PROVIDENCE – While public health conditions in the Ocean State seem to be improving, many small businesses continue to suffer financially.
For months, restaurants went dark, cafes couldn’t serve up a single cup of coffee and no one was making it to the gym. Small businesses closed their doors to help flatten the curve, but now that restrictions are slowly being lifted, many are struggling to stay on their feet.
In order to help local small businesses from going under, owners from all sectors and every corner of the state have come together to advocate for financial assistance. The RI Small Business Coalition, which is already comprised of more than 1,300 registered small business owners and counting, hopes to see a portion of the state’s federal CARES Act funding go toward grants for the small business community.
The State of Rhode Island has received $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds, and the RI Small Business Coalition, along with Lt. Governor Dan McKee, is advocating that at least 10 percent be allocated toward grants for small businesses impacted by the pandemic.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the heart of our communities,” McKee said, and under CARES Act guidelines, distributing grants to small businesses is an allowable use of these funds.
A growing number of states throughout the country are already using federal funds to provide grants to small businesses, according to McKee, like Louisiana, which will be using 15 percent of their federal relief funds to help roughly 20,000 small businesses.
The Lt. Governor and the RI Business Coalition are urging Gov. Gina Raimondo to make similar grant funding available to shops, restaurants, gyms and other small businesses that had to shut their doors because of the pandemic. Those who haven’t already been forced to shut their doors entirely are now struggling with the steep decline in foot traffic. Small businesses owners like Jennifer Ortiz, who provided use of her storefront to deliver this message on Tuesday morning, have also been struggling to afford new regulation requirements.
“As small business owners, we put everything into running our businesses and for many of us, COVID-19 has taken everything we have,” Ortiz said. “Sometimes it feels like there’s just no hope.”
Executive Cuts Barbershop, tucked away on a sidestreet in the financial district of downtown Providence, has seen a sharp decline in the number of customers walking through the door, but is still proudly offering a safe experience.
“To be able to reopen my doors and keep my customers safe, I invested thousands of dollars to meet social distancing requirements and upgrade cleaning measures,” Ortiz said. “This created a significant debt that I did not have before the pandemic and one that will be difficult to manage down the road.”
For Ortiz and thousands of other small business owners throughout the state, their storefronts are so much more than just brick and mortar, according to Providence-based Trailblaze Marketing Founder Chris Parisi. It’s their entire lives, and their dreams, and it’s why he helped form the coalition in the first place.
“We needed to unite, we needed to organize, because we felt like our voices weren’t being heard,” Parisi said. “We needed a way to advocate for our needs.”
He urged other small businesses to join the coalition if they haven’t already, and for those who want to help make sure that small businesses are still around after the pandemic is over, to go online and sign the petition at www.rismallbusiness.org.
“The governor has done a tremendous job leading us in this health crisis, but we need you, Gov. Raimondo, to join us and help us through this economic crisis as well,” Parisi said. “Other states have already cared for their businesses, allocating hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Rhode Island needs to follow the example of other states, like New Hampshire, he said, because for every day that passes, “more small businesses are dying.”
The event was small, but a few other small business owners from different corners of the state also spoke in favor of providing grants from federal relief funds.
Before the pandemic, Judah Boulet, owner of No Risk Crossfit in Smithfield, said he had a growing company. The public health crisis forced him to close his doors, however, “to assure the health of the state.”
“Personally, since the shut down, my business has reduced employees, cut program offerings and our projected revenue loss for 2020 is something that is hard to swallow,” Boulet said. “We did what was right for the collective good of the state and the citizens in it. We shut our doors and helped stop the spread.”
When Boulet and many other small businesses were asked to close their doors, he said no one warned them that they’d “potentially be sacrificing their hopes, dreams and financial liquidity.”
“You may see a gym, yoga studio or crossfit place, but I see hopes, dreams and passions,” Boulet said. “I see blood, I see sweat, I see tears and more sacrifice than anyone not in that situation can imagine, just to keep our doors open. You may see a barber shop, a restaurant or a tea store, but I see pillars of the community.”
Small businesses did right by the state, he said, and now it’s time for the state to do right by small businesses.
“This money was partly meant for us, the small business owners affected,” he added. “It wasn’t meant to close budget deficits.”
Jamestown Early Learning Center owner Nancy Beye, who also sits on the Jamestown Town Council, said these past few months have been incredibly stressful for small business owners, but she got some reassurance from McKee’s weekly virtual town hall meetings.
“Access to child care is an essential component of reopening and re-energizing Rhode Island’s economy,” she said. “Small early learning and child care facilities like mine are at the heart of this industry and for many of us, every day we think about whether or not we can continue to operate.”
“There is a growing uncertainty and increasing anxiety about how much longer we can continue without support from the state,” she added. “Unless you own a small business and know what it’s like to have employees and their families depending on you, I’m not sure you can understand the stress and frustration we feel.”
Rhode Island is home to more than 90,000 small businesses according to Rep. John J. Lombardi (D - Dist. 8, Providence), and many who pay into businesses interruption insurance were told that the pandemic closures did not qualify.
Many large corporations have received federal funding to keep their stores open, but “it’s people like [Ortiz] that keep us all moving,” Lombardi said.