delaying the additional $2,000 they are eligible to receive upon completion of that training. That has also impacted home-based businesses, which are not eligible for the up-front grants offered to brick-and-mortar businesses but can receive up to $1,000 of professional services and $2,000 upon completion of that training.
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“We can hear it in their voices and see it in their emails. They are really struggling and they really need some help, and it’s heartbreaking when we have to look at our funding restrictions and say ‘we can’t do this,’” Sanderson said.
Maibel Hernandez, owner of Dollar Store Plus on Drew Street, hoped to use the city grant to pay her rent and utilities.
Hernandez said revenue at times has slowed to a halt over the past few months. But because her business is considered essential, her application for the city grant was denied.
“We’re worried about what we’re going to do, what is next, because everybody is losing their jobs so they don’t come to the store to shop,” Hernandez said. “Rent never stops, bills don’t stop, we still have to keep the electricity on, the AC running, everything.”
Even though Gulf Rental Car did not rent out a car for more than two months, the business didn’t qualify for the city’s grant program because it is also considered essential. Manager Rita Gianfilippo said she was hoping to use the city grant to cover insurance, which still has to be paid even when cars are not on the road.
“It seemed like things were going to pick up, because repeat customers were scheduling their summer vacations, but now that is being cut back to with the rise in cases,” Gianfilippo said. “Things were looking better, but now I really don’t know.”
But for Mary Ciezczak, owner of Floridian Inn on Clearwater Beach, the grant came through at a perfect time.
This week, only two of her 30 units were booked as tourists have canceled plans for what is typically a busy month.
The $3,000 in quick-relief helped pay her mortgage and give hope for the future.
“We were paying bills and praying for a miracle,” Ciezczak said. “So this shined a little bit of light that we needed.”
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