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Small businesses press Albany for help amid Covid shutdowns

ALBANY – Small businesses, the backbone of the New York State economy, turned to state lawmakers Wednesday to complain about federal Covid-19 economic response efforts and to urge Albany not to make matters worse through new regulations or laws as the state looks to partially restart sectors of the economy.

From their living rooms and home offices, Senate and Assembly members from both parties took testimony remotely from struggling small business owners from lower Manhattan to upstate. Business owners asserted that the federal stimulus efforts have been unwieldy to navigate and that they wrongly took a one-size-fits-all approach across the nation that did not take into account the high numbers of Covid-19 cases seen in parts of New York.

Small business owners recounted a confusing rollout to the federal Paycheck Protection Program that includes “fiscal suicide” repayment terms for many eligible business owners, according to one Manhattan restaurateur.

Others have been relatively fortunate.

Bob Stark, a partner at CJS Architects in Buffalo, said the PPP loan his firm was quickly granted allowed his company to retain its 30 employees who have relatively seamlessly been able to conduct work remotely.

“If it were not for that, we would be in serious trouble," Stark said of the federal loan.

Others, though, raised assorted concerns, such as a temporary $600 hike in weekly unemployment benefits that will make it difficult to bring back laid off workers when shutdown regulations are rolled back.

Heather Briccetti, president of the Business Council of New York State, said one of the biggest concerns of corporate New York is what she called an unfair distribution formula for distributing federal stimulus money.

“There was no differentiation between states that were hardest hit and those that were not," she said. "New York received a funding allocated based on population with virtually no consideration given to the disproportionate impact that (Covid-19) has had on our state and on our economy."

The range of small business concerns was wide. Some worried that small firms won’t be able to financially compete with large companies to purchase face masks and other personal protective equipment for workers and customers.

Greg Biryla, New York State director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the state’s re-opening plan needs to be fairly implemented and made explicitly clear to small businesses.

“We have seen large, big box retailers able to operate through this entire crisis," Biryla told lawmakers Wednesday. "We have seen small businesses, with very similar operations, not be able to operate while their competitors are continuing to bring in revenue."

The state’s hospitality sector, the third largest industry in New York, has lost 120,000 hotel-related jobs since the Covid-19 pandemic began, according to Mark Dorr, president of the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association.

With eight in 10 hotel rooms empty across the state, Dorr said the economic impact to hotels and others in the hospitality industry has been nine times worse than what was witnessed after 9/11.

The industry executive urged lawmakers to continue to press federal officials for more financial assistance to New York’s businesses.

“We must keep New York’s powerful tourism industry viable to compete with other states for the all-important traveler," Door said in written testimony.

Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association, said in testimony submitted to legislators that the federal PPP loan initiative requires borrowers to spend 75% of loan proceeds on payroll costs eight weeks after receiving funds.

“But how do businesses that are essentially closed now and don’t know when they will be allowed to re-open meet that condition?" said Wexler, who added that restaurants will almost certainly have smaller staffs in initial re-opening periods because of various social distancing orders.

Among the gloomiest of concerns came from the state’s agriculture sector, whose representative, Lauren Williams of the New York Farm Bureau, talked of dairy farmers having to throw away milk because of supply chain disruptions, farms not being able to get enough labor, sharp cuts in sales of products due to restaurant and school closures and livestock sectors slammed by closures of meat processing plants.

“We do not fully know the economic impact of Covid-19 on New York’s agriculture industry, but we do know that it is far reaching and will take months, if not years, to recover," Williams said.

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